Kaiser Kuo is quite the recognizable figure in the field of US-China relations.
In his 20 some years in China, he has been a rockstar pushing musical boundaries in the metal group, Tang Dynasty, one half of the Sinica Podcast duo, and even the Director of International Communications for Baidu. On the last day of our most recent Leadership Training Summit at Harvard, Kaiser sat down with Holly, founder and president of Project Pengyou, to tell the epic tale of his time in China and share with our fellows his wisdom on bridge building, choosing a career, and following your passions.
We were honored to have Kaiser as a keynote speaker tying in all of the learnings from the weekend and giving context to the bigger picture of US-China relations for our latest cohort of Leadership Fellows.
The Rise and Fall of Tang Dynasty
Kaiser started off by telling his story of building up the band Tang Dynasty during the late 80s and 90s, only to crash and burn (in terms of his relationships with his bandmates) after an unfortunate concert following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, 1999. After hearing the news, he was asked by his agent to attend what was described to him as a “peace concert”.
Upon arrival, he belatedly realized that he had actually stepped into an anti-American rally. “…the crowd was filled with angry Chinese that had shirts with “中国人今天说不” (today, Chinese people say “no”) written on them, and there was suddenly a microphone in my face asking for my opinion on the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.” Kaiser responded that he was there in the interest of peace in the aftermath of such an unfortunate accident, but would later regret his choice of words, wishing instead that he had kept silent. Through this incident, he learned that being diplomatic in tense situations requires a deep knowledge of cultural context and empathy to understand opinions and emotions of both perspectives.
The Power of Informed Empathy
How is it that a person finds balance between following their passions and being an informed person? Kaiser says, it’s all about taking those spare moments and filling your head with knowledge or useful information. “What they don’t tell you about rock and roll is that there’s a lot of sober downtime. In between the shows, you’ll find you actually have a lot of time. I would just bring a suitcase full of books and read for hours.” Kaiser mentioned that in addition to Sinica, there are tons of podcasts out there (China-related and not) that will help with this pursuit. We asked Kaiser to recommend a few of his favorite books to start building China knowledge:
Young, Wild and Free
Finally, Kaiser advised Pengyous not to fret about the trappings of adulthood. “When you’re young…keep yourselves as free as possible as long as you can because you’re not gonna have this time again…Go live somewhere else abroad – it is gonna give you such a different perspective on the world. Before the gravitational force of relationships and car payments and credit card bills starts pulling you down, take advantage of the lightness you have.”
Holly added that though it might seem difficult to find an entry-level position based around bi-cultural bridge building skills, “you just need to be patient because the world’s not ready for you yet – but the world needs you.”
Kaiser emphasized that everybody has to start somewhere, and you never know what doors will be opened along the way:
“There’s no shame going to China as an English teacher. Plenty of people who have really illustrious careers started out that way and if nothing else it will put you in day-to-day contact with real, honest to God Chinese people. It’s not cool to disparage the English teacher.”
Additionally, if you want to work in China but also strive to do something that will make a difference, Kaiser recommends:
“…think about finding employment and using that position as one end of the bridge. You can always find a way to make the job fit the mission.”
We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Kaiser for flying in to Cambridge especially for this event, and even staying afterwards to chat with our Fellows during lunchtime at the nearby Changsho Chinese Restaurant. It was a very special experience for us, and we hope that Kaiser’s wisdom can help inspire more Pengyous to find their own routes to bridge building in the future.