Inscrutable to the Last

Inscrutable to the Last


Ken Ng was born in Hong Kong in 1958. He is the oldest of five children, among them my mother. She has told me, “He was the worst brother but the best uncle.” He was six when they immigrated to New York City. During their childhood, he allegedly was a domineering older sibling, forcing scary movies on them among other things. He was considerably older when he first carried me. As a baby, I was a terrible sleeper and cried whenever put down, so he carried me a lot. He also talked nonstop to me (in his normal speaking voice) into the night, so much so that my mother had to tell him to stop when she thought he was keeping me up. He would say, “I can’t wait until you can talk!”

Up until I was about fifteen years old, my family (mother, father, sister, I) would go down to my grandparents’ house in Confucius Plaza every Sunday like holy clockwork. My grandparents would cook as well as pick up food from multiple favorite restaurants around Chinatown, and we’d stay from lunch to dinner. Ken was a constant, a fixed staple of that house. You could always find him by the orange tree at the window with a mug of something, or darting around to handle some chore. When I was young, I made fun of him for being bald (or almost bald). He’s around five foot two. I sometimes see him as a grown Charlie Brown, and there is at times a resemblance in the wardrobe.

It was some time before I learned he did have an apartment of his own, an extremely small place in Midtown, that he stayed at sometimes. Unlike his four siblings, he never married, and he was retired for as long as I can remember.

Ken attended a public school in Chinatown, then Stuyvesant High School, then got a BA and BS at Columbia College in math and physics. After that, he got an MS in geophysics at Columbia Engineering. My mother is convinced he would have stayed a student forever if he could have. After his time in college, he worked as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs and later worked at a publishing company related to finance. All this information was given to me by my mother, so there are likely gaps or inaccuracies. Regardless, he did retire relatively early. He lives frugally. Over the years, he has given me good-condition dollar books (according to my taste at the time) from early morning trips to The Strand. He wears T-shirts with random company logos and pants sometimes of solid orange or green.

When I asked him, he said he was fine with me writing a biography of him, but he didn’t want to do any work (including sitting for an interview). In an email, he wrote, “Any biography of me would be fiction. Even if I were to write it myself! I don’t know me that well!”

Ken is very smart and is an excellent teacher. He tutored me, my sister, and all his siblings’ children in math. For years, I’d hop onto the couch beside him, and we would spend hours with a notepad and a couple magic markers. One Christmas, he spent most of the day in a chair somewhere doing proofs and solving problems for my cousin. Despite his quirks, he’s not antisocial, but always happy to talk about almost anything. In fact, many family members avoid extended conversation with him. He is difficult to interrupt and goes on tangents, and none of us can really match his extensive knowledge on literature or foreign films or the sciences. He sends out mass emails to his whole extended family in a sort of newsletter. Most of the time it’s to announce birthdays. I’ve always enjoyed talking to him, despite knowing I often zone out halfway through.

During a tough period of my life, in which I was having panic attacks and not sleeping, he was exceptionally helpful, coming forward from the background spot where I always had placed him in my mind. He told me he’d had sleepless night too, similar experiences and so forth. His constant stream of words effectively filtered out everything else happening in any given moment. I distinctly remember one walk we had in Central Park. He said the human fight-or-flight response evolved but can be fooled, an example being that your heart might race even though there’s no predator in those trees.

For some reason, I wanted to hear the song “May There Always Be Sunshine.” I’d heard it a lot when I was very young, though it was originally a Russian children’s song. Ken wrote down the Russian lyrics spelled phonetically for English and gave it to me. He grew up speaking Cantonese and English, but he has also studied Russian, French, German, Italian, and Japanese in varying degrees. This, along with his general mysteriousness and the fact that we’ve never seen his home, led to the joke among my cousins that he is in fact a spy. At times, he seems like a Swiss Army knife when you only expected a toy.

He loved our big family outings to Long Beach Island in the summer. He didn’t even like the hot weather or the water, but loved the ice cream shop, the sand, and the openness of the island itself. New York Chinatown is incredibly cramped. He walked and sometimes I came along. He made his own map. When I was in the pool or eating grilled hot dogs, he was watching the 1960s “gothic soap opera” Dark Shadows in the private theater of the house we had rented.

On Long Beach Island, Ken walked the beach before sunrise and after sunset, a space where only mosquitos could get in his way or watch. I can only imagine Charlie Brown, his Shaolin orange pants sweeping over the damp sand, the sea rustling its wide parachute as it always has. He told me this would be fiction. I think aunts and uncles are the easiest to mythologize. You know them precisely the right amount.

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