Nai Nai by Tinghui Zhang

Nai Nai started boiling everything after Ye Ye stopped eating pears.

The doctor said pears cooled the body down inside. Brought it back to equilibrium. Ever since Ye Ye got sick a few years ago, Nai Nai made them eat anything that slowed things down.

Then one afternoon, Ye Ye bit into a pear and cried out in pain.

“What is it?”

“It’s too hard, it hurts my teeth.”

“Okay, give it here,” she said evenly, as if it were as mundane as a lid that needed a stronger twist. She cut the pear into small wedges and boiled it for fifteen minutes. They stood at the kitchen table spooning slippery pear slices into their mouths. Ye Ye slurped them down and didn’t complain anymore. After that, she started boiling everything they ate.

Ye Ye and Nai Nai live in an apartment in Changchun, the capital city of Jilin Province in China. Nai Nai is almost 88, but her face doesn’t show it. Her skin is still as white as it was when she was in grade school. She tells people it’s because she eats well and does mind exercises every morning.

Ye Ye is only a few years older than her. A few months ago, Ye Ye started getting stomachaches. So Nai Nai put together a strict diet that followed recommendations from the health and cooking program on CCTV2 every morning. The show comes on just after breakfast, before Nai Nai’s morning walk.

Nai Nai follows a strict schedule. Every morning, she rises at seven and makes purple yams, chopped turnips, spinach, and chopped cabbage—all boiled. A porridge with nine different types of beans and oats. Three dates, soaked overnight, in each bowl of porridge. (Must peel the skin off the dates to avoid indigestion later.) Sticky sweet dough bun with red bean filling. Two man tou, steamed buns. A dollop of salty cashew paste. A spoonful of salty preserved peanuts to pair with the porridge. A little ramekin of dajiang, fermented soybean paste. Cold fresh cucumbers cut into thin matchsticks and mixed with soy sauce, dajiang, salt, and vinegar. (Nai Nai never eats too much of this dish because cucumbers are a cold food and not good for the body.) Whatever meat had been left over from the night before—sometimes stewed fish, sometimes a piece of pork belly, sometimes slivers of cold cut beef. An egg for her and Ye Ye. He eats his egg steamed instead of boiled, and mixes it with soy sauce and scallions.

They eat in silence. Nai Nai concentrates hard when she eats because she has to watch Ye Ye to make sure he doesn’t take too much of one thing or too little of another. She knows how much he likes those cucumbers.

Vitamins and medicine after breakfast. Fish oil. A few tablets her doctor prescribed that she doesn’t understand. She watches Ye Ye take his too, handing the bottles over to him one by one from the colorful collection by the window ledge. Sometimes she has to stop him from taking two by accident.

“It’s eight o’clock at night over there.” Ye Ye always says when they finish eating. “Do you think he will call today?”

* * *

Ye Ye and Nai Nai have three children. The eldest is a girl named Hua. She is a principal at the local high school and lives in the same neighborhood as Ye Ye and Nai Nai. She comes over often to help cook or play cards. Nai Nai thinks Hua makes things too salty, so she only ever asks her daughter for help if they need extra hands for dumplings. Hua has one daughter, recently married, who lives in Tianjin.

Their second child is also a girl, Hong. She lives in Australia and has two children. Hong married a man named Yang when she was very young. He got a job doing liaison work in Australia shortly afterwards and took Hong with him—and that’s where she’s been ever since.

Then, a few years ago, Hong found emails between him and a woman in Shanghai. She confronted him one time only, and Yang stopped going to China on business trips. But now, Nai Nai hears from the older granddaughter that he has been in China for the past two months.

It agitates Nai Nai too much to think about Hong, which is why she tries not to do it often. Too many sad thoughts will sicken her heart and poison her sleep. She can’t afford it at her age.

Still, in those moments when she allows herself to remember her most beautiful child—that slender face, those mischievous, foxy eyes—she hurts for her daughter. She could have been a movie star or a model. Her daughter, the sad housewife now, all alone in Australia with two children she cannot abandon.

But at least Australia is closer to China than America. That’s where Nai Nai’s third child lives; their only son, Lin. He finally came after months of Nai Nai whispering “boyboyboyboyboy” in those last few moments before sleep.

She and Ye Ye put everything into him. He was the carrier of their family name. Their two girls would go on to marry men with different surnames, and Ye Ye and Nai Nai’s grandchildren would never be Xu’s again. But Lin would perpetuate the Xu name—his wife would be a Xu, and his child too.

Lin was a rambunctious toddler. He liked to play pranks. One afternoon when Ye Ye was sleeping with his mouth open, Lin unzipped his pants and urinated into his father’s mouth, laughing when Ye Ye woke up choking.

Lin was always getting into trouble somewhere, hanging onto the back of school buses or getting bitten by dogs. But as he grew, he became a scholarly, handsome young man with a straight back and good manners. He didn’t know how to smile, which Nai Nai liked to tease him for—you were always telling jokes when you were younger!

Lin lives in America now, a place called “Texas,” or “Duh-kuh-sahs” to Nai Nai and Ye Ye. He met a fellow student named May while studying at Changchun University. They married and had one daughter. May was then offered an international student visa to complete her graduate studies at the University of Mississippi. She left her two-year-old daughter and Lin in China.

Nai Nai had been convinced that his wife was going to go to America to marry a white man and never come back for her family. She watched Lin taking care of their daughter, and she felt a pain in her heart. Then a year later, May called to urge Lin to also apply to the University so that they could be together and start a life in America for their daughter. She had not run off with another man after all. Instead, she was one of the top students in her class. She had a one-bedroom apartment. She sent Lin back money every month.

So he applied. He was accepted. He left his daughter Yao with Ye Ye and Nai Nai. Yao was three years old.

That was when Nai Nai doubted her son for the first time. What was he running away from? Why couldn’t he just stay in China?

She and Ye Ye raised his daughter Yao for the next two years. Nai Nai was almost 60. She always worried something would happen to the child, so she gave Yao preventative Chinese medicines and made her wear three sweaters before going outside to play. She didn’t want Lin to think she was neglecting his child.

Yao was bright and curious, with a streak of the same giddy troublemaking that burned so brightly in Lin. She was a kind child, a natural storyteller. Nai Nai watched her playing by herself. She was so often lonely.

What would happen when Yao started growing up? What would happen when it was no longer enough to just have parents who said pretty words to her on the phone? Nai Nai was very sad for the child.

* * *

When Yao was five, Lin called, asking to speak with her. She came running to Nai Nai afterwards, her eyes alight and darting. “I’m going to America! I’m going to see the squirrels! I’m going to see the sky!”

Nai Nai smiled and picked up the receiver Yao had dropped.

“Ma—,” It was Lin. He sounded cautious. “Did you hear?”

“Mm.” She said in her economical way. “Yao is going to America.”

“We can finally support her,” her son said. “We have a two-bedroom apartment now. May has a job after graduation.”

“That’s very good. I am glad Yao will finally have her parents. A child should not grow up without her parents.”

A pause. “May and I would like to thank you and Ba for taking care of her. We can never repay you—”

“There is nothing to thank,” she said. “You are my only son. We would do anything for you.”

* * *

“Did he say he will call today?” Ye Ye asks.

It is ten o’clock, time for their morning walk. Nai Nai puts on her hat and slips into her white sneakers. She walks fast and breathes through her nose. That’s how the doctors on TV say to do it—the best way for your body to absorb the exercise.

“He said he would. He knows to always call before lunch. Put on your coat, it’s cold outside.”

They had gone to visit Lin and his family once in America in 1999—a place called Oxford, Mississippi or “Mee-shee-shee-pee,” in cobbled-together Chinese. America was bright and quiet compared to their neighborhood in China. Everyone said hello to each other with their pastel-colored caps and big shorts. Kids ran around and had too many toys.

Lin didn’t have a job. Nai Nai couldn’t understand why. Didn’t her son graduate at the top of his class? Didn’t he manage to come all the way over and study at an American university—something that not many Chinese were able to do? Shouldn’t he, as the man of his household and her only son, be the one going to work every day instead of clicking on the computer and preparing his daughter’s lunches?

The daughter baffled Nai Nai as well. Yao had been a tiny, happy thing, all bare shoulders and toothless grin. She had worn mismatched hair clips to tame her bowl cut. She had been—even Nai Nai had to admit in her keen pragmatism—cute.

Now, Yao was fat. Her shoulders were rounded and hunched. Her teeth were there, but Nai Nai rarely saw them, for the child barely smiled those days. She was all anger and sullen and shrieking, but why? She had such a happy life in America. She had a TV. She had a piano and violin, and different teachers for each. She had school friends who were all blond and tall and wore tight shirts. She had all the food she could want. Nai Nai couldn’t figure out why she was so nasty all the time. Why she stomped from room to room as if the world had wronged her in some way. She was mean to her father, who was too afraid to say anything, and cold to her mother.

Nai Nai had gone to America with one purpose in mind, one conversation to have. Tell Lin to come back to China. There was never a good time for it, so she cautiously broached the subject one night when Lin brought them more comforters for bed. Lin was quiet at first, then started listing reasons why he could not go back, not yet. Then Ye Ye countered him, growing louder and more agitated until May came in and whispered, “Let’s talk about this later. Yao has school the next day and I have to be up early for work.”

Ye Ye, without even turning to her, said, “I am talking to my son. What makes you think you have anything to say?”

Before anyone could respond—Nai Nai watched to see if Lin would dare—the door burst open, and Yao rushed in with her finger pointed at Ye Ye.

“Don’t you dare talk to my mom like that!” She said it first in English, then over and over again in Chinese. Her face was furious, and her mouth was terrible, and her outstretched finger looked like a weapon. Nai Nai couldn’t help but wonder why they even called her their granddaughter anymore.

* * *

“Did he call? Check the answering machine.”


“Xiao Hou will be here soon, I need to tell her what to cook for the day. I bet Lin will call after lunch, he knows not to call before lunch.”

They have a bao mu—a nurse—named Xiao Hou who comes around every afternoon to make lunch and clean the apartment. She bikes over from across the city where she spends the rest of her day tending to an old man who can’t get out of bed.

Xiao Hou is in her early forties—a little bit younger than Lin, and her hands shake. But she is a good worker—she nods when Nai Nai tells her which vegetables to cook and the exact portions needed to avoid leftovers. She knows their tastes now (in the beginning, Nai Nai had to stand over her and monitor exactly how much salt to put into the dishes). Xiao Hou isn’t smart, but she is a good listener. So Nai Nai pours all of her stories—life lessons, views on the state of China, her concerns with her children—into her.

Nai Nai doesn’t like to tell people they have a bao mu, and she won’t let Xiao Hou come on as a full-time in-home nurse. It was humiliating, like admitting, my children don’t care about me enough to actually care for me. They would rather part with their money and pay for a stranger to do it. It was like her children had turned their backs on her.

When Lin was born and as he grew, her friends had crowed with jealousy. “You have a son who can take care of you when you get older! Now you won’t have to worry about anything. That’s what every mother would want, a strong son. How lucky you are!”

She didn’t have a son because she wanted someone to take care of her when she was old. She wanted a son because men have an easier life. But now that she is old and Ye Ye keeps getting sick, she is afraid. What if something happens to her or Ye Ye? Who would take care of whom? She is too old now to do these things alone.

* * *

“Do you think he will call?” Ye Ye asks again after lunch. It’s almost time for their afternoon nap.

“If he is going to call, he will call after three. He knows we sleep from one to three.”

“Hm,” Ye Ye says. “Are we eating yucca root tonight?”

“Yes. I’m boiling them longer tonight because you said they hurt your teeth last time.”

“Hm.” He grabs the little radio and wanders off to the guest bedroom. These days, he can’t fall asleep without listening to something. Nai Nai can’t stand the crackling sound of the afternoon talk show hosts, so she sleeps in the main bedroom with the doors closed.

* * *

A few years ago, Hua had stopped speaking to her for two weeks. She was angry with Nai Nai, with her siblings, with China, for being left with the responsibility of taking care of her parents. Hua didn’t come around the apartment during that time, she was so full of hatred and ugliness.

“Why does it have to be me?” She had roared on the phone when Nai Nai pleaded. “Hong is in Australia, Lin is in America, and I am here, having to take care of you! What about me, what about the places I want to go? I can do it too, why them and not me?”

It made Nai Nai’s heart sick. She lay awake at night thinking, None of my children want me. I have given my life to them, and none of them will give me a few years to take care of me until I die. I want to die, if this is what it is. What have I done to deserve this?

It was only here, in these dark, quiet spaces, that Nai Nai cried.

Then the feud blew over and Hua apologized. She promised her parents she would be there for them, that they would get rid of the bao mu. But then Hua’s daughter got pregnant, and Nai Nai couldn’t ask her to stay in Changchun. Not when she had her own daughter to take care of now. So the bao mu stayed, and Nai Nai spent her days wondering if her children loved them at all.

Sometimes she thought about asking Hong to come back. But even as she thought it, she knew it would be no good. Hong was a shell of her old self—all she could do was wait for her husband in Australia, always waiting, always asking.

So it is just Lin left. He is an engineer at a technology company now, and his wife, May, is a college professor of computer science. Their daughter, Yao—she goes by “Alice” now—graduated at the top of her class and is working in Houston, Texas. Lin and May own two houses, something Nai Nai can’t even fathom. They sound like they have a good life over there. They have really done it.

* * *

“When he calls, I am going to ask him,” she says to Ye Ye later as they eat boiled pears. Dinner is in a few hours, and she doesn’t like to think about these things after dinner.

Ye Ye is still blinking off the sleep from his eyes. “Maybe we should wait a little longer.”

“What good will waiting do?” She mushes the pear in her mouth, not really chewing since her teeth have started hurting too. “You have to have another surgery soon. It’s getting colder outside. I can’t go down to the market because I panic and there are too many stairs.”

Ye Ye doesn’t say anything, just sighs and eats another pear slice.

“He is our son,” she said firmly. “We are his parents. That’s just how it is.”

* * *

The very last time she talked to Lin about coming back had been a year ago. She brought it up gently, citing the fight with Hua as the last straw. She had no one else she could turn to.

“So you are asking me to move back now?” He asked. “You know I just got this job here. We are having a good life. You are saying I should give this up now and come back and find a job in China that’s close to you and Ba?”

He didn’t mean it in an accusatory way, just simply stating the facts. She knew that. She didn’t say much. It hurt to hear it repeated back to her so callously, as if she were a burden. But yes. That’s what she wanted.

* * *

“He did not call today.” Ye Ye says.

She and Ye Ye start preparing for bed at eight. They get tired earlier and earlier now, even with an afternoon nap. First washing their feet in a pastel green basin, then drinking hot water and making more for the thermos. Nai Nai checks to make sure the dates are soaking for breakfast.

“No,” Nai Nai says. “He will call tomorrow.”


Tinghui Zhang holds degrees in English and Plan II from UT Austin. Her writing has appeared in Damselfly Press, Revolution House and Hothouse Literary Journal. She lives, works, writes and eats in Austin, TX. Find her at