Living in Holland

09 Jul 2015

Eight days before my twenty-third birthday, I embarked on what can only be described as a truly magical journey to three completely contrasting cities: Reykjavik, Amsterdam, and Prague. Along the way, I met a number of fascinating characters– some of them related to me. Here is an excerpt of my great aunt’s life, which she handed me a photocopy of on my way to the airport leaving Holland. 

* note: interactive version cross-posted on FOLD, a new publishing platform made by some friends @ the Media Lab.

Living in Holland

(a completely unbiased autobiography

written by my great-aunt Lenore

for the AWCA)

I am Cantonese but was born in Shanghai, then and now the most cosmopolitan city of China. Already at birth I was touched by the American brush. Both my parents had studied in the States, my dad receiving degrees from MIT and Case Institute and my mom from Columbia University.

There were seven of us, four girls and three boys. I was ‘sister three’… and we were naughty. One day, to give you an example, our gardener was taking a nap, snoring with his mouth open and we put a spoonful of salt on his tongue. My mom scolded us… severely I might add.

After the happy years trouble came, first, the Japanese occupation and then, finally, the communist takeover. We had to flee and since my dad was Minister of Transportation, he had the use of a government plane and we escaped by flying to Taiwan just in time. This all happened a few months before I was supposed to graduate from high school. Fortunately the government in Taiwan granted my diploma, which enabled me to go study in Michigan.

I enrolled at Michigan State University and turned into a party girl, within the limits of decency. Although I didn’t study too industriously, I succeeded in becoming a member of Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics honorary), Iota Sigma Pi and Sigma Delta Epsilon (chemistry honoraries).

After obtaining my MS in Physical Chemistry I was ready for the world. But was the world ready for me? I decided they and I were going to find out, but in a somewhat warmer climate than Michigan. Go West young woman! I descended upon innocent Seattle (those were the days) and by my first day I had fond a small apartment and a job at the Analytical Department of the University of Washington. All I needed was a husband. So, I spent my weekends dancing and dating (Sleepless in Seattle). The Chinese boys didn’t want me. They want their women, demure, soft-spoken and obedient. A loud-mouth like me was out of the question. So, I had to turn to other prey. At the foreign students club, Cosmo, I cornered Jack Wiegman, a student at the School of Communications, and made him my husband, like it or not.

After he graduated, we moved to New York, where I found a job at my mom’s alma mater, Columbia University. After only one year, out of the blue, I was approached by American Cyanamid, Princeton, NJ, who invited me to an interview and then offered me a position as a research chemist. I succeeded to invent two chemical processes. My boss quickly put his name to one and the other one I was forced to sell for the generous sum of one dollar.

My husband was transferred to Amsterdam and so I was back at point zero. I decided to interrupt my career by having a son. However, when he was two and an intelligent big boy, I felt he was ready for kindergarten and, for me, it was time to resume my career by joining a division of the Dutch Akzo Chemical Corporation in Amsterdam. To put it mildly: I didn’t like it at all. Fortunately, after almost two years, opportunity struck by way of an ad for a position as a research chemist at the Dental Materials Science Department of the University of Amsterdam. Thanks to my work in the States I was chosen among 40 candidates to become Hoofdmedewerker which you could roughly translate as Associate Professor. This you could call the turning point of my life. I came up with two more inventions but— it’s an old story— the head of the department tried to usurp the credit. I fought all the way to the Board of the University and won, but, of course, I had to move. I joined the Electrochemistry Department where I started in a PhD program. In 1979, I obtained the degree with the thesis “The Kinetics of the Hydration of Calcium Sulfate Hemihydrate and Cement, investigated by an Electrical Resistance Method”. (Wow)

To complete the bragging: I am listed in the Marquis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering (US) and also in the International Biographical Centre (Cambridge, England). I also have been a long-time member of the ACS (American Chemical Society).

Six years ago I suffered a stroke. Since then I’ve been confined to a wheelchair.

Now, I have time to catch up on reading and to play with my grandchildren who live in the same building, a canal house on Keizersgracht. And then, of course, there is the AWCA of which I have been a member 29 years.

 

 

 

 

 

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the persimmon tree

02 Dec 2013

the Persimmon Tree

A few years ago, when I was a grumpy senior in High School, the beloved Magnolia tree in our backyard, source of pink blossoms, rambling branches to climb, and many childhood memories passed away. In its place, my parents went to an Asian nursery and brought back a Persimmon tree.

The tree was thin, crooked, and distinctly budget. Maybe there was some haggling involved. I didn’t like it. I wanted a cherry tree, with fluffy pink blossoms. I wanted an apple tree, something that smacked of wholesomeness and Americana. Instead, my parents got something “Oriental”, that I argued had no retail value when the time came to sell our little house and yard (a low blow, since both my parents and I are firmly attached to the idea of growing old in the same place).

The first year in our yard, the squirrels ate nearly all the blossoms. They bit off many thin twigs and branches, leaving a massacre on the grass. What was left turned into small hard fruits, and the wrist-thin trunk sloped to one side.

I went to school. I didn’t call very much, and I forgot about our tree and our backyard.

But my parents took care of the tree and it grew into a beautiful little thing. Now it bears dozens and dozens of fruit– more than a couple of empty-nesters can eat. The pretty orange persimmons hang like Christmas globes on the small but staunch tree.

By nature there are two types of persimmons– astringent types, which unless utterly ripe to the point of bursting, leave a nasty “furry” feeling on the tongue, and non-astringent types, which can be eaten at any stage of ripeness, always lovely and mild. Our little tree is non-astringent. The fruits are always sweet.

Every Thanksgiving now my parents bring a bucketful to my aunt and uncle’s house, and I take the leftovers back to school. When my mom was a child, persimmons were big and squishy and plentiful and overlooked as a poor man’s fruit. Everyone wanted red American apples and bananas that were yellow. The grocer would say, these bananas have been on a plane– now, have you been on a plane? because a little Chinese girl isn’t much more than a banana. Now, I savor them, a day at a time, to make the harvest last.

Each one reminds me of my parent’s love and my roots– that I am not as American as apple pie, but that the fruit is sweeter still.

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A lovely ode to all those “unconventional families” out there. Really hit a familiar note for a girl who grew up in the library. Life might be easier if we all had PTA moms baking us cookies, but as my Linear Algebra textbook says, “Uniqueness implies existence, and existence implies uniqueness. (Therefore the matrix A is
invertible.)”.

[pet peeve: why in MLA format must punctuation go outside the quote? well, I don't like it.]

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