Family History Galore

How I Got Here (Mom Version)

This is Mom’s contribution to the story of How I Got Here from last week’s post.

Today I thanked Mom for the computer and microscope and telescope and the everything else I ever wanted with which to explore my interests. Our conversation then touched upon kids and their interests. “Kids should grow up happy,” Mom said, “which is why when I saw how Hong Kong schools were I told your Dad we had to go to America for you and Pauline to get a good education.” (And have a happy childhood.)

How were Hong Kong schools? The decent ones were all private, and hypercompetitive. I started K1 when I was 2 1/2 years old. They assigned homework, which I couldn’t do because I was too young to hold a pencil. Mom had to wrap her hand around mine to help me write.

She likened the Hong Kong education system to gavage. We moved here to save me from it.

Family Tree Grafts

My maternal grandfather is adopted. The term I’ve heard applied to that adoption is “tsup keuh fahn lai”, which roughly translates into “picked him up off the streets”. That’s all I know at the moment. I’ll have to find out more later.

Today, while talking about village life, Mom said, “Villages sometimes battled each other over land disputes. Your great-grandmother was actually stolen in a village battle. She grew up with a family she was given to.” I had no idea. Zero idea.

So basically I can trace my lineage on my mother’s side no further than my grandfather and my grandmother’s mother. Huh.

– – –

I’m not sure why I’m paying so much attention to family history right now, but I’m glad I am. This stuff would get lost if my sister or I didn’t learn it and preserve it. Plus, it’s fascinating. If anything, I should have asked more about it before.

More questions on my next visit… at the end of next month. Penny is coming! Another chapter of family history will soon begin.

Little Red Microscope

After lunch today, my sister mentioned how good one of Mom’s plants looked. I turned around and examined said plant. It had deep emerald teardrop leaves, shiny and plump with water. I brushed one of the older leaves off the bottom and squeezed it between my fingers. It felt like a gummy. Satisfying.

I found an old leaf that had fallen off into the soil. It had turned black, and collapsed softly between my fingers, its skin still intact. I squeezed some of its contents onto my plate.

Light brown water came out, along with some specks. It looked to me like broken down plant matter. Then one of the specs moved. It uncurled and waved its little antennaed head in the air.

“A worm!” I exclaimed. Sis ewwed. Mom smiled.

Upon closer inspection, said tiny worm had a ton of tiny legs. A mini millipede? I had no idea. I kept inspecting. Another spec uncurled. Two worms. Then I noticed some of the other specs moving. Tiny insects, swimming.

I was totally fascinated. I considered breaking out my little red microscope. Mom helped me search for a magnifying glass.

I thought about how Mom, who normally cares so much about cleanliness, didn’t seem to mind that I was examining a worm on my lunch plate, but instead allowed me to pursue my curiosity and even tried to help me with it.

That’s how Mom’s always been with me. When I liked dinosaurs as a kid she bought me books about it. When I liked astronomy she bought me a telescope. When I asked for a chemistry set I received a set of test tubes and chemicals you shouldn’t trust to a kid. When I expressed interest in tiny things she bought me a microscope. And when I started programming in high school my parents bought me a computer.

There’s been a lot of press recently about the lack of girls in STEM fields. Until this press, I had for the most part been oblivious to the ratio of males to females in my academic and professional pursuits, and figured my success was due in part to that obliviousness. While I’ve always credited my parents with providing everything I needed to get to where I am today, I never understood the role Mom played in fostering my interest in science and technology. My parents never pushed me to do anything I wasn’t interested in, but for anything I did show interest in* they made sure I had what I needed to explore it.

I am grateful for hindsight, and thankful for my parents.

* The exception being music, unless my musical interest was in piano. Which it wasn’t.

On Work

A couple months ago, Aaron and I listened to The Last Job, a story about a world where no one had to work. It must have resonated with me, because I still remember it.

It resonated with me not because no one had to work, but because no one was allowed to work. The need for work had been eliminated and anyone not on the very short list of workers keeping the world in a constant state of leisure was banned from working. What a nightmare.

I remembered this as I sat down at the Boston office this morning. I don’t need to be working this week, but I preferred going to the office every day to sitting around doing nothing. Well, almost every day. I worked from my parents’ house yesterday so I could have lunch with a friend. I wasn’t as productive as I would have liked. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do good work. I didn’t like it.

Dad is the same way. He’s seriously contemplating retirement these days, but can’t pull the trigger because he doesn’t know what he will do with all that extra time. It’s a Big Scary Question for him. It would be for me too.

You know how people like to daydream about what they would do if they won the lottery? When I was a kid I said I would buy a big house with a bowling alley. When I was in college I dreamt about going back to school so I could keep learning. Now, I think I’d keep working part time on something interesting. I’d take classes too, but learning for the sake of learning feels purposeless. Working, producing something, making some sort of difference somewhere for someone*, I like that.

Work on.

* … even if it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But that’s a topic for another post.

Bostoney Things

Had lunch today at Wahlburgers. Marky Mark wasn’t there. I want my money back.

My sister mentioned Free Brady in our family chat this evening, which caused my parents to go off on yet another anti-Deflategate tirade. They were my Facebook Boston feed come to life. No one outside of Boston seems to care, but everyone* from Boston seems to think the rest of the nation is out to get them.

Later in the evening, Dad tried to convince me that Tom Brady was a nice guy, and that instead of disliking him I should be more neutral. Except that I never said anything about disliking him. I’m indifferent, I told him, which is as neutral as I can be. I don’t think he believed me.

Sportsball team fanning**, I don’t get it. (Wait, but Mom isn’t even a fan!)

* It’s not fair to my Boston peeps who don’t care about this for me to use that word without some sort of qualifier, so here’s your qualifier.

** Yes, I do sportsball fan, but not for teams. (Unless you’re talking about always rooting against USC, which I do but can’t explain.) I choose specific athletes to fan about based on their skill and character, regardless of team.

Pu Poo

Wednesday was day I-don’t-know-what of my Boston trip. Had a nice lunch with sis, then a family dinner at a “fake” Chinese restaurant. It was an awesomely authentic American experience.

Pu Pu

Because I never hung out with my hometown friends at the local fake American Chinese place, I’d never experienced a Pu Pu Platter… until last night. And neither had Mom.

Mom's First Pu Pu Platter

She looks amused. I was too.

Poo Poo

Dad: (reading news on his phone) Tom Brady’s wife wants a divorce!
Me: (being an ass because it’s funny to rile up Patriots fans) Maybe she decided that if he’s going to cheat at football he’s going to cheat on their marriage.
Mom: (neither cares nor knows anything about sports) Hey! I don’t think he’s a cheater.
Me & Dad: (what just happened?)

Apparently everyone in Boston has Tom Brady’s back. Including Mom. (??!?!?!?!!)

I’m Poo Poo-ing above because [insert giant rant here about legal / government intervention in matters related to professional sports]. It’s freaking entertainment, people.

New Things And Old Things

Baby Shower

Sunday: Little sis’s baby shower! This was the reason I came back to Boston, even though I didn’t tell her I was here until Saturday night. Surprise!

Boston Office

Today: Went to work at my company’s new office in Cambridge. Did my first ever Red Line commute. Not quite BART, definitely not Caltrain. Not that different people-wise. Starting to think everyone’s commutes are the same all around the world.

Was greeted at the door by a new mural we commissioned. Found a 3 minute recap of its creation. Neat!

Coffee Siphon

Came across my first coffee siphon at the office. It’s supposed to make a really good brew but I must have really screwed things up because my coffee tasted horrible. That, and it takes a lot longer to make coffee that way. Looks really cool though.

I’d rather drink weak coffee than bad coffee. Dunkies for the rest of the week!

Asian Squat

My Asian friends and I like to joke about the Asian squat, and only a couple of us can do it, badly. As it turns out, Mom does it naturally. Working in the garden? Asian squat. Sorting things in a box on the floor? Asian squat. Wao. So amaze.

Subtropical Snowstorms

While browsing the canned food section at the Chinese market, Mom said, “We used to love when there were typhoons coming to Hong Kong. Maybe we wouldn’t have to go to school or work and we could stay home to play mahjong. We’d always eat canned food because the (open air daily) market wouldn’t be open. Fried dace with salted black beans or luncheon meat with some rice.”

Typhoons are to Hong Kong what snowstorms are to Boston.

Things Leading Up To Me, Here, Writing This Post

Day 2 of Boston Visit. I’m trying to write each night so I don’t end up losing details in a post-trip recap.

How I Got Here (Extended Version)

The abridged version is here.

Took Grandma out to lunch today. In my conversation with #icaughtafishthisbig yesterday I realized I didn’t know how my family first came to the United States. I made a note to ask about it, and today I did.

My mother’s mother’s father (great-grandfather) arrived in the US on a cargo ship, long before I was even a remote possibility. He stayed. He learned English. He worked at restaurants. Illegally. But the officers who frequented his workplace didn’t know he was illegal because he could speak English. They would come check papers, and he’d be their translator for the workers in back.

For legal reasons unknown to me, he eventually became eligible to apply for a green card. After a while he decided to get one, and once he did my great-grandmother was able to come to the US as well. After that, my grandmother. For the rest of the story, there’s the abridged version, linked above.

Here I am, a US citizen who considers this country my home more than any other, and I’m here because of illegal immigration. I had no idea.

How I Came To Exist (Really Extended Version)

Later in the day, I learned about how hard it was for Grandma to escape the village and make it into Hong Kong. How hard was it? Harder than it was for her to get US citizenship. If it wasn’t for her perseverance (there’s a theme here) Mom would never have made it to Hong Kong to meet Dad and become my mom.

Siri Who?

After watching Dad “OK Google” into his iPhone, I asked why he didn’t use Siri instead. “What’s Siri?” he asked. So I showed him how to use it. It’s looking pretty good these days.

Push Present

TIL what a “push present” is. My initial reaction, “Isn’t the baby the present?”

Aging Reasonably

In the car with my parents.

Mom: What’s wrong with that driver?
Dad: Old guy.
Mom: Watch it, we’re old too.
Dad: Yes, but I’m aging reasonably.

Backpack Liberator

Brought my lock pick kit and freed my sister’s hiking backpack of a padlock to which she’d lost the key. 30×26 finally came in handy.

The Internet Is Strong In This House

Moments from my first hour back at my parents’ house tonight. They have way too much internet in their lives.

Moment 1

Mom: Google Translate is broken on my Chromebook, please fix it! (Fixed.)

Moment 2

Mom: Can you make Facebook stop emailing me? (Done.)

Moment 3

Viv: Dad, you use Instagram?
Dad: Yes, I use it to follow celebrities: Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian…

He had interesting commentary on the lives of various celebrities. Long story short, he likes Instagram for the train wrecks.

Moment 4

Mom: Your Dad doesn’t want to retire until he finds something to do. I told him to become an Uber driver.

Bonus Moment

In the last hour of my flight, my seatmate struck up a conversation and showed me photos of a fish he caught. #icaughtafishthisbig


It’s been almost a year since I last saw my folks, so I booked myself a week of work-from-Mom’s-dining-room-table earlier this month. I scribbled some notes while I was there, which is good because it’s been over a week since my return and I’m only now writing about it.

Documentable things worth documenting, in no particular order…


Ever since Grandma discovered I like joong, she has insisted on making joong very time I come home. This time, however, after insisting we make joong, she delegated everything to Mom. Thus, Mom has finally learned the entire process of making joong. Mom, sis, and I had a wrapping party while Grandma supervised. We did things a bit differently, but everything came out a-okay in the end.


I can still fold them the classic (to me) way. :)


Wrote something about FSM in the family chat. Minutes later, Mom walked into the room asking, “How do you say (Pastafarian)?”


The next day, “What is L-O-L?”


We had rain, sleet, snow, possibly hail, and a wind storm while I was there. Boston broke its all time seasonal snow record that week as well. I didn’t go outside much.

Ice Cream

Shortly after a very filling dinner…

Dad: Okay, it’s time for ice cream!
Me: Which one?
Dad: Vanilla!
Me: We have two vanillas, let’s compare!
Dad: proceeds to make two scoop pie a la mode

As we near the end of two scoop pie a la mode…

Dad: Okay, let’s try the coconut ice cream!

Old School

Old School

Not Very Smartphone Photos

“I wish I could get these photos off my old phone,” Dad said.

Thus began an epic adventure with his Samsung Gravity 2.

Cell service? No.
Wi-Fi? No.
Cable transfer? Proprietary connector.
Bluetooth paired with my Mac, but transfer didn’t work.
Bluetooth paired with his iPhone, but transfer didn’t work.
Bluetooth paired with my Nexus. Transferred!

How to get the pictures from my Android to his iPhone?

iTunes. Ugh, please no.
iCloud. Password? No clue.
iCloud password reset. Recovery email? No clue.
Email. Password? No clue.
WhatsApp to the rescue! Thank goodness he only had 200 pictures.


Mom runs the house cold. As a result, Mom and Dad take turns throwing random jackets on me. I think I had a T-shirt, a hoodie, and two jackets on at one point. Indoors.

Salty Wet

Pauline was dogsitting her future canine-in-law for the week. Since Mom and I would be home she brought him over in the mornings. Said future canine-in-law has a habit of humping the legs of people he likes, which horrified Mom. After that, she started calling him Salty Wet. Google that, and you will have learned some Cantonese.

7 Minute Workout

I did some 7 Minute Workouts to get through the week, and guided Mom through the exercises when she was willing to join. I also taught her a few additional exercises such as bridges and leg raises.

Mom, doing leg raises, “This is easy!”
“Don’t rest your feet on the floor between raises.”


When Dad was just a wee little village kid, “trash” wasn’t a word. Every resource was precious. Nothing was wasted. Literally. Thus, no “trash”. Or trash.

Golf Practice

Flannel pajamas.
Kitty slippers.
7 iron.
3×4 foot practice rug.
4 feet from the TV.
In the living room.

Go Dad!


My grandfather’s story, as Dad tells it, is one of sacrifice. One of being apart from his family so he could find work, of not eating so his children could, of extreme frugality so his kids could enjoy the occasional treat.

Dad’s story is one of sacrifice as well. He worked two jobs when we first arrived in the US: a full time shift at the bank, followed by evening and weekend shifts at a Chinese restaurant. My memories of Dad in that first house are of him sleeping late on Sundays. It was his one day to catch up on rest.

After a couple years, he took a traveling salesman position that paid more. Once, upon returning home from a long trip, he was greeted at the door by my sister, then a toddler, who asked, “Are you my Daddy?” That broke his heart.

But his greatest sacrifice, which I didn’t come to realize until recently, was leaving behind everyone and everything he knew and moving here. Mom had family in Boston. Dad left his in Hong Kong. He made it work, but the distance became more evident in recent years as his father aged. He wanted to spend more time with him, but could only do so for one week a year.

This, he did for my sister and me. So we could grow up in the land of opportunity. So we could live the American Dream.

Lucky. Grateful. Humbled.