As long as I could remember and in all the stories I’ve been told, my grandmother (Nai Nai in Chinese) has been selfless.

My Early Memories

I have fond memories of my early years of childhood with Nai Nai. She would travel over to our hometown of Miri to take care of me while my parents worked. Sometimes, I was sent to her house in Sibu to be babysat.

In one of these memories, she lamented the loss of her shoes which were torn up by our teething puppies- she was always more of a cat lover. She had stories of a cat which would visit the house while she was raising her children, and claimed it was the smartest animal she’d ever encountered.

In another memory at her house, she did not have glue for a collage I wanted to make. She fashioned glue out of mashed up sticky rice diluted with water. Nai Nai was a natural problem solver, resourceful, and very creative.

One of the most memorable moments with her was when I was around 7- I wanted money to buy candy and snacks in the market near her house. She took out all the petty cash she used to support her noodle business and told me to take as much as I wanted. Luckily my parents were there and stopped me from taking the whole load.

Early Life

She considered her short stature a result of growing up in poverty and not getting enough nutrients, which may explain why visits came with the burden of fighting to keep food off our plates. During dinner one night I had to cover a bowl with my hand while exclaiming that I had enough soup. She skillfully poured it between my fingers.

Like my grandfather (Ye Ye), she worked tirelessly on making noodles to raise her family of five. She would wake at 4am to start the day and wouldn’t be done until late evening after the sun had set. On rainy days when it took the noodles longer to dry she was working into the night.

She often told us stories about how she and her husband tried many ways to make a living- “he was useless at almost everything, but he was okay in making noodles” she claimed, which was how they settled on that line of business.

In their later years, they would almost lose money for every batch of noodles they made, refusing to raise prices as the customers they have been serving for years were neighbors, family, and all friends. Almost nobody was making these Shou Mein by hand anymore, much less delivering it on motorcycle.

She was firm on her beliefs. She asked on every opportunity if her family members were going to church in hopes to secure eternal happiness for her family, having grown up a devout christian with a father who was a pastor.

As a Buddhist turned Atheist, it was sometimes difficult to talk to her when that was all she was interested in. In the beginning, I would lie to her that I was Christian, and that I was going to church, hoping it would bring her happiness and save me from her inquisition. She was too smart to be tricked- I don’t know how she knew, but she never believed me.

Later in life, I would accept that she knew I didn’t believe and we would spend many afternoons debating this subject. I’m glad I did, not only because I hated lying to her but also because these afternoons were some of the fondest memories I had with her.

I got to know her intimately as she told of her justification of God, born from the many experiences from her life. She recounted the tale of when they fled from the civil war in China to settle in Sibu. There was a ferry crossing where she boarded the second ship because the first was full. When the first ship sank, the captain told her family it must have been their faith which caused their ship to be safe. She would claim to me that the proof of God’s love through that story was evident.

Nai Nai would often talk about how naughty her children were. She credits their education and success to her system of rewards- 5cents for each A. She credits them staying out of trouble to her strict and severe style of discipline. She would recall with pride how she burned them with their own cigarettes when she caught them smoking, and like many in Malaysia in that time she believed strongly in her system of corporal punishment. From the stories I’ve heard of my father, I’m inclined to believe it was necessary.

She suffered from her success too- 3 of her 5 children would move overseas, and life would sometimes get in the way of visiting every year. Only able to speak Chinese (Foo Chow and Mandarin), it was often difficult for her to converse and connect with grandchildren. Even when there was a common language and understanding, she had a hard time hearing them in her later years.

Later Years

The two kids who remained with her had to share responsibility- a monumental task. Being selfless does not mean being easy to take care of.

She refused to get better glasses, hearing aids, or receive medical attention because she wanted to save the money for her family at the personal expense of deteriorating health. Her house was run-down and her pots, pans, and utensils coated with rust. She was against getting new ones because it meant spending money on herself. Convincing her to allow for minor renovations was like moving a mountain. Her children preferred if she could move to a nicer house, closer to where they lived but Nai Nai was determined to live and die in the house she had.

One time, my uncle visited to see her striking a new propane tank with a knife. The company changed the cap for the tank and she didn’t recognize it- “it’s never looked like that” she said and wanted to take it off. My uncle had to hide all the knives to stop her from doing so.

She loved watching her television through the antenna rather than cable TV. I showed her how to switch and be able to watch her news in HD, but she dared not learn. “I’ll break it” she claimed.

Nai Nai had a strict routine. Before she retired she worked, took care of her mother (who ended up living to 110), read from the bible, cooked, watched the 7 O’clock news, and slept early. She didn’t have many interests outside of faith and work, probably due to the demands of being a mother of five and growing up in poverty.

After she retired, she did not deviate much from her routine and was often bored. When asked why she doesn’t take up a new interest with her spare time- art, exercise, reading, etc. She replied “I’m too old. When you reach my age you can’t learn new things.” I insisted that there was definitely a new hobby she could find and enjoy. “No, I can’t. I’m too old!”

She had shared her opinions on love too. “You can marry a girl who is pretty or who is wealthy, but you know what the most important thing is?” She asked me one day. “Marry someone healthy. Being healthy is the most important, you don’t want a wife who is sick all the time.” Questioned further, she said “Chinese Malaysian is best. Others may not understand us as well.” I asked if I could marry a boy. “Absolutely not.”

Despite her preferences on race, when I brought Siera back she was overjoyed to meet her. Probably because it was a step closer to me bringing a great-grand baby back for her- a desire which only ranked below my choice of faith (or the lack thereof) in importance. I wish she lived to see him.


With some coercion from their children, my grandparents retired from the noodle business after a particularly nasty motorcycle accident. Ye Ye steadily declined in health after that, as he had no idea what to do with himself. He would spend most of his time sleeping, and when he was awake would complain constantly about his stomach pains which doctors were unable to diagnose. Both his constant sleeping and complaining annoyed my grandmother to no end.

Ye Ye passed in July of 2016, and from then on Nai Nai had 6 years of relative solitude. Because she wasn’t able to clean and cook adequately herself, the maid who was helping with Ye Ye was kept on to help and so Nai Nai would have someone to argue with. Nai Nai passed away peacefully on the last day of August 2022. She lived a life full of struggle, but a good life worth remembering.

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