This week on Sinica, Jeremy and David welcome back Kaiser to remember the life and lessons of his father, Jenkai Kuo (Guo Jingkai) (郭倞闓). He was an upstanding man who spent much of his life dedicated to his passions, none more important than his family. From the beginning, he formed a strong self-identity as Chinese and, after raising his family in America, dedicated himself to building bridges to China. Trained as a Mechanical Engineer at National Taiwan University, Ohio State University and the University of California, Berkeley, Jenkai was known for his intellectual prowess and steadfastly worked on his inventions until his passing.

Coming to see himself as living in two worlds, Jenkai reconciled this with integrity and ferocious logic, two traits which stood out to those who met him. His profound love for his family and country(ies) can be seen through his evolving views on justice as well as his lasting legacy of Sino-US identity. The spirit and quality of a man of Jenkai’s ilk is rare, and on what would have been his 82nd birthday, we are proud to hear some of his life as chronicled by his son, Kaiser.

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 said on
August 13, 2014

I'm deeply sorry for the your loss of your father. I hope it doesn't sound hollow coming from a stranger on the web, but I do empathise with your sorrow. I just lost my grandmother on Sunday, whom I grew up with and was very close to. My sister called me and told me out of the blue that she was hospitalized and would not last past the following day.

With myself working in China and her being all the way across the globe in Argentina (a two-day flight away) it was impossible for me to see her in time - as much as I was desperate to - due to the short notice I received.

Regrettably, I'd just come back from a two-week holiday in London, where I'd also lived for many years. I'd mulled over whether to go back to Argentina or London for a long time, eventually being persuaded to visit the latter due to personal reasons. That was a decision I've come to regret deeply since receiving the news of my grandmother.

She had been suffering from dementia for the last few years of her life, and had gone from a conversational, engaging, active and witty lady who'd studied German and braille in her old age for no reason other than the sake of learning, to having no recollection of present or past events, or even people in our family. She would often ask my sister "Who are you?", and she'd reply "I'm Frances' daughter", upon which my grandmother would respond with "Who's Frances?"

As often happens with people who suffer from dementia, her temperament had changed significantly and she would often curse at people, which was completely uncharacteristic of her old, dignified self.

Her last words to my sister were "You're an asshole". Needless to say, none of us held that against her in the least as we understood it wasn't her real self saying that, but it was nevertheless a sad marker of the astonishing deterioration of her mind and of her whole person. It was painful to see that deterioration accelerate with each passing day and affecting her body and her dignity too.

It was a very sad end to her life, and not being able to be there in the end was particularly hard for me.

Being an atheist, there is sadly no solace for me in the kind words of others who comment that she'll now finally be reunited with my grandfather, who'd passed away decades ago. Though I do appreciate the sentiment and the attempt to console my family and I, the effect is unfortunately not the intended one.

However, I did speak to my mother about this issue, who said she was tired of hearing comments such as "It's the natural way of things" and "She had a long and fruitful life; don't be sad" among other nuggets.

I have to say, I myself don't care much for such free handouts of cheap, fortune cracker wisdom, but I did say to my mother one thing which does console me and provide real comfort:

While she may no longer be here in body, she will continue to live through me, through everyone in our family and all those many people whom at one time or another she made laugh. For someone who was the wife of a diplomat, and having spent many years of her life living in Iran, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain and the USA before retiring in Argentina, that's a lot of people who will not only remember her with nothing but affection, but who will also hopefully raise a smile whenever they do so.

That very smile (which I am now able to muster whenever I think of her after a few very low days) is the reason I say "she" will live through us, as opposed to merely referring to her "memory". Perhaps others might feel it is a false consolation to think in this way, but that smile I get whenever I remember her is a very real smile, and the feeling I get with it is too. It is not a fantasy, and neither are the many vivid experiences which elicit that smile from me and everyone else.

I take that smile to be her gift to me and all those who have had the fortune of being in her company; and it's a tangible and transcendent gift at the same time. It's tangible because I can feel it, and more importantly it's transcendent because no one can ever take it away from me.

As a debt to her and to the gift she's given me, I will remember her and think of her for as long as I live, which, if I'm lucky, will be a few more decades. At the very least, for as long as I live, she will continue to be with me till the end.

We all have had different experiences of my grandmother and differing memories as a result, which only renders the plethora of fragments left of her inside each us all the richer and more wonderful, and that gives me great comfort.

This is surely true of everyone, and if you kindly allow me to take the liberty to say so, I'm sure it is also true of your father, particularly if he touched as many people's lives as is apparent in your beautifully moving retelling of his life.

I do apologize if you feel it impertinent of a stranger to say such a thing, and I fully understand if you feel that way. I hope it's taken in the vein in which it's intended.

For what it's worth, I'm very grateful that you have made this podcast during such a difficult time. It was not only moving and fascinating, but it has also helped me come to terms somewhat with my grandmother's departure.
Mark Lesson Studied