171. 美國生活考驗-畢業四十年感想/鍾澄文/Challenges of life in the United States: Reflections on 40 years of Experience/2014/12

Challenges of life in the United States: Reflections on 40 years of Experience

Author: Wayne Chung

Living in Orange County, California, for over 30 years, I had the opportunity to travel many places worldwide due to my work, but still feel Southern California is among the best places to live. The climate is mild, and though a few summer days are unusually hot, it is not humid and therefore more bearable. Life is convenient here too – there are many Asian markets, such as a new Korean market, where they have a wide range of products and quality and prices are fair. Anaheim Disneyland, the largest shopping center west of the Mississippi River, Irvine Spectrum Center cinemas, salt-water fishing at Dana Point, whitebait fishing at Huntington Beach, the golden coast from Newport to San Diego where you can see dolphins jumping in the sea with your naked eye, San Diego Sea World, as well as Tivana Mexico, Hollywood Studios, and Big Bear Lake ski resort, are all within an hour’s drive of Orange County. It is just a pity that Southern California lacks water and has few forests, though that is made up with an abundance of palms. Because of the high tax rate in California, many businesses have moved out of state and employment opportunities are scarce. In just a few years, the California petrochemical industry has gone from its heyday to depression. In order to consolidate their hold on the market, transnational corporations have merged and reorganized, and in order to reduce their costs, they’ve outsourced their production abroad. This has shocked the demand for energy and petrochemicals and caused the American petrochemical industry to continue to shrink. Petrochemical consulting companies have risen in Italy, Spain, South Korea, India, and other countries. With a few industries excepted, young Americans are in the predicament of not being able to find high-paying jobs. The chemical engineering departments at many universities have merged with the biological and medical engineering departments. Those who want to come to the U.S. seeking employment must plan carefully. But there is no need to get discouraged; the American job market is still worth pursuing in many industries. Taiwan, on the other hand, is full of problems. It is hard to believe that there the average monthly salary of college graduates is only a few hundred yuan (1USD is about 30 Taiwanese yuan) greater than that of middle-school graduates. But we need not consider where the problem has come from and who should be responsible. What is important is what young people should do, and whether or not they should go abroad.

When I was working at Bechtel in the 1980s, the company had many Filipino and Indian employees. There were not many local Americans and even fewer of Chinese descent. I learned later that this was the norm for American engineering consulting companies. Because of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, our work at the time consisted of strengthening safety measures at old nuclear power plants. I did not learn anything new. When I first moved to California, I rented a house in Brea, northern Orange County. My dear friend Mr. Tsung came to visit before returning to Taiwan and brought an Apple II computer with him. It had a game involving killing mosquitoes, which was quite drab and boring to play, but in those pre-PC days was quite an advanced computer game. Speaking of Mr. Tsung makes me think of the story of him and his wife Anping. Witnessing their love story, which began in Hsinying city, Taiwan, and continued through their time at Tatung University and Fu Jen Catholic University, was truly envious to a fresh graduate of boy’s school. Seeing this couple, one can’t help but wonder if the traditional split education system should be reformed. My alma mater, National Taiwan Normal University High School, accepted girls early on. Next year, 12 years after implementation of compulsory education, if Taipei First Girls’ High School accepts boys they’ll need to change the school name. The reputable Taipei First Girls’ High School has finally made history. Perhaps the new “Taipei First High School” will match up more couples, bringing new life to Taiwan.

Due to the energy crisis, engineers became very popular in the 80s. Perhaps companies were trying to recruit all sorts of talented people, for there were often advertisements for open houses in the papers. At the beginning of 1981, I also transferred to Fluor, a company that specializes in oil refining and natural gas plant design. But the following year, the U.S. Department of Energy began to cut its budget and many energy-related projects were shelved or cancelled. Energy companies were forced to lay off employees and Fluor was no exception. It was the largest layoff in the 70 years since its establishment. Of the more than 300 engineers, there were no more than 70 left at the lowest point in 1984. Except for a few young people, most of the remaining employees had 30 years or more experience, so that they could be assigned a range of important tasks. American engineering companies have a bad habit of conducting layoffs about every five to seven years and then when the economy recovers, they rehire a large number of people, creating a vicious circle. Among the engineering companies in Southern California, if one company gets a project, the others will not. Thus, employees are like migratory birds, flocking from one company to the next. But in 1982, not one company was hiring. When Fluor was just starting the layoffs, a former employer took advantage of the opportunity to recruit old employees. I was in a panic at the time and went back for the interview. Sure enough, I got the job. After weighing the severity of my situation, I decided to make my position known to my current employer. If I were laid off, I would return to the old company. Although the job there was not guaranteed either, at any rate it was much better than being called to the manager’s office every Friday to wait for layoff notices. After the company’s senior manager heard my stance, he said frankly that nobody’s job was guaranteed, and the parties concerned had to decide themselves whether to stay. He said my current performance appraisal was very good, and in the short-term there should not be problems. But if projects continued to decrease, it was hard to say for sure, including even his own position. After consideration, I decided not to change companies. Fortunately, this was the right decision. I worked for 30 years without incident – not even my weekly hours were reduced. That senior manager retired early in 1984, and one year later, my former employer Bechtel left Southern California. How true that man proposes but God disposes. Everything is difficult to predict and we can only ask for blessings. Those mass layoffs made me very vigilant, and have had significant influence over my life’s plan in the U.S.

Living in the shadow of layoffs, since layoffs were out of my control, it was best practice to be prepared to respond. In 1982, the first generation of IBM personal computers went on the market. I thought these expensive computers would always need to be repaired in the future, so I used Fluor’s employee education fund to take microchip engineering courses at UCI (University of California, Irvine). I wanted to understand the software and hardware of personal computers. In addition to using them for automatic process control, in the eventuality that I was laid off, these skills might also come in handy. After completing three courses in computer hardware and software, in early 1984 I received a notice from the company to transfer to Alaska for two months. I had no choice but to withdraw from the fourth course. At that time, you only needed to complete six courses to get a certificate. When I returned to California after the stint away, I found that in just a few months, the market for PCs had undergone major changes, which made me rethink whether the PC maintenance industry was feasible for me. At that time, I was writing a paper about my first engineering experience at Fluor. My paper, Hybrid Refrigeration¸ was published in the journal Hydrocarbon Processing in 1984. Later, a German manufacturer and an agent from Southern California came to visit the company, hoping to cooperate with us, but the opportunity was never realized. In this regard, Pinghsiong Chung is very successful. Every time he publishes a paper, business rolls in; it’s truly admirable.

My first transfer job with Fluor was in the beginning of 1984 at the North Pole oil refinery in Alaska. At first, I thought this North Pole was within the confines of the actual North Pole, but later found out it was the name of small town in central Alaska. I’ve heard that the U.S. post office so frequently received letters addressed to Santa Clause, but lacked a post office to send them to in the North Pole, that they established a town and post office with the same name to take care of these destination-less letters. A month later, the CEO called to inquire about my adaption to life and work at the North Pole. Of course, besides missing my family, all was well. A week later I got another call from the CEO notifying me that the client wanted me to extend for another 6 months. He took the initiative to require of the client that my family could move to Alaska as a condition of extension. They agreed, and not long after the whole family was together, all the way until August when we moved back to California, vying to make it to the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles that year.  This transfer job let us see the unique scenery of Alaska; in the spring after the snow melts and the temperature rises, the long-legged mosquitoes hatch and land on screen-windows like little airplanes. They are both spectacular and terrifying. Under the shine of spring sunbeams, strawberries grow to huge sizes, about four times the size of those in California, eight times the size of Taiwanese strawberries. I also saw 24-hr daylight within the arctic circle, and the Chinese baseball team playing in Fairbanks at midnight with no lighting. Before the project concluded we drove from central Alaska to Valdez and took a ferry to watch the avalanches at Columbia Glacier. Then we landed in Anchorage and traveled around the southwestern peninsula of Alaska on land. This was a rare opportunity for my whole family to tour Alaska and make sweet unforgettable memories. My next long-term transfer jobs were when I went to Milan with my wife Tsinghua three years ago, and last year when I went by myself to Arabia; but the feeling of these trips were not the same at all.

When I returned from Alaska, I found that IBM had changed its strategy to make PCs more universal: they allowed the use of non-IBM parts within the PC. Because of this the price of PCs fell dramatically, and later with the appearance of XT and AT computers, the first generation of PC’s was eliminated by the new generation within 3 years. PC maintenance was thus an industry that was terminated before it even started. As this road was not viable, I had to come up with a new plan. Microchip engineering classes at UCI would not help me out anymore. My next plan was to prepare to acquire a California real estate license. This required taking courses related to accounting, law, real estate etc. First, I took accounting classes at community college, and then used this knowledge and the program Lotus 123 V1.0 to write a multi-unit residential management account statement, which was well received by both customers and accountants. After finishing my classes, I obtained a California real estate license in October of 1985. For use on personal computers, I wrote a DOS (disk operating system) version of the menu – you just had to type in the number to short cut to attain the file, which was of great help to people who were slow at typing. Thinking back now, life then was quite tightly organized. It was like having a full-time job while being a part-time student, learning new knowledge almost every day.

I had no customers just after I got my real estate license, and life was tight financially. In 1985, my father-in-law suffered from lung cancer, and my whole family returned to Taiwan to visit relatives. This was my first time back in Taiwan in the 9 years since I’d left. At that time, I had little savings and was irresolute on whether to go back. Fortunately, the company had stabilized and some previous colleagues had returned. With Tsinghua and her sisters, our four families returned to Taiwan together. After returning to the States, I began part-time real estate management work. Over the years, I applied the principles of real estate buying and selling to real estate investment. My customers made money and I gained commissions. In terms of real estate management, I helped several landlords deal with the headaches caused by residents and businesses, and also helped to solve problems of property inheritance. I was fortunate enough to find proxy documents approved by the court and thereby save a lot of lawyer fees. I had the opportunity to participate in a talk of three great lawyers about mediation of land sales cases involving water pollution issues. Only then did I understand the delicate triangular relationship between lawyers, insurance companies and the participating parties. Listening to the dialogues of these three great lawyers was more useful than burring my nose in tough law books and gave me a foundation of basic legal knowledge necessary for living in the United States. As a full-time chemical engineer plus half-time real estate agent, life was busy, yet also fulfilling and full of challenges. The invitation from married pair of former real estate company managers Kuohsiong Su and Shanghui Hsia in about 1995 to join the ranks of full-time agents was a kind of recognition and encouragement of my work. But I could not bare giving up life as an engineer, so I had to give up the opportunity of being a full-time real estate agent. In 2010, before I went to Milan, I quit real estate entirely. In these past three years without the pressure from real estate management I have had fewer life stressors. As a professional engineer I work 60 hours a week; though working hours are long, the workload is reasonable and there is significant renumeration. The situation is satisfactory. Once I moved abroad to become a Taiwanese American, my perspective changed on my future course of life.

By chance, another project opportunity arose after the layoffs. Although it failed to achieve great results, there were some non-material rewards. In 1986 my sister-in-law Chuntzu 淳子invited Tsinghua to set up the Kumon math tutoring institute in Irvine.  One year later, because economic payoffs were not great, my sister-in-law elected to let Tsinghua take over. After experiencing the methodology of Kumon, I felt that while it might be very effective for self-disciplined Japanese students, the origin of the institute, for American students with different cultural and living backgrounds, the impact was not great. I decided to create my own brand, MEP (Math Enhancement Programs), and prepare my own curriculum. I emphasized that in addition to the students’ self-study outside class, the teacher should give explanations according to students’ needs during class time. The focus was on finding suitable explanations, and not just on repeated practice problems. My thought process at the time was I could start using this MEP material with my two daughters, and should I be laid off I could then immediately set up a math tutoring center. Later my daughters and nephews all helped with the class, adding some experience to my resume, which was helpful when finding my first job. I kept teaching this math class up until 10 years later when my younger daughter graduated from college. The greatest reward from this math class was training my two daughters to be engineers, as well as fostering the development of a few mathematics geniuses and meeting many immigrant families and making more Taiwanese friends. These encounters will remain with many people forever. At least, my youngest daughter Yichia 怡家once said that in the future, she will ask grandma to teach her grandchildren mathematics.

My colleague at Fluor, Pimou You 游丕某, left and rejoined the company three times. Each time when he left, he bought a self-service laundromat. In the end the combined income from three laundromats exceeded that of being an engineer. He started to buy commercial real estate, multi-unit residencies, small apartments, and farmland, etc. He was a highly respectable self-made Taiwanese investor. In 1989, Mr. You prepared to retire and put the laundromats on the market. At the time I was already experienced in trading and managing several residential properties, but I still had no experience in business management. So, I got a loan and bought the laundromat together with my sister and brother-in-law. When I got off work at 4:00 I would go check the laundromat, and I spent my Saturdays there as well. If a machine took somebody’s money, I would personally return it, winning the support of Mexican customers with my dedicated service. It was not long before there were Mexican women waiting in line inside, and nearly all the dryers and washers were in operation. I found the volume of the driers was not enough, so that customers had to keep their washed clothes in the washer while waiting, slowing down the whole line. I resolved this bottleneck by buying two additional double-layer dryers – this increased business by 80%. Unfortunately, this luck did not last; one year later, a laundromat opened across the street, and within three miles three additional laundromats opened. Our business decreased at least 20%.  In order to retain customers, we invested in adding four medium-sized washing machines and replacing old washing machines. Through this I realized the risks of commercial investment and crisis management. One year, I discovered that the landlord had used the wrong apportionment ratio and overcharged us for the public maintenance fee, so I requested he return the overcharged part. But the landlord was only willing to return the overcharged sum from that year and required a court case to prove that he had to refund the full amount. After consulting with a lawyer, due to the exorbitant cost of finding judicial precedents and the uncertainty of whether we could even find favorable precedents, we decided not to cash the landlord’s cheque. A year later the landlord called to and asked us to cash the cheque immediately. After renewed negotiation, the landlord agreed to cover my attorney’s fees, and I agreed to waive the right to prosecution, thus resolving the dispute. Later we decided to sell the shop, but with the remaining lease period too short, we needed the landlord to extend the contract. But the landlord wanted to draw up a new contract which required paying a higher proportion of maintenance fees. I was not willing. In the end the landlord proposed a rental contract that would meet the needs of both parties and we successfully sold the business. Thinking back, the greatest reward from that experience was not in managing the business, but in the negotiations with the landlord. This experience was very helpful later on when managing 10+ business locations.

The early years of the 90’s passed in this busy medley of working at Fluor, managing the self-service laundromat, teaching MEP math classes, and taking care of real estate sales. In 1995, the company sent me to Indonesia for two months, and I continued working on the project in Indonesia after returning to the States. In that year I flew to Indonesia four times, each time passing through Taipei. I met with my family three times – on one occasion Taiyang 泰洋, Chenghui 正輝, Chenchi 禎祺, and Tsungren 宗仁of Taiwan Surfactant warmly entertained me, and invited Wenming 文明, Chaoyang 朝陽, Yongchang 永昌 and others to gather at the Taipei Hotel Riverview by the Tamsui River. Another time, Chaoyang arranged a meeting with classmates Chienshu 建樹 and Tsungjun 聰俊 from central Taiwan in a Taichung restaurant. In that year, my daughter Yifeng 怡鳳had just entered high school; the speed of telephone modem was only 14 kilobytes, and the internet was only just beginning to become popular as well. At first Prodigy was the most famous network, but later when my daughter along with many other internet users decided to switch to AOL, us adults went along with it too. AOL soon became mainstream, but only a few years later, telephone modems were replaced by broadband internet. In 1996, Yifeng received a scholarship for a pre-college women’s training course in engineering from the University of Maryland. After the course was complete, our whole family toured the Ivy League universities on the East Coast as a reference for my daughter’s college applications. On the way we met with many old friends. In New Jersey, we were warmly received by Sunrong 荗榮and Kuoshu 國樞. I realized touring these elite universities that my own experience was not expansive enough – I had truly been ignorant when I was applying to graduate schools. Otherwise, my success might have been different entirely. But perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, because had I gone to one of these schools, I would not have met Tsinghua.

Broadband internet was gradually popularized in the late 90s. In 1999, after we were freed of the laundromat, life was much more relaxed, with more time to go online. At that time, the company suddenly urged me to support the branch in Melbourne to work on a nickel factory, which due to leakage of hydrogen sulfide had to be evaluated and needed new waste gas collection pipelines and incinerators. Before the project was over, Tsinghua flew to Australia to meet me. The two of us visited Melbourne and Sydney, and then visited the North Island of New Zealand to see the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere before returning to the United States. In those days it was very inconvenient to use the internet – only libraries had free internet access, and even so it was highly restricted. I think everyone was more or less influenced by the rise of the internet. In addition to being able to web search resources, the internet also gave rise to many business opportunities, while also being a threat to many traditional industries. For engineering companies, the increase in speed and capacity of the world wide web enabled engineering design files to be easily shared. Fluor recently indicated that from now on all engineering design drawings will be taken care of by the branch in the Philippines. Presumably, this will cause many technical designers to go out of business. It is a shame that when I invented a Dual Compartment Chimney Tray used in distillation towers, I didn’t apply for a patent immediately; the paper was published in spring of 2001 at the AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) New Orleans conference. In 2002, my colleagues and I applied for an American patent for improvement of natural gas liquid recovery technology.  The patent along with its auxiliary patent (US 7,051,553 and US 20040261452) were approved in ’06 and ’08. This version was based on my vision with the details developed by a Hong Kongese colleague. At that time, I had already worked at Fluor for over 20 years; this could be considered the peak of my engineering career. In terms of engineering skills, I was no longer challenged, so I directed my energy towards other pursuits outside of work. I should thank Dr. Chang for his trust and the opportunities to participate in technical conferences focusing on the hair transplant industry. I learned about equipment evaluation, software purchase, advertising strategy, website design, and business planning. Without knowing it, I had accepted the challenge of the Internet Age. I began anew learning the skills of the internet, meeting the challenge of developing convenient use and transmission of information of business services or community needs.

Taiwanese Americans that I began to understand the history of Taiwan. I listened to Professor Longchi Chen’s 陳隆志 talk, “The Development of Taiwan’s International Status” in San Diego in 2001 and learned that after World War II, Japan renounced its sovereignty over Taiwan and Penghu in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. However, unlike Korea, the Allies still did not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Later with the lifting of martial law and direct presidential election, the Taiwanese people had proof that they were an independent democratic county. The problem was that the Taiwanese people had not yet achieved a consensus on the correct English name for their nation. Only after achieving consensus could they attain international recognition. But one should not be discouraged before one has even started. Taiwan’s biggest concern though, is not in the national name, but in the deterioration of economic growth. How can we hope to defend Taiwan with no economic power?

Thanks to the popularization of the internet, I was resolute enough to take over as president of Orange County Taiwanese Association in 2002. I wanted to use a website to transmit information about our homeland and enrich our country, especially those older people who had grown up during the Japanese occupation and didn’t understand Mandarin. I used the free domain geocities.com to create a website promoting three monthly activities: weekly talks on Friday nights, Saturday morning hikes, and Saturday afternoon meetings for seniors. All information and records were written down and then posted on the website. During the fourth week of the month, I would organize the notes and send them out as an end of month newsletter to all members. Before my term was up, I edited these records into the ’03 magazine which I distributed to members at our yearly conference. This is how I trained my Chinese writing abilities. When I stepped down, I passed the webpage onto the next president and have not concerned myself with it since. A few years later the website was hacked and lost all information, but recently I found that some of the information appeared on geocities.com. Looking back at these past records and articles, I truly admired our determination and perseverance at that time, and the cooperation of my fellow Taiwanese.

Chemical engineering consulting became lucrative again in 2005. The company now lacked employees and hired many local graduate students, as well as sending in people from branches abroad. At that time, I had already transferred to the oil refinery process group and was responsible for the hardware design of an atmospheric pressure distillation tower for a new refinery in Kuwait. Later, I was responsible for designing a process for reducing hydrogen sulfide to liquid sulfur. I was in charge of six Indian-American engineers, four Indians, and two South Africans. One of them had graduated from the famous Indian school IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology), and even though he only had three years of experience, he absorbed knowledge quickly and worked very hard. He was a highly effective assistant. It was this experience of my first time participating in the design of a sulfur plant that led me to publish a paper together with my colleagues in 2009. Later the paper was translated to simplified Chinese and published in the international journal China Petroleum and Petrochemical. My English name was literally transliterated to Wei-en Chung. The project was later executed in India while I stayed in California to manage remotely before finally going on a business trip to New Delhi for two months in 2008, to conduct the final safety assessments, connecting with the team in the United States in the evenings. When I left the office building at 4:00am, the streets were bustling. It seemed many of the jobs that had been lost in the U.S. due to the internet had come here. Tsinghua later also came to India and we took three-day weekends to sight see, taken by a driver arranged by a travel agency. Many of the local tour guides also served as part-time professors. The sacred Hindu site of the Hooghly River left the deepest impression on me; when we went out in the evening, we saw four people carrying a stretcher with the body of a gorgeously adorned women above their heads. They were carrying her to the river for cremation in the early morning. To the passersby this was an everyday occurrence, while it seemed strange to us – this just goes to show the diversity of cultural customs. We toured many Hindu temples, and I found there were many obscene carvings on the pillars. It is no wonder India is facing population explosion; they clearly have not been educated by Confucius and Mencius and have no sense of restraint.

After returning from India, I kept working on the original oil refinery project in Kuwait, adding infrastructure to an existing old plant. The original plan for a new oil refinery was so expensive that congress had delayed appropriating funds. In order to meet the demand for refined oil, we had to upgrade the facilities at the existing oil refinery. In 2010 after the Kuwait oil refinery project was complete, I applied for a transfer to participate in an SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) project, returning to natural gas processes team. Working as a consultant, I moved to Milan with Tsinghua and helped clients and engineering companies implement follow-up engineering design. At the beginning of 2012, a Mongolian client followed the company’s recommendation to move onto the worksite and continue to support the construction process, and participate in commission, start-up and the test run once the equipment was installed. Participating in this project was a bit like taking a graduation exam for my career in chemical engineering – I had to provide professional advice for customers and help them make decisions regarding everything from natural gas hydrogen sulfide treatment, natural gas liquid recovery, light oil organic sulfur treatment, and hydrogen sulfide reduction, to the manufacturing process of surrounding facilities. And then when implementing their decisions, I had to consult with the engineering company. Unless it concerned systems safety, the company would usually not consent to adjusting the design. If the results of the 2014 test run met the specifications, the project would be considered complete.  Otherwise, my date of return to my parent company might be delayed. In any case, this project was the first time I had an opportunity to participate in the planning and implementation of the follow-up work after installation of the engineering equipment in my 30 years of working experience. It was very rewarding.

Though we can never predict our futures, these past 30 years of study, work, and life in the U.S., along with my experience working abroad these last few years, have made for a wholly unique Taiwanese American experience. I am grateful to God for giving me these opportunities, for continually being able to learn as I live my life, and for correcting my opinions on many things. God or bad, I certainly would not have had these experiences if I had stayed in Taiwan. I would like to encourage everyone to live the last stretch of your career and retirement to the fullest, and I hope my classmates will all write down their experiences of the past 40 years to leave as a memorial of your life.

Source: http://www.geocities.ws/travelc/Luanluan_talk/Graduation_2.htm


Translated from: 171. 美國生活考驗-畢業四十年感想/鍾澄文/2014/12 by T.A. Archives

Posted 1/30/2021