Frank's Eulogy

Shared by Frank Chen on 7th November 2010

In the West, we tend to think that it's just a matter of time before the younger generation will go farther and faster than the previous generation. This is doubly true for the sons of first generation immigrants, who—despite rigorous Confucian cultural programming—tend to think of their fathers as “old school” or “from the old country” or just “out of it” somehow. I admit that I was often guilty of this.

But as I was reflecting this week on what I would say at this very moment, one thing became crystal clear to me: I am my father's son. I am like him in so many ways, and I'd like to share four ways that I am just like my baba.

#1: Loved a good bargain

My dad—like many of his fellow first-generation immigrants—loved a good bargain, and so do I. I use price search engines on the Internet. I will do days or weeks or sometimes months of research before any major purchase like a TV or a digital camera. I will use Google to search the coupon sites for discount codes—even after I’ve already gotten something into my shopping cart. All of this I get from my dad.

I didn’t realize where he got it from until we moved back to Taiwan in the early 1980s. In the States, I had gotten used to paying whatever the stores wanted. In the pre-Interent days, you couldn’t do that much comparison shopping, so whatever price the store was charging was what you paid for groceries, clothes, electronics, whatever.


But in Taiwan, it wasn’t like that at all. There weren’t big department stores or supermarkets with sticker prices or UPC codes on each items. Instead, there were hundreds of roadside stalls, mom-and-pop shops and open-air markets. An entrepreneur well versed in the ancient Chinese tradition of price haggling manned each shop. Nothing had a fixed price, and the first offer was just the beginning of the dance that would conclude with the final price. Only fools and foreigners would pay the price that the merchant first asked for. And so getting a good bargain became a way of life for me. I’m a little better in my old age—but to this day, I am shocked—shocked!—at people who buy things without shopping around.

#2: Photography

Like my dad, I love to take pictures. Back in the day, cameras not only consumed film, they were manual everything: manual focus, manual shutter speed, manual aperture setting. And this futzing was on top of composing the image. So as an impatient teenager, it felt like it would takes hours for him to snap any picture. There are dozens of pictures where I'm staring off into the distance because I wasn't aware that he has reached the point where he was ready to snap the photo. I remember saying dozens of times on every trip, “no more photos, dad” or “take the picture faster, dad”.

These days of course cameras do just about everything themselves, so it doesn’t take any time at all to get a perfectly exposed and focused photo. But I’ve found my own way to torture my own family with the shutterbug tendencies I got from my dad. How? With multiple cameras! On big trips, I’ve got the Nikon DSLR, my point-and-shoot Canon, my Flip videocamera—oh, and I’ve got to get a photo for Facebook with my iPhone. On just such a trip a few weeks ago, my kids said, “dad, we’ll agree to go to this museum so long as you promise not to take too many pictures.” And thus, torture-by-camera visits the next generation.

#3: Technology

Like my dad, I love technology. We grew up in different eras so fell in love with different technology. I grew up on computers, whereas dad loved the previous generation of high tech: namely, audio gear and airplanes.

Our house is a museum of the history of audio sound reproduction. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but we had record players, 8-track tape players, reel-to-reel tape players, and cassette tape players. When we lived in Taiwan, we had visas that required us to leave the country every two years, and often we’d fly to nearby Hongkong, then as now a mecca for consumer electronics lovers. I remember how excited we’d be walking down Nathan Road to see all the Sony and Technics and Panasonic gear on display. We didn’t often buy new gear, as the gear we had would last a long time because dad would take such good care of it.

In fact, my dad hand-assembled several pieces of audio gear that we still use today. Armed with a soldering iron, his degree in electrical engineering, a huge schematic diagram, and a lot of patience, he assembled his very own Heathkit receiver that still works to this day. In this regard, dad was always more advanced than me. He can fix anything, something my children know. If you want something fixed—a flashlight, a belt, a toy—don’t take it to dad, take it to ah gong. He can fix everything. My favorite example from my own childhood was a Tyco racing set. Did anyone else have one of these? It was a set of tracks that would snap together and you’d plug it in. You’d have these handheld controllers with triggers: the further you’d pull the triggers the faster the cars would go. Well, we got one of these sets and of course the pieces of the tracks would snap off and the contacts would get finicky. But dad could always fix it. I remember him using superglue to glue on the edge of a track and dental floss to tie two pieces of track closer together so the metal contacts would meet.

Dad also loved airplanes. At airports, dad would wander from gate to gate watching the planes come and go. He’d carefully study the emergency instructions intently to get a feel for the layouts of every plane we boarded. He’d be excited to get seats near the wing because then he’d be able to take pictures of the airplane’s wing and engines. (More on dad the shutterbug later.)  In his study, he had a picture of the cockpit of a 747. To this day, I am very conscious of the type of airplane—a McDonnell Douglas DC10, a Lockheed L1011 TriStar, a 737, an Airbus A310— I'm flying because of my dad.

#4: Writing things down in a systematic way

Like my dad, I love to capture things in a systematic way. Whereas I publish to several blogs and dutifully update my Facebook profile and check in on Foursquare, my dad had paper calendars and paper notebooks. Lots and lots of calendars and notebooks.

He kept a travel diary where he’d carefully write down all the sites he saw that day. He had a notebook where he wrote down phone numbers and Web site addresses and directions for doing things on the computer—like uploading photos or copying files. He had notebooks where’d cut and paste interesting newspaper articles. He had several notebooks for keeping track of his finances. In these notebooks, he would meticulously log every payment to the credit card company, the daily account balances at his brokerages, customer support phone numbers, usernames and passwords for all his accounts. (By the way, this has proven to be a lifesaver, so I’d highly recommend this for all the parents and children in the audience.)

While looking through the notebooks last week, I found out that he was even keeping track—indirectly—of my finances. I worked for a company called Opsware a few years ago, and I saw pages and pages of the daily closing prices for Opsware stock. In Chinese culture, fathers and sons don’t say “I love you” much. But as I leafed through those pages, I saw how my father loved me.

These are just four examples for how I am my father’s son. I could go on with a hundred more ways in which I am my father’s son. My dad was not afraid of hard work. My dad was extremely quantitative. My dad loved to eat. My dad was a home-body. My dad was extremely disciplined.

What I Appreciated Most

But I want to switch gears a little and talk about two things I’ll always appreciate about my dad.

First, he was completely committed to providing my brother and me all the education and educational tools we’d need to succeed in life. He would skimp on most things—clothes, cars, movies, toys—but when it came to our education, he would be exceedingly generous. Let me share three examples of this generosity.

In fifth grade, he bought me a blue-covered workbook called Essential Algebra which I’ll never forget. We never bought books. We borrowed them from the library. He’d patiently photocopy sections of books we were interested in. So when dad showed up with a real live book that he paid real money for, I sat up and paid attention. And even more impressive, the book had pre-perforated pages, so when you finished a page, you would rip it out. Unthinkable: a book you would only use one time. It was the height of extravagance in the Chen household. It was in this way­—one pre-perforated page at a time that I learned algebra in the fifth grade and started my long journey to major geek-dom.

A few years later, after moving to Taiwan, dad came home with another amazing learning tool: it was a book on programming in BASIC on the Apple II computer. Somehow he had figured out that computers were going to be essential to our learning, and he hadn’t quite figured out how to get a good deal on the computer itself yet. So he figured he’d start with the manuals. And I took to it like a duck to water. I read and read and read—then started writing. I’d litter the house with my programs written in BASIC until my dad got fed up seeing the papers scattered all over the house and got me to write my masterworks in—you guessed it—notebooks .

A few months later, dad came home with an actual Apple II computer. Well, we were in Taiwan, so it was an Apple II-compatible computer, which if I recall correctly was actually the Banana II. But some Taiwanese nerd had lovingly reverse engineered Steve Wozniak’s brainchild, and dad plunked down what must have been weeks of take home pay without really knowing what we’d do with the thing. Of course, once we got the computer home, I realized my BASIC code worked much better on paper than it did with the BASIC interpreter on the computer. This should have been the big tip off that I’d never make a good software engineer. But dad’s investment in the computer in the early days would change the trajectory of my life and ultimately prepare me for a fascinating and fulfilling career in Silicon Valley.

Example #3 and the biggest by far: dad paid for all four years of my time at Stanford. At the time, I had not idea how big a deal that was. He wasn’t even all that happy about Stanford because at the time Stanford didn’t have nearly the reputation of Harvard or MIT and I had gotten rejected from Harvard. But he anted up for tuition and living expenses, which I think was something like $20-25k a year at the time. I had no idea how much money it was, and how much my parents would have to sacrifice to make it possible. As I look down the road towards my own kids and their college, I now realize the enormity of his gift to me. Thank you, dad.

Finally—and I’ll conclude with this—I want to share the thing that I most appreciate about my dad. And that’s his courage for coming to America all by himself in the late 1960s to make a better life for himself and for his future family. Like most second-generation Americans, I’ve always thought of the move as somehow inevitable. Of course you would come to America. Of course, you would leave Taiwan.

But looking back, his decision was anything but inevitable. It took a huge measure of courage to leave the familiar and journey to a foreign country.  It took tremendous bravery to say, “I don’t know what it’s going to be like, I don’t really speak the language, I have no idea whether I’ll make it”—and despite all these doubts, to just go. To this day, he’s the only one of his brothers and sisters to make the journey even though others (later) would have the opportunity.
Fedora and I have sometimes talk about making the same trip in reverse; that is, moving to China and immersing the kids in Chinese language and Chinese culture. But all these conversations are just that: conversations. By the middle of these conversations, we’ve chickened out. Even though we know that our kids’ Chinese will be elementary and accented, even though we’d love to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Chinese people, even though there is huge opportunity now for American-trained business people in China—we inevetiably talk ourselves out of the Big Change: it’s just too scary.

So dad, thanks for not being too scared. Thank you for the courage you had in coming by yourself to this great country and making a new life for your family. Thank you for taking on the burden of being a stranger in a strange land. We’ll always remember and love you for your great courage.


Things Dad Cherished - Tim

Shared by Timothy And Sumin Chen on 1st November 2010

Dad -

I hope you like the things we sent you off with.  These are the things I remembered you cherishing the most:
- Your Westinghouse Technical Director award.
- Your Nissan Customer Satisfaction Award, which by the way we were shocked that you received, but we were so proud of you
- Your Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant recognition award that you received from Westinghouse when the power plant was brought on line.
- A selection of your teas; that you always brewed so strong that nobody else could drink it.
- With one of your tea pots
- and the Snoopy mug that we’re not quite sure where you got it, but was very cute to see you use.  
- Some of your favorite hats; that unfortunately never fit you quite right but you wore all the time.
- Your solar powered model airplane.
- Your Westinghouse Centennial clock that was by your bedside for more than 20 years
- Your favorite Chinese newspaper for the day you missed.
- One of your analog hygrometers that you were constantly filling up with water.
- One of your many flashlights
- And finally - one of your compasses; but I’m sorry - I couldn’t give you your favorite one.  I kept that for myself to remember you by.

And we chose a place for you so that you can watch the airplanes take off.  You were never bored at the airport gate - I know you always loved watching the airplanes.

I love you and we’ll miss you.

Tim's Eulogy for Dad

Shared by Timothy And Sumin Chen on 1st November 2010

It's well known in our family that, generally speaking, I am more like my mother and Frank is more like my dad.  My dad was near the top of his high school class.  Frank was second or third depending on the year.  I was happy to land in the top quarter of my class.

I've been dwelling on this all week and I've discovered that I'm more like my father than I realize:

While Frank is obsessively tidy and spartan, I've developed rather pack-rat-like tendencies - much like my father.  My father and I shared a desire to accumulate every tool available at Sears and Home Depot.  In addition, my father was quite the handyman. While I don't have his broad breadth of skill, I’m able to take on minor household repairs and improvements.  My father and I both liked to tinker with things - albeit we both had mixed results.  Frank would rather not touch any tools at all.  

Of course, there are traits that Frank and I share that definitely come from our dad:

First, we can be incredibly frugal.  My father unplugged all electronic devices whenever he could to save electricity.  This sometimes led to odd things such as Dad unplugging the home answering machine.  Also, when I moved in with my parents briefly after college, he would constantly unplug my VCR that was about to record something on timer. This was despite the fact that I was paying for the electric bill.
In hindsight, I think this was an incredibly odd habit of my father as he worked for Westinghouse Electric and basically in a way sold electricity for a living. Shouldn't he have been encouraging the usage of electricity?

Recently, I decided that I MUST get my 5 cents back for every aluminum can I consume. Frank has been on a lifelong quest to find the absolute cheapest phone service possible.

Second, we are incredibly anal.  My dad always kept track of every financial statement and filed every single bit of paperwork into neat file folders that were clearly labeled.  Frank and I do the same.

Last, we all seem to suffer from a slight case of attention-deficit disorder.  As some of you know, my father would randomly walk off in the middle of a conversation or in the midst of a meal.  He's not deliberately ignoring you; he just happened to remember something that he’d forgotten to do.  Frank and I unfortunately share the same habit - to our respective spouses' dismay.  

Anyway Dad - I love you.  I know we didn't say it very much; but I know you know.  

And by the way - I'm really mad that you didn't get to see your next grandchild.  Watch your next baby rabbit from wherever you are, OK?


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