Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Nai Nai Left

The day before Nai Nai left America, she brought to me a handful of seventeen pennies and three dimes, many of them corroded or flattened and crushed around the edges.

"You found these on your creekwalks," I exclaimed.

She laughed and waved her hand. "They are no use to me," she said.

My mother-in-law has a keen eye. Once she found a dollar in the creek and once more in the parking lot at Costco. And once, when she saw the girls playing with a million dollar note of play money, she scolded them and brought the paper to me. She would walk the creek in the afternoons when the winter sun warmed her through the barren trees. Noticing my excitement over a rusty hinge she found on one walk, she began to bring me bits of metal and things she noticed in the dirt. The girls taught her to look for smooth and colorful rocks and embedded fossils. I don't know that she understood why these are important to us but she helped us look.

On one creekwalk, we met a grandmother from Korea. I got lost in translation when the grandmother tried to explain where she was from. My mother-in-law didn't know where Korea is. In Nai Nai's mind there exists China - the homeland, Japan - the old enemy, and America - the dreamland.

Most mornings she spent indoors by the window, reading Chinese poetry or tracts she got from church. I love this image of her most of all. She worked all her life in the fields and had only a second grade education. In our home she could be comfortable and spend her days in leisure.

"She wants to go home," Brad said.


She says she is bored and has nothing to do.

Sometimes she would mistake my limited Chinese language for fluency and begin to tell me stories of her life back home. I really wanted to hear her stories, but she only did this when my husband wasn't home. At first I tried calling him at work for a translation but that couldn't last long. Then I tried using a Chinese dictionary, but her dialect wasn't in the dictionary. I was stuck with listening for one or two words I could interpret and guessing at her subject. If I said I didn't understand, she talked louder and louder. Then I would nod and pretend to understand to make her feel better. Eventually I learned enough Chinese to become dangerous and we began to miscommunicate. She would get offended by what I said. Finally I began to ignore her attempts at conversation to prevent further disagreements.

"I never want to come back again," she said, the day before she left.


I am always too confused.

That day, she forgot my husband took the girls with him on an errand. She searched the creek and walked the grounds for two hours, vainly calling out for them. She thought they were lost.

In her suitcase she packed the new shoes and clothes we gave her, the photos from her stay, the jewelry she had asked for to "give her face" with her relatives. She asked her son if she could take some pebbles she found, but he said that the suitcase would be too heavy. She left them in a styrofoam cup on the bookshelf next to her little stack of Chinese books.

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