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Yitzchak Dumiel (born Isaac Sterling) ’91

Yitzchak (who used Isaac as a familiar name until the end of his life) was a gifted child with a genius IQ who liked to act, draw, and make music. He spent his childhood in Issaquah, Washington, and attended the prestigious Karen Kramer Drama Program, a competitive-entry program founded by the wife of director Stanley Kramer to train children with exceptional acting talent. Isaac regaled his family with comedy advice he received from Dom DeLuise and other celebrities with whom he was on a first-name basis.

As he became a teenager, his artistic interests shifted more towards music—especially the dark and angry. One of his favorite songs was “Coward” by the Swans, which glamorizes suicide. Feeling that he did not fit in with his family, Isaac considered suicide, but it isn’t believed that he ever engaged in physical self-harm. However, he developed a pattern of romantically pursuing emotionally unhealthy women. The resulting painful breakups turned him into a highly intellectual but emotionally closed-off man.

From 1987–89, he attended Reed, and did a study abroad in Munich in 1989–90. He withdrew in spring 1991 and supported himself as an in-home care worker for patients with spinal cord injuries, volunteering his help with senior citizens and children with serious illnesses.

Around 2000, Isaac began exploring Orthodox Judaism and enrolled in an Orthodox yeshiva (a Jewish institution focusing on the study of traditional religious texts) in New York City, but left after a semester. He began taking classes at the University of Washington and founded an experimental music organization that became the Seattle Phonographers Union. Phonography, intended to suggest the “sound version” of photography, is also known as field recording, and its artistic goal is to record interesting “found sounds,” in much the same way a photographer might capture a beautiful sunset. The musician then arranges the found sounds into a cohesive whole made up of instruments that are the natural environment. Isaac’s pioneering work in Pacific Northwest phonography made him a popular panelist at academic conferences during this time.

In 2004, he graduated from the University of Washington and was offered a fellowship to continue graduate studies in neuropsychology and bioacoustics. But he turned it down and moved to China in the hope that a complete change of environment might spark the happiness that had evaded him for so long. From the day he moved to China, and for the rest of his life, he referred to himself as Yitzchak Dumiel, though he always answered to Isaac as well. Yitzchak is a Hebrew version of “Isaac,” and “Dumiel” translates as “the silence of God.” He chose the name because he believed there was power and profundity in silence, but the choice later seemed a foreboding. Cancer eventually took Isaac’s voice, and he was unable to speak for the last several months of his life.

Initially the move to China seemed like a disaster. The private school at which he’d been hired to teach went bankrupt and closed soon after he arrived, leaving him penniless in a foreign country with a poor command of the language. But it turned out to be the best decision of his life, because he met his future wife, Guitian (Becky) Li, at a training center where he found a new job teaching Chinese managers English as well as the American sense of humor. One example of a lesson Isaac designed was to have each student read a different part of a Seinfeld episode, so they could learn “humor about nothing.”

Becky had moved from a small farming village to the big city to attend school, but was forced to set aside her own college plans and work so her younger brother could go to college. She wanted to at least learn English, and, after enrolling at the training center, found herself in Isaac’s classroom on a day when he was substituting for the regular English teacher. The two of them hit it off.

Isaac was very conservative in his courtship of Becky. The two would sit on opposite ends of a park bench watching the sunlight play on leaves floating in the water. Realizing he was a man she could trust, she began actively pursuing him. The two began spending every waking moment together, and their wedding day in 2008 was one of the happiest days of Isaac’s life. He had found his emotional rock.

From 2006 to 2008, using the pen name “Du Yisa” (a Chinese “corruption” of Yitzchak Dumiel), he authored the blog Fanfusuzi, where he published short stories, prose poems, photography, and translations of classical Chinese poetry. The blog became popular among English-speaking expatriates in China and artistically minded sinophiles in other countries.

In 2008, Isaac was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer of the tongue. It was a freak occurrence, as Isaac had not smoked, chewed tobacco, or engaged in other high-risk activities. The cancer moved rapidly, and much of his tongue needed to be removed. Isaac and Becky moved to the U.S. for his treatment. Eventually Isaac required a “tongue” made from his chest muscles, and his disease progressed to the point where he never spoke again, communicating through writing and hand gestures for the last months of his life.

From 2010–12, he focused on fighting the disease and trying to be a good husband. Throughout his life he had studied literature, music, and international philosophy, especially Taoism, Confucianism, Sufism, and Buddhism. He had cultivated an appreciation for Chinese painting, pottery, and instruments, as well as calligraphy and tea. As his health worsened, Isaac continued to collect music from around the world and studied ancient Greek philosophy, especially the Stoics. On a crisp, beautiful night, during the first snowfall of 2013, Isaac passed away at Evergreen Hospice, in the arms of his brother, Aaron, and his wife, Guitian.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2016

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