By Cheryl Ryan
Theresa Yuen has a steady, purposeful gait. She stands 4’11”, uses a cane and walks for an hour each day (hills and all). There is something quietly forceful in her presence and after passing her many times I decided it was time to stop. I made a U-turn on my bike and introduced myself. I asked if she would be willing to let me interview her for my blog. Her face lit up with a wide, wise smile and without hesitation, she said “certainly”. Just like that. After a few missed calls, I set out to meet her at her home.
It came as little surprise to me when the neighbor, whose door I mistakenly took for hers, said “Oh you’re looking for Theresa Yuen, she’s a force of nature.” He said that she walks every day and until just recently carried a large garbage bag to pick up any trash left by others as she goes.
At 87 years old, Theresa’s mind seems sharper than mine. She never stammers or searches for the proper word, as I do regularly. She has a quick answer for every question and even thought to provide her resume for this interview.
Can you tell me a little about your history?
I was born in China (Shanghai) in 1934. In 1946, at age 12, my parents immigrated to Hong Kong so that my father could start an import business. But when the communists took control of China in 1948 we could not return. I remained in Hong Kong for 10 more years. But my father wanted me to leave because he worried about Hong Kong’s temporary status.
It was a scramble to get a Chinese passport because Hong Kong did not issue passports in those days. After 3 years of university in Hong Kong, we got a passport from China and I arrived in the US as a transfer student to the University of Oregon. Once I completed my studies, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley and graduated with a degree in Architecture.
The student immigration policy during that time was that once completing school, students were only allowed 18 months to get practical work experience before being required to leave the US. There was an allowance for college students’ citizenship applications. These were based on a formula that only allowed the number of citizens from, in my case, China already in the US.
“My number was 106.” Says Yuen. Meaning they would only allow 106 Chinese students to apply for citizenship (and scientists always moved to the top). Because I wasn’t allowed to apply for citizenship, I applied for a permanent resident visa instead. I found work and remained on the slow-moving waitlist for five years. Eisenhower was the first president to start changing those immigration policies and numbers (as has each subsequent President through today), then came Kennedy and finally Johnson. Each affected my status by raising those numbers a little until I finally got the chance to apply for citizenship before the six-year termination deadline of my permanent resident visa.
After graduation, Theresa served as a staff architect at several bay area firms. Then in 1966, she became Principal Architect at the Campus Facility Office of University of California Santa Cruz. She designed a few small buildings before becoming the campus Project Manager. She was responsible for the campus Long Range Development Plan.
One of her favorite architectural projects was the home she designed and built in 1964. It included her husband’s request for a corner office with a red carpet, a drafting room for her and a bedroom for their son. Her unborn daughter later inherited the drafting room. She still lives there today with her husband.
Throughout the 80’s she remained active with the California Architectural Board of Examiners and the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards. Some of her other civic duties include Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Code Enforcement and working on the Los Gatos Planning Commission from 1970-1974.
What made you retire?
“I retired after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1990”, Theresa said. “I became very nervous about driving to UC Santa Cruz by way of highway 17 because that was right where the epicenter was located.” She asked the department if she could go part-time. They offered her early retirement and part-time contract work, which she did for some time before fully retiring.
She embraced retirement and started traveling with her husband Pasteur – named by his parents after the Pasteur Institute which is where his father attended in Paris. They traveled a lot but her favorite travel spot was/is Norway. “Did you know that the warm gulf stream goes there in the summer? She says. “It’s so beautiful, clean and not crowded.”
Side note: I just added Norway to my travel bucket list.
Health & Diet
Obviously, your daily workout routine of one hour contributes to your health but what about your diet?
She says they’ve always eaten rice and seafood in the Chinese style but also eat American style. “Pasteur loves his steaks and we both love french fries,” She says. But her face lights up when she describes her favorite meal which she gets from the local Chinese market, Lyons.
“I love the whole shrimp” She says, “Head and all. It’s the best part”. She gives me a mischievous smile as she says this, knowing I’m a bit nervous about it. She simply fries it in a little bit of oil and then makes rice. I’ve committed to giving this dish a try. It’s obviously working for her so why not. I’ll let you know how that goes.
What would you say is the secret to your good health?
When I asked her this question, She says “Being a woman and immigrant in a field dominated by men wasn’t easy to navigate. It was a double whammy for me. You have to ignore things and let them roll past you if you want to survive.”
When I pressed her about what brings her joy she never used the word joy. She says she’s content. She enjoys her home. She’s had a good career. When it came time to retire she went easily into it and enjoyed travel.
She stays connected to her family. Her daughter who lives locally comes to visit often and when her son flies in from back east he stays in his old bedroom. She cares for her husband who has mixed dementia. Aside from some morning and evening hired care, she still makes him lunch and dinner.
Listening to her made me think about contentment. I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s a lost art? It’s not a word that comes to mind as we describe the world we’re living in today. What if we all enjoyed exactly where we are and all the simple things that got us here a little more? Would we all be a bit healthier and happier adopting more of that attitude?
Thank you, Theresa, for taking the time to let me interview you. It was delightful.
Thank you for this– what an inspiring woman!
I love your chance meeting with her and the u-turn you made on your bike to ask her to interview. I love her quick response!
You can see someone every day and not know a thing about them. But to ask and find out her VERY interesting back ground was fun to read!
Awe, thank you so much! There was just something about her that made me want to know more. That feeling just happens sometimes and it’s so intriguing to me what draws us to certain people.
What a lovely woman. Makes you wonder, it’s not the things we have, it’s being content with life, and who we are as a person.
I know her response and perspective made me think. She’s got some wisdom to share 🙂
I really enjoy your interview style, Cheryl! This was a great read– so cool that you pay attention to people and reach out to connect. She’s super interesting!
Well thank you, especially coming from one of my favorite writers 🙂
Thank you for sharing this, about “Aunty Theresa”, the wife of my godfather! She’s been an inspiration to me, especially since my interest in architecture developed!
It was my pleasure! She is inspirational and I so enjoyed interviewing her!!