"You will be reunited in the fullness of time"
In this week's edition, we remember Michelle's grandma, a refugee from China and a teacher in Taiwan, who passed away Monday night.
We are feeling all the emotions—relief, elation, joy, but also fear over what Trumpism has already unleashed.
On top of all our election anxiety, Michelle’s Nainai (grandmother in Chinese) passed away this week. For our newsletter, we each wrote a remembrance of her and offer this double tribute.
She would have loved to see Biden win. The last piece of paper she signed was her ballot voting for him.
Thanks for reading—this one especially means a lot to us.
Albert’s capsule history of modern China through Michelle’s grandmother’s life
To reconstruct my grandma’s life, Albert, bless his heart, listened to interviews we had done with her four years ago. Over the past few days—in between his three classes and countless meetings with students—I’ve walked into our room to find him sitting with his oversized headphones in front of a bright monitor displaying a family tree full of Chinese characters. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to the interviews myself—in part, I think, because I’m afraid of the questions I can no longer ask. —Michelle
Michelle’s nainai Yu Yeerong (余益榮) passed away on Monday night at the age of ninety-eight. I’ve spent the past week trying to reconstruct as much as I can of her family history, and below are some of the things I’ve found. You could tell the story of modern China through her life.
The Yu family tree traces its roots back more than six hundred years, to a Ming Dynasty scholar who lived in Shaoxing, Zhejiang. Nainai’s grandfather was a local magistrate in Jiangxi. He had a wife and a concubine. Nainai’s father, born in 1895, was one of two sons of that concubine. (Her last name is “He,” a detail I add because women’s full names are often erased in Chinese family trees.) We don’t know how he came to marry or why he moved north to Beijing, where Nainai was born. When we asked Nainai about her father, she was reticent and vague. She mentioned a failed business venture in Tianjin, and said that he died young, when she was sixteen.
As a young girl, she was sent to live with her uncle, Yu Jinhe, a rising star in Chinese Nationalist political circles. He had studied abroad in Japan, where he became close friends with Wang Jingwei; when he returned to China, he quickly ascended the political ranks of the newly founded Republic, overseeing the port at Qingdao and serving as commissioner of public safety in Beijing. As the war with Japan intensified in the 1930s, occupying the northern part of China, Yu joined Wang Jingwei’s government and became mayor of Beijing in 1938.
(A quick refresher on Wang Jingwei: Chinese nationalists consider him the great Hanjian, or “Han traitor,” who set up a “puppet government” with the Japanese. Association with Wang’s regime is considered shameful, and a culture of silence and self-censorship surrounds it. When we talked with her, she couldn’t help but adopt that nationalist framework to describe her uncle, calling him a Hanjian who believed in the superiority of Japanese culture, ate Japanese food, and wore a kimono at home. When we asked her how she felt about his Japanophilia, she dodged the question—though she conceded that she liked Japanese food.)
Nainai’s childhood was spent in a sprawling household filled with political and personal intrigue. Her uncle had six wives; there were many servants and other adopted children. She recalled hearing her uncle talking to Wang Jingwei on the phone almost daily. As an outsider with no standing, she observed everything. She remembered everything.
This made her a vivid storyteller: when we interviewed her in 2016, she recounted all the family relations, all the petty jealousies, all the personal character flaws. We laughed when she described her uncle’s first wife: “She was built like an ox, ate like an ox, and loved to drink milk.” This wife had a penchant for Beijing opera; famous stars like Wu Suqiu and Yan Huizhu floated in and out of the household. “She didn’t know how to manage the family,” Nainai told us, “so my uncle needed to find a second wife.”
During the war, Nainai entered Beijing University to study French. She dreamed of seeing Paris, but the war and its immediate aftermath made a trip impossible. When we first moved to France, she gave us the textbooks she had used to learn French in the 1940s. The tattered booklets had clearly meant a lot to her—she’d brought them to Taiwan and kept them when she emigrated to the United States. Whenever we talked on the phone, she would open with a couple of lines of French: “Bonjour! Comment allez-vous?” We dreamed of bringing her to Paris, but to our great sadness we were never able to.
After the war, she taught French to middle schoolers in Beijing. This was when she met and married Michelle’s grandfather, Guo Zengyu (郭增豫), an engineer dispatched to manage an aluminum factory in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. She left for Taiwan in 1948 with two suitcases, thinking she would return to China in six months; she ended up staying for almost four decades. Like many of the two million other Chinese refugees displaced by the Civil War, she was separated from the rest of her family. She never saw her mother or siblings again.
For nearly forty years Nainai lived in Taiwan, where she taught Chinese literature to middle and high schoolers. She had two children: Michelle’s father, Ming-shang Kuo, and aunt, Ann Kuo. She took the local train to work, sewed shirts for her kids, fed neighbors who were struggling, and raised chickens. She remembered her time in Taiwan fondly, in particular the fresh fish and the tropical fruit. Her favorite was the wax apple, whose flesh tasted like sugary water: she told us a story of trying to bring some into the United States, only to have them confiscated by border control.
She never forgot her mother and her siblings and tried to reach them. During the Cultural Revolution, a contact in Hong Kong helped smuggle money and letters to her sisters and mother in China. In 2014, we met her sister’s grandson, who had ended up in Paris. The money Nainai sent, he told us, was why his family could survive those trying times.
After she and her husband retired, she emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen. She lived first in Michigan, then in North Carolina, and finally in California. In North Carolina, she was a fixture at her local Trader Joe’s: everybody knew her; she always asked for a free sample of coffee (and sometimes, wine). In California, she loved watching Chinese soap operas. An inveterate news junkie, she read the paper (世界日報) every day and watched Chinese-language news shows. When we visited her in 2018, she asked us to update her on the gilets jaunes and tell her what we thought of President Macron.
Nainai’s was a life imprinted by war. She described to us the roar of artillery fire and recounted horrific scenes of people starving in the street. In 2016, we asked her to recite a poem for us. The first one that came to her mind was Du Fu’s “A Song of War Chariots.” As she read it, she kept turning over one passage, “君不見, 青海頭, 古來白骨無人收.” (“Go to the Blue Sea, look along the shore / At all the old white bones forsaken.”) It describes bodies lying in the open, with nobody to mourn them. “Du Fu understood the horrors of war,” she repeated over and over, a faraway look in her eyes.
She loved to eat. When we visited her in 2016, she insisted on making three to four dishes at each meal, including delicacies like sea urchin. In California, she loved the buns (baozi) and the Eight-Treasure Sticky Rice at Din Tai Fung. When we were with her, she never left our teacups unfilled. We never left her table feeling empty.
Michelle on loss, love, and what separates us
Nainai passed Monday night, quite suddenly. I know ninety-eight sounds old, but health was her signature trait. She was perpetually healthy. My parents, who brought her to live with them four years ago, thought she would outlive them.
I grew up with her until I was eight. She and my grandpa immigrated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the early 1980s. She lived with my parents, my brother, my aunt, and me. She watched me during the summers and bundled me up for the winters. I can picture her—I think this is true—waving to me when I left in the morning, waiting for me when I got home. There were always treats. My favorites were hua juan, large salty green-onion buns with layers you tore off like petals. I could eat several in a sitting. Sometimes she made dumplings from scratch, and let me “help” (get flour everywhere). She showed me how to seal the wrappers and fold the dough; mine always fell apart as soon as the water started to boil.
All of this makes it sound like she was domestic, but she wasn’t. I don’t think she liked housework. She seemed most interested in teaching me Chinese. My written Mandarin today is poor, limited to simple words—me, you, mother, father, sing, heart, moon, hello—but when I lived with her I could write and recite the lines of a Li Bai poem, the animals of the zodiac, the names of countries. Not that she was a demanding or ambitious teacher: she was indulgent, unbothered when I would run off in the middle of a lesson, the book still open on the table.
When you grow up, of course, you realize how little you know of the people who took care of you. Did my grandma have a mother or a father? She must have. But who were they, and why didn’t she talk about them? As I got older I began to see she was a bit odd about affection: she patted too hard, wasn’t at all a hugger. I assumed it was a cultural thing. In conversation, too, she rarely said what she really thought, which irritated my parents.
It was only through Albert, who studies Chinese history and literature, that I started to be able to piece together her life. I found out that she had a meimei (younger sister), two jiejie (older sisters), and a didi (younger brother). She left for Taiwan at twenty-six with just two suitcases, thinking she’d be there for six months. When the war broke out suddenly, she became a refugee. She never saw her family again, lived many years without knowing what happened to them. One of her greatest regrets, she told Albert, was not being able to take care of her mother. Whenever she told a story about a family member—the Red Guard burning her brother’s furniture, beating her cousin in the street—she’d end by saying, “You see, I’m the last one. Everyone else died.”
I also learned that she’d grown up an outsider in her own household. Her father was the son of a concubine, so she had no rights or inheritance. She was sent to live with her prominent, wealthy uncle. She was privileged to have food and shelter, but she was always a guest, an observer, a child without a father and mother to protect her. Her uncle, who rose rapidly through the ranks—by the time she went to college he was the mayor of Beijing under Japanese occupation—would later be tortured and sent to a labor camp. Collaboration with the Japanese is a continued source of shame in many Chinese families, so she never spoke of her uncle. Now I understood why she was so stoic, so careful, why she held her thoughts so close to her chest. This must have been how she survived coming up—never complaining, never being a burden. Always aware that she couldn’t afford to offend anyone, that she had nowhere else to go.
She adored Albert. Honestly, I think she had a big crush on him. She lit up whenever she saw him; the day she died, we talked via video chat and—I swear this is true—she fixed her hair when he appeared. He’s the kind of man I think she would have hoped to meet as a younger woman; her own marriage was arranged. My grandpa, an engineer who died of cancer when I was fourteen, had a raging temper when he was young, but he was also generous and principled. He never lied, she told us, though she also remembered he threw a chair at her when he thought she had been rude to a guest. He smuggled money to her family in China through Hong Kong, and often helped neighbors and random acquaintances by funding school fees, journeys west, remittances to family. (“He’d give money to anybody who asked,” my grandma complained, “even when we were running out.”)
Albert loved her too. He thought of her as the grandmother he never had. (His grandparents all died before he turned six.) He admired her clear mind and knack for storytelling. “I could’ve listened to her talk for weeks,” he said.
I’ve said that she was reserved, but I wonder whether she would have said more if I had just known what questions to ask. Even wondering this pains me. It wasn’t just language that divided us but history, culture. I was such an American kid—I was too busy learning about the Boston Tea Party and counting my Halloween candy to be thinking about Chinese history, to understand the times that made her.
Albert and I visited her several times when she was living alone in North Carolina. On one visit she told us she sometimes wondered whether she should have gone back to Taiwan ten years before. There, she said, the elderly are respected. Neighbors barge in just to talk to you. In America you don’t even know if the neighbors will say hello when you step outside. She almost started crying when she said this.
I know I’m supposed to celebrate and honor her life, but I can be pessimistic, grass-is-greener, and so I keep thinking about the what ifs. What if she’d been born in a less tumultuous time. What if she’d gone back to Taiwan. What if her grandkids could speak Mandarin. What if I’d stayed in better touch. What if I’d sent a postcard from time to time, or braved the flight to the states to show her my new baby, whose squishy babyness would have delighted her. What if we didn’t all work so hard. What if we were better at distinguishing valuable work from the kind we do out of vanity and habit. What if I dwelled less on things that make me angry. Would my loved ones not slip away from my consciousness?
The cliché is true: we learn what matters after a loved one dies, even if the intensity of revelation fades. We must make their life matter. Through love, through friendship, through meaningful work. At some point we’ll be laboring to breathe on a hospital bed, saying goodbye to people—and that’s if we’re lucky.
A friend studying to be a priest told me: "You will be reunited in the fullness of time, and she will always be connected to you through prayer.” I tend to forget to pray; I never think I'm doing it right. I've tried, though. And one thing prayer, or any kind of meditative practice, teaches us is that our hearts don’t stop remembering. In remembering—in facing that pain, facing the person we've lost—we paradoxically become less separate.
A few years ago, I asked her to teach me a poem, and she chose “A View of Spring,” a classic by Du Fu. Even at ninety-five she could recite this poem, and hundreds of others, by heart. This poem is about growing old during a war that won’t end. It’s about being separated from family members and waiting for their letters, which are worth "ten thousand pieces in gold."
The day I introduced my grandma to Albert, she told us she hoped we would grow white hairs together (白頭偕老). The day she died, she waved to us through the screen. She was having trouble breathing, but her mind was sharp. She must have known what was happening, that she was going to die. She kept saying wo ai ni—I love you—and zhu fu nimen 祝福你們—bless you. And she said something else I didn’t understand. “Did you catch that?” Albert said after we hung up, as I cried. Catch what? “She said yong bie le. It means ‘goodbye forever.’” I cried harder. Even on her last day, I learned something new from her.
“View in Spring,” a classic war poem by Du Fu. My grandma taught me to recite it a few years ago. Even at ninety-five she could recite this poem, and hundreds of others, by heart.
* Many thanks to Andrew Jones for this translation, Eileen Chow for guidance, and both for their kindness & knowledge.
Links for the Week
Our research took us down a rabbit hole of Beijing opera Youtube clips. Here is Wu Suqiu, singing and dancing at the age of sixty-three.
In our digging, we found this passage from the great historian Frederic Wakeman describing Yu Jinhe:
Yu Jinhe was very close to the Japanese, having served ﬁrst as port commissioner and then as commissioner of public safety in Qingdao, and as a member of the Luda Mining Company, which was a Sino-Japanese joint enterprise. Moreover, he had a vigorous personality and was able to arrogate for himself and his men a good deal of the police power and authority.
(Michelle is embarrassed that her family background is so entangled with police power, but she didn’t want to censor this.)
Although we’re celebrating the defeat of Trump, it’s sobering to consider where he won and the work that remains. Here’s Mike Davis quoting Congressman Filemón Vela on why there was no blue wave in South Texas:
“The visits are nice, but without a planned media and grassroots strategy you just can’t sway voters. When you take voters for granted like national Democrats have done in South Texas for forty years, there are consequences to pay.”
To close this out, here are baby donkeys taking a nap.
Just came across your substack this morning and I am sat here, sobbing into my coffee. Your nainai sounds amazing. She would have been in between the ages of my father and my nainai who lived through similar time periods in China, Taiwan and the US. Many many thanks for sharing this story.
Michelle & Albert - thank you for sharing these stories and history of your beloved grandmother. What a fascinating life she led. I have been to China twice. I also had a an apple I could not bring in the US! Was not on purpose - it was just in my bag for a snack that didn't get eaten.