The key to longevity? For Grace Lee it's "rolling with the punches," and taking every event in stride. That's what the Palo Alto resident has done for nearly a century come April 20, when she marks a milestone birthday.
Born in 1917, Lee and her family lived through decades of cross-cultural conflict in the world. She spent much of her early life learning how to balance both Western and Chinese values and, in a recent interview with the Weekly, she shared insights into the many paths that have led her to the age of 100.
Lee lives in The Avant, an assisted-living facility on El Camino Way in Palo Alto. From the street, Avant looks like a new apartment building. The lobby of the facility looks like a hotel. This is where Lee's friend Don Levy arrived first, followed by Lee, who entered the lobby from the elevator, walker in hand. "I'll meet you two upstairs, I just need to grab something," Lee said, with a twinkle in her eye.
Lee is animated about politics and art, but she is also learning new skills, such as Spanish, so she can have conversations with some of the workers in her facility and learn about their lives.
"Lee is always taking her time," Levy said. Eventually, Lee stepped off the elevator again with a box filled to the brim with pictures. She wanted to illustrate her story.
The third-generation Californian was born in Oakland, and was originally home-schooled by her mother, who taught her English as well as Chinese. In 1918, her grandmother and younger sister briefly went back to China and returned in 1923, when the whole family was reunited in San Francisco. The two girls were able to attend elementary school together. "At that time, California had the best educational curriculum in the whole world," Lee said. "Latin was taught, and I just loved school. Music was taught, grammar, something called Silent Reader, and I read extensively."
In the '30s, Lee moved to Stockton and she entered high school, where relationships played a big role in introducing her to American culture. She began learning German from her godmother who happened to be the German teacher and continued learning the language through high school and into college. She recalled meeting her first boyfriend in her high school freshman German class and remembered not wanting to tell her parents, since she and her sister weren't allowed to date. "I also met a boy named Bobby Hass, who introduced me to the theater and modern dance," Lee said. "This is really when I became Americanized."
Lee had her first encounter with prejudice when she was singled out during a school trip while playing with a friend and told that she should leave because she had a "yellow face." "I had never felt anything so terrible before," Lee said, adding that it opened her eyes to the prejudice in the world and made her want to start fighting it.
In 1933, a naive and hopeful 16-year-old Lee entered college at the University of California at Berkeley, planning on going into medicine. Her uncle in China chose her first semester's curriculum, and she received C's that first semester. "I quickly realized it was not going to work out," Lee said.
The next semester, she changed her major to English, and her grades quickly turned around. She received her undergraduate degree in 1937. Lee completed one year of postgraduate work in journalism, political science and public administration. She took the state's civil service exam and was hired as a student personnel assistant, earning $100 a month, which was double the median national wage at the time.
A few years later, in the thick of World War II, Lee decided to enlist. She was part of the Women's Army Corps and was stationed at the Santa Ana Army Air Base, where she met her future husband, Hong Lee. Hong had been learning Mandarin at Harvard University when his class was transferred to the Santa Ana Air Base. From there, the two traveled to Bakersfield, followed by the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center in Texas and finally to the Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, where the couple was married in a Catholic chapel on the base. She was honorably discharged in 1946.
After the war, her husband attended UC Berkeley and earned his Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering in 1950, under the GI Bill of Rights. In 1952, the Cold War began and so did atomic testing.
"Hong was hired by the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco and he became one of the country's experts in decontamination after nuclear fallout," Lee said, adding that he was involved with many of the nuclear tests (hydrogen and atomic detonations) in the Marshall Islands and Eniwetok.
"In the course of this work, he happened to be on the USS Shangri-La in Boston when Jimmy Carter was there as a naval officer," she recalled with a smile.
That same year the couple's first child, a boy, Michael, was born. The next year, they had one more child, this time a girl named Donna. Lee stayed home with the children for the following 10 years, from 1953 to 1963. She returned to work when the family moved from Berkeley to Stanford University because her husband was hired at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park.
Lee also found a position at Stanford University, working as an administrative manager under Robert Chase, chairman of the department of surgery. She was responsible for monitoring his residents and taking care of all his records. She particularly remembered getting a call late one night from former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos's residence in the Philippines; her hands and arms had been slashed from an assassination attempt, and she needed Chase's assistance immediately. Lee worked at Stanford for 28 years, until she retired at the age of 72, in 1991.
Both of her children graduated from Stanford. Her son is now an assistant lab director in San Jose, and her daughter is a psychiatrist. She has two grandsons. Lee's husband died in May 2012, after 68 years of marriage.