As a child I loved being dropped off at Nyeen Nyeen’s house on weekday mornings, with the sun shining brightly on the moss green carpets. The smell of toasting bread, butter, and syrup streamed out of the warm kitchen and Sesame Street called from the TV. “Sunny day, chasing the clouds away…” For a preschooler, these were all the comforts I needed.
The atmosphere that Nyeen Nyeen, my paternal grandmother, and Yeh Yeh, my paternal grandfather, created for my siblings and me was a respite from the rest of the world. There, we were carefree and catered to, with our sofa pillow forts, a backyard filled with insects to investigate and capture, and all the TV and snacks we wanted. I can only remember one time when Nyeen Nyeen got so angry with me that she threatened to hit me with her wood-spined feather duster. I had drawn all over the hallway walls with a pencil and only escaped the feather duster by slipping under her bed and hiding where she couldn’t reach me.
But her life was more than childcare. Nyeen Nyeen endured a harsh childhood, and a tough immigrant’s life. She survived—indeed thrived—through strength, strong will, and determination. Everyone in my family inherited her survival skills because she provided such a steadfast example throughout our lives. Nyeen Nyeen became a binding force for our family.
She was born Bowe Kane Gee in 1919 in Toisan, China, in the villages of the Guangdong Province. She obtained a 6th grade education, which was common for girls at that time. However, she was fond of studying on her own, and throughout the years, she read Chinese classics and memorized Chinese poems, which she was still able to recite into her 90’s. She lived through the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, when war and famine spread across China. Because she experienced lack, uncertainty, and death, she hated to see anything wasted. We had to clean our plates at every meal—eat every grain of rice.
She married Kwok Poy Yee at the age of 16 in 1935, but was separated from him for over ten years during World War II while he was in the U.S. Navy. He was able to bring her to the United States in 1947 as a war bride, and they settled in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Nyeen Nyeen had to adjust quickly to both a new city and motherhood. She gave birth to daughters in consecutive years starting in 1947, 1948, then 1949, and to a son in 1952.
Lack of money and resources were issues for a new immigrant family that grew so quickly. During her Chinatown years, she mustered her strong will and determination to build survival strategies. She converted to Christianity out of gratitude to earlier arrivals who were slightly more established in Chinatown. These women saw Nyeen Nyeen’s struggle and reached out to help with what little they had. Converting to their new religion was her way of repaying their kindness. Her strong will and determination also sparked her entrepreneurial spirit. She worked as a seamstress and took English classes, and then she encouraged her husband to purchase businesses, which she ran: a laundromat, then a grocery store, and eventually a sewing factory, all within a 20-year period. Her husband, who worked at the Navy Shipyard since 1951, helped with the businesses at the end of his workday. They both put in long hours, and their kids helped out after school when they were old enough. Because of their collective efforts, they never struggled to put food on the table after the early years.
By the time I was born in 1980, Nyeen Nyeen had retired and Yeh Yeh would retire soon after. They cared for me and my siblings while my parents both worked full-time. At that time, Nyeen Nyeen’s hair was still almost all black with short curls. She had a robust figure with a solid bone structure, not fragile and small. I was always able to run to her and grab a strong hand, sit on a generous lap, or be folded into a bosomy embrace.
Nyeen Nyeen taught me how to write some Chinese characters, and I can understand a good amount of conversational Cantonese and Toisanese (our village dialect) from hearing her speak. And speak she did, quite often and loudly, telling stories, singing church songs, and talking about God. When she converted, she took on the role of “good Christian” like another job. She wanted everyone to convert and go to church, but her self-righteous tactics only pushed family members further away from organized religion. When I was small, she sang songs in her high falsetto about God, talking to me about how good He was, while I sat in her lap having my hair woven into a fishtail braid. She pulled hard, using a comb that felt sharp on my soft scalp, and applied baby oil to secure any stray strands.
As I got older, I saw her interactions with my family members could be quite judgmental and critical. She let others know exactly what she thought and felt, often to her own detriment because she pushed her own children to explode in anger, yelling back in order to defend themselves or prove her wrong. Why, they asked themselves silently, had they been given a mother who constantly tried their patience, complained, attacked their character, and questioned their decisions?
If Nyeen Nyeen was stressed out or overly worried about something, she imposed the burden onto others, calling my father or one of her other children, and immediately unloading her concerns without pause, for minutes at a time. She only hung up when she was done speaking and her burden felt reduced. The listener stayed on the line out of respect, while feeling bludgeoned and defeated, reluctant to experience it again, yet knowing a recurrence was inevitable.
Once, after Friday night dinner at her house, a shouting match began between Nyeen Nyeen and my father. Though not uncommon, this one reached a level of emotional violence that frightened me. I was nine years old, watching TV and trying to ignore the angry voices. My mother stayed out of it; she never got in the middle of their arguments. Finally my father stormed out of the kitchen and down the stairs. Then I heard Nyeen Nyeen crying. This was different from other times. I peered into the kitchen to see her at the table, her face in her hands as she sobbed. It was the first time I’d seen her vulnerability. Her hurt seeped into me. I went to her and put my arm around her shoulders to comfort her. She sobbed in Toisanese, “You’re the only one that cares about me. Everyone else just yells at me.” I felt like her protector and her only hope—it was a burden that I was willing to carry. I even felt a little indignant at my father, blaming him for unfairly causing her pain. Thinking back, I’m sure both of them were unfair to each other. Most likely Nyeen Nyeen even started it all, but none of that entered my head at the time.
Everyone who has known and loved Nyeen Nyeen has been greatly irritated, hurt, and frustrated at some point by her demands or criticisms. Yet they returned to her out of respect or obligation—some sense that they owed her a debt. They loved this woman who made it so difficult for them to do so. She battered people with her need to take care of others in the way she felt was correct, inundated them with her opinions, her values, her sense of what was right and wrong.
Her family had to stand their ground with her, stand up to her crushing, stubborn, accusing ways. Was nothing good enough for this woman? Interacting with her built personal strength, growth, determination, and in the long-term, patience. Somehow, forgiveness, or a willingness to look past a fight and try to understand her perspective, made way for reconciliation—or, simple resignation. It wasn’t worth it to argue with her. Later in our lives, my relatives began to realize that Nyeen Nyeen’s behavior arose from love and good intentions, and that learning to be patient with Nyeen Nyeen taught them patience with life.
As I got older, I too felt conflicting feelings about her. I always looked forward to seeing her and remembered her with adoration and respect. But when I was with her, her critical remarks immediately grated on me. “You’re not married yet. I want to see you married before I die. You know I don’t have many more years left on Earth.” Sometimes she said that I was too fat—while piling my plate with food. The next time, she’d say I was too skinny and piled my plate with food. My annoyance made me distance myself. Seeing this, my father reminded me that Nyeen Nyeen showed her love through food. Making sure we had enough to eat was a remnant of her past experience with famine. I wanted to snap back at Dad, “You should think of that the next time she shows her love for you and you get angry!” But of course, I didn’t.
As the matriarch of the family, Nyeen Nyeen could be bitter and biting but she could be generous, as well. She helped sponsor her relatives from China to the U.S. several times in her life and provided support while they adjusted to being here. And in her later years when she had enough abundance to do so, she shared her generosity by treating family and friends to meals at restaurants, always over-ordering food so that we could all take home leftovers.
Later in life, she dealt with major health crises, and the losses of her husband, her most supportive daughter, and many friends. I watched her repose at our family gatherings, dressed like many Chinese women of her generation in a polyester patterned blouse, a purple knit vest with gold buttons down the front, and navy blue crepe pants. She sat silent in an armchair observing everyone around her chattering in English. I couldn’t tell if she felt lonely and left out or content and happy. Did she feel defeated by old age, or was she gratified to be surrounded by her little kingdom—family members happy, full, and present. These were the people she helped raise, the ones with her blood running through their veins, and their loved ones.
Whenever I had the chance to see Nyeen Nyeen in her last years, her face lit up with what seemed to be joy and pride. She greeted me with her signature laugh and a loud “Hi hon-ney!” I loved feeling like I was five years old again, running into her strong arms for a bosomy embrace.
At her funeral service in December 2013, a priest read her eulogy and praised her strong Christian values. Then he introduced a small surprise in the program, an older Chinese gentleman who was a congregation member from Nyeen Nyeen’s church. He read a list of our names, followed by Nyeen Nyeen’s last words to us, urging us to convert to Christianity so that our souls could be saved and we could reunite with her in Heaven. I gasped in surprise, feeling incredulous at Nyeen Nyeen’s last attempt to push her influence on us, even as she lay still and cold in her shiny, plush coffin. Then pride and recognition flooded me and I laughed out loud—Nyeen Nyeen had the last word after all! How right it was, how like her, to do something like this.
Nyeen Nyeen was part of my life for so long—she was my last living grandparent, living until she was 94 and I was 33. I miss her presence and hearing her voice speak in Toisanese. I miss the matriarch of our family, the one who imprinted herself on us, the one with the long memory of those she loved, the one who had the largest and most trying presence of us all, the one whose hurts and fears and weaknesses died with her, yet whose strength, determination, and will live on in us. And I feel her blood flowing through me when life metes out its harsh lessons and I have no choice but to move forward, as she would have done. Hers was a soul that I needed to know in my life, that I am lucky to have been nurtured by, in order to grow and proceed—to hone my survival skills—through this life in which she helped pave the way. I will never know another woman like her.