Dan Chang, MS ’68, PHD ’70

Finding Home

I am proud to have called UC San Diego my home, especially because it almost wasn’t. I emigrated from Taiwan in 1966, initially to study at University of Pennsylvania, where the winters were a shock to my subtropical sensibilities. I was often snowed in, unable to go anywhere to practice my English, just staying home every day babysitting my host family’s 5-year-old daughter, whose vocabulary was no better than mine.

The day after Christmas, however, I received mail from my dad—a letter from UC San Diego offering me a research assistantship. It had arrived in Taiwan only a few days after I left, but airmail was very expensive then, so it took a month by ship to get to me in the U.S. I immediately bought a train ticket, spending two days to get to San Diego. A meal on the train cost around $10, which was my dad’s one-month salary in Taiwan at that time, so I decided not to eat any meals. Instead, I bought two big bags of apples and oranges for those days. To this day, I am unable to touch apples and oranges any more because I had enough of them on that trip.

UCSD was definitely much warmer, but my early days were quite hard—it was competitive and academically challenging, especially as I was learning English. Young professors would answer my questions with slang phrases like, “You bet,” which I didn’t understand as a “yes” or “no.” As I struggled with life in America, what really saved me was the kindness shown to me by Professor Booker, who was my PhD advisor, but so much more as well.

Professor Booker and his wife, Adelaide, often invited me over for dinner to teach me about American customs and culture, such as table manners like using a fork and knife and napkins, not chopsticks and handkerchiefs as I was used to. He told me about tipping at restaurants and addressing a person by their first name, not using Mr. or Mrs. as was the formal practice in Taiwan. I learned these and many more customs through Professor Booker, and while it may sound so basic and ordinary, they were extremely helpful for me to mingle into mainstream society in the U.S. Not only that, the Bookers also invited my girlfriend, Cecilia, another foreign student who would become my wife three years later.

Cecilia and I stayed very close with the Bookers over those years, practicing our English, sharing the stories of our days; Prof. Booker even taught Cecilia how to parallel park so she could pass her driving test. One day, Cecilia and I asked Mrs. Booker how we could pay back their kindness, since they had done so much for us. She simply told us to pass along the love that they had shown us on to others. We have spent our lives since trying to do just that. Sharing kindness and generosity—it is that spirit where you can truly find home, and help others find theirs, no matter where you are in the world.

—Dan Chang, MS ’68, PhD ’70, established the Henry Booker Award for Exemplary Engineering in honor of his PhD mentor to encourage engineers to broaden their perspective and use their knowledge to make a positive impact on society. Read more about Chang’s life and career, including his efforts in nuclear disarmament, at tritonmag.com/chang