Personal Narratives

Nǎinai’s in China are the BEST!

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This piece was originally written on April 27, 2014 when I was living in Beijing. It has been edited from the original version.

This past Saturday was the best one I’ve had in ages. For almost a year, I’ve been struggling with chronic back pain, which often leaves me immobile in bed, missing the days when I could walk and bike and explore Beijing in my free time with Ian and our friends.

On this particular Saturday morning, I was surprised to get out of bed and feel more or less normal (i.e. no numbness in my right leg, no sharp pains in my lower back, etc.). So I made sure to take full advantage of being able to walk in the sun like a normal person and enjoy the burgeoning warmth of a late spring/early summer with my fellow humans.

I started my day with physiotherapy. All was (more or less) normal: a soothing 45 minute massage that melted away the tension, followed by 30 minutes of (mildly painful) acupuncture that brought some of the tension back. The only difference this morning was having needles poked into my scalp: very painful, but the guy did the best he could to be gentle.

Following acupuncture, I attended and volunteered at a school event from mid-morning to early afternoon. I happily chatted with parents, ate delicious catered food catered by Schillers, an amazing German restaurant, and played games with my students who came out with their families to enjoy a school gathering.

(I may have also gotten to enjoy a nice glass of white wine…)

Afterwards, my husband and I decided to pay a little visit to Wángfǔjǐng. He is currently preparing for the Great Wall Marathon and needed to look for some new running shoes to break in before the big day. I had no real reason for going; I just wanted to continue enjoying being able to walk (although somewhat shakily by this point in the day) and leisure shop.

Nothing of great consequence happened while there. It was rather the bus ride back home that proved to be the most interestingly awkward part of the day. (I am now begrudgingly coming to the conclusion that weird things happening to me should just be my accepted reality when and if I decide to be out in public places.)


Ian and I got onto a bus in Wángfǔjǐng to head back home, and as my back was starting to return to its normal state of this-hurts-lie-down, I found a raised part of the bus floor to sit down as there were no more seats left. In any case, I sat down for a while, not thinking about much, until my back started hurting again…this time for sitting down for too long. So I got back up on my feet and chatted away the time with my hubby.

And that’s when the fun began.

When you travel on crowded buses or subways in Beijing (which is pretty much all of the time), you’re bound to have the occasional and literal run-in with people: people accidentally step on your feet, knock you on your side when buses stop too quickly, accidentally hit you in the face with their bags. The usual. In my experience, there are also times when dudes get a little fresh and take advantage of the close quarters to sneak a pinch. (To that I always answer with a swift elbow to the abdomen and an unblinking stare until Mr. Fresh finds somewhere else to stand.)

This bus ride home wasn’t this particular kind of crowded, so I was surprised to feel a small something rubbing across my bum: left to right, right to left, left to right…

I knew there was no one behind me. So my first instinct was that it was probably someone’s shopping bag. That theory immediately went down the toilet when the left to right, right to left pressure got harder, more purposeful. I knew it wasn’t a Mr. Fresh this time around since I was fairly aware of the people around me from the time my husband and I got on the bus to this point. So I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer to myself (“Please be a kid, please be a kid…”) before I turned to face whatever it was that was so interested in my bottom.

When I finally turned around to assess the situation, the first thing I saw was a body hunched over and a head covered in a bright pink cap that said FBI. My brow furrowed. When the person realized I was watching her, I was then met with the wide, friendly smile of a Chinese grandma, one of many lovely Nǎinais you will encounter wherever you go in Beijing. She pointed to my bottom emphatically, bent over again and continued vigorously wiping my backside with a small hand towel covered in dark smudges.

She realized something I did not: when I sat down on the raised part of the floor, I’d managed to collect enough dirt on the back of my jeans that it was very, obviously visible. Normally, Nǎinais push me out of the way to get off the bus as quickly as possible, a practice I’ve learned to live with. This encounter with this Nǎinai was…new. She was taking care of me, and despite the invasion of physical space, I couldn’t help but feel genuinely thankful that she cared enough to help me.

It’s weird to say, but I don’t think any stranger has ever treated me that nicely before this point. I mean, I’ve been in situations where people showed extreme kindness and consideration, but definitely not anyone nice enough to willingly wipe dirt off the bum of a complete stranger. (But I think maybe this is just a grandma thing.)

In any case, she got a big “Xiè xiè!” from me for her random act of kindness.

3 comments on “Nǎinai’s in China are the BEST!

  1. I loved reading this. I remember you telling me about this sometime after it had happened. And your voice in this piece comes forth just as it did when you told me in person. I think that’s a great thing.


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