100th Birthday Speech

My grandmother is an incredible woman! She turned 100 years old on June 6, 2003 and we had a very nice celebration for her on Sunday June 8 in Los Angeles. She was involved in every detail of the party including the restaurant, the menu, the attendees, and the seating chart.

I hope that I am so active if I ever make it to 100. Most importantly, she wrote her speech for the party. Here is the speech in its entirety.

“Thank you” to Helen and Jesse, and Robert for hosting the party. Thanks to Robert, David and Michael for bringing their families, traveling thousands of miles to attend my 100 years birthday and have a happy family reunion.

One hundred years ago, the infant mortality rate in China was 50%. My parents gave birth to eight children. Only four of us survived to adulthood, so I am a survivor of the fittest.

One hundred years ago, China was a very patriarchal society – girls were worthless. Most families just kept one or two girls and gave the third away or killed her. I am glad my parents kept me.

One hundred years ago, most girls’ feet were bound. Fortunately, my feet were not bound, but I was made to wear tight shoes and stockings. At that time both shoes and stockings were home-made of cloth. Stockings were always white and shoes black, and girls’ shoes were embroidered. The general statement was “who would marry a girl with big feet?” The after-effect of my wearing tight shoes are athlete’s foot and bunions. In America, I have trouble buying size five shoes.

One hundred years ago, girls just stayed at home to learn to cook, to sew, to embroider, and waited for their parents to arrange a marriage.Confucius said: “nuzi wu cai bien shi de”: (It is a virtue for girls to be uneducated.) When I was nine years old, my brother married a westernized woman who was brought up by two American missionary sisters. When my sister-in-law came to our house, she sent my two older sisters and me to a missionary boarding school. I, at age nine, my sisters eleven and thirteen, all started first grade together. (CALL ON KATHERINE) This is not a fairy tale. My sister-in-law was Katherine’s mother. That was the beginning of my education.

Confucius also said, “nan nu shou shou bu qing li ye. (Man and woman should not give and take directly.) Chinese believe in separation of sexes.

One hundred years ago, marriages were arranged by parents through the help of matchmakers. My two sisters’ marriages were arranged by the families. (CALL ON CHRISTINE.) Christine is the daughter of my second sister. Again I was lucky to have the fortune of romance in a semi-feudalistic society. When I was 12 years old and Teddy was 13, the Chen family and the Chung family lived in the same compound. We were still children, and we played together nicely. Two years after, my family moved away to a house in the next lane. Our families belonged to the same church. Teddy and I sang in the same choir and sometimes would meet on the street. And as Teddy would recall, he said that he saw me carry a red cloth bag and as soon as I caught sight of him I would quickly leave as if in shyness. We never talked to each other. That was considered the accepted practice of that time. My sister-in-law and Teddy’s mother had always been good friends.

My sister-in-law owned a cabin high up in the mountain. It was a summer resort area mainly for Caucasian missionaries and business people. In 1922, when I was 19 years old, I graduated from high school. The high school was going to send me to Yanjing University in Beijing in the fall semester just for two years of college education. It was early summer; I took Hanna and Katherine to go up to the mountain cabin first. One afternoon, I was alone, practicing penmanship in the living room. Suddenly Teddy appeared. We had a friendly visit for at least one hour, mainly about Yanjing University. When he went home, he told his parents that he was going to move up to the mountain to see me for the rest of the summer. His parents were very pleased. His mother came over to see my sister-in-law. Both women were pleased with the idea.

Sure enough, a few days later, Teddy Chen came to our little mountain cabin. He came every afternoon at about 3 or 4 and stayed for supper. He was just like a member of the family. All of us would walked to see some scenic places in the mountain or stayed at home and played card games. Teddy and I absolutely had no physical contact whatsoever, but we did shake hands and say good-bye when I left for college. It was a romance Chinese-style. We correspondence lightly thereafter.

After two years of college I came back to Fuzhou in 1924. The same year Teddy left for America for his graduate study. He was in New York for five years, from 1924-1929. He studied for a year and a half, and sick for three years.

In 1928, I decided to go to Beijing to finish my college education; meanwhile Teddy returned to Fuzhou in 1929. In 1931, I returned to Fuzhou and taught at Wenshan School, and Teddy was Professor and Dean of Fujian University. We saw each other every weekend; then we had romance American-style.

Looking back, life is just like playing a puzzle game. For me every piece fits in just right. Life is also like playing chess; for me every move has been correct. For example, when I decided to marry Teddy Chen, everybody expected me to be a young widow because his health was very poor, but our marriage lasted almost 59 years.

In 1937 an arrangement was made for Teddy to come to America to complete his Ph.D degree. I thought, two can live for the price of one; I would go with him and leave the children with Teddy’s mother. The children had a very loving and dependable nanny. Finally I decided that all four of us should go together. I thought that I could put the children in a nursery school while I could do housecleaning for professors’ families for some income to supplement our tight budget of $70 a month living expense. So on June 29th, 1937, we left Shanghai by ship, the steamship President Hoover. On July 7, 1937, the Japanese War broke out . We were so happy that the four of us were together.

The biggest break in our lives was when USC invited Teddy to teach in the summer school in 1938 before he got his Ph.D degree, and to teach full-time in 1939 after he got his Ph.D degree. One might question, “What is so unusual about a Chinese teaching in an American university?” Remember that it was 1939 and not the 1960’s when Chinese enjoyed the fruits of black people’s civil rights movement. So my late husband was the first Chinese Professor, not only at USC, but in all of Southern California. When we came to Los Angeles in 1937, the occupations for Chinese were limited to laundries, restaurants, herbal doctors, and gift shops which sold Chinese objects d’ arts and Chinese herbs and medicine. The Chinese had not entered into the main stream of American society until the 1960’s. In 1939, three Ph.Ds at USC having had no job offers in America went back to China.

The Sino-Japanese War made Teddy a public speaker much in demand. At first he spoke out of patriotism. He was eloquent, articulate,and personable. His English was impeccable, with no accent. An agent booked him and he became a professional speaker. Since he made good money through public speaking, I never needed to go out to find housecleaning jobs. In fact, I also went back to school. In no hurry, I also earned a degree. In 1946 we went back to China, where Teddy became President of Fujian University, but we returned to America before the Communists took over.

Looking back, one thing stands clear and unmistable that played an important role in my life –my religious faith. I believe that every step in the journey of my life has been guided by the good Lord. Today is an occasion for thanksgiving. I thank God for sparing us from the hardship of the Japanese occupation and the persecution of Chinese Communist rule. I thank God for giving us a good life in this wonderful country. I thank God that I have a loving family, that all of them are having a good life and good health. I thank God that my relatives and friends are giving me so much love and respect, more than I deserve. I thank God that I have no enemy. I thank God for blessing me abundantly, that I have financial resources and live a comfortable life. I thank God for living in my condo for almost 30 years and enjoying daily walking exercises in this beautiful environment. I thank God for sending Lucy Lau to be my major caregiver. We pray together twice daily. I thank God for giving me long life and good life. I have too many things to be thankful for that I cannot mention them all. In the sunset years of my life I need God even more. When I have a problem or worry, I go to God in prayer and peace comes immediately. I accept all the declines due to age, and thank God for the little I have left and pray that God will let me keep the status quo. I also pray for a peaceful exit without dragging illness and pain. Thank you all for joining me today to celebrate the milestone of my life. May our good Lord bless us all.