Sandra Tsing Loh was as funny as her book, The Madwoman and the Roomba Thursday as she sat with her “Bookish” co-host Samantha Dunn in the “Wedding Cake” as she called it (Beckman Auditorium at Caltech) for an episode of their series, “Behind the Book.”
Appropriately, the word “book” has now appeared in this article three times, and that was just the first paragraph.
Loh, who is actually a 1983 graduate of Caltech and a Caltech Distinguished Alumna, spoke to an attentive crowd of fans and Caltech alumni with a lot of inside jokes about attending the school, and quick physics-related asides that were lost on those of us who majored in lunch throughout school.
In fact, she began her answer to the first question posed by Dunn with a photo showing herself mugging for the camera at her graduation with her late father, Caltech alumnus and JPL engineer Eugene Loh, prefaced by photographs of him in the 1950s taken by her German mother.
He is the absolute picture of cool, posing with the Caltech ski team, lounging by the pool, and leaning against a ‘50s Buick sedan.
“This guy I do not remember,” said Loh. “The fun guy, the cool guy, …I never saw this guy.”
“The guy that I remember was more…” and she pointed to a large screen photo of her dad at JPL in 1955, looking as she described it, like “The Fly” of the 1950s science-fiction film.
“This is my father, my Shanghainese father, an alien insect type of thing.”
“The father that I really remember,” she continued, “was the traditional Chinese father, like that classic Chinese, Asian father that after dinner, he would be looking at the Merritt O’Keefe oven clock and saying, “It’s 7:12. What time will it be in 19 minutes?”
Loh’s sister would depart, crying, to her bedroom, while Sandra was left at the Formica kitchen table with computer paper filled with mathematical calculations and equations and formulas.
“20 minutes into these lectures,” he would ask me, “Now, is the final equation going to be positive or negative?”
She knew she had a 50% chance at the right answer. Or the wrong one.
She then unabashedly shared a meme, which showed an Asian father, decrying, “Hepatitis B? Why not Hepatitis A plus?”
You get the idea. That was her dad.
Thus began her scientific orientation, which she later turned her back on, sort of, resulting in a slew of best-selling books, a masters degree, a Caltech graduation address which was the first from any actual Caltech alum, and her own longtime radio show on National Public Radio. About science.
And which leads us to her latest book, The Madwoman and the Roomba, which is the story of the pre-pandemic life of a Pasadena family coping with homeownership, mid-50s life, and the everything of everything, which she faithfully wrote down. In detail.
The book is filled with tales of the everyday from spas to yard care to home renovation, to house painting to college essays, and the daily drama of raising teenagers.
Of course, with all of this happening in the past decade, Lowe also introduced the concept of the “Tiger Mom, “made famous by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, in 2011.
“I was more of an American panda mom than a tiger mom,” said Loh. “Lots of hands-on, interactive stuff and not a lot of classic violin.”
Low described herself as a “C+ Tiger Mom.”
She also went into some detail, describing the various types of Asian Americans — the first-world Asians, who are essentially all about “API”scores, “scores that would be like my weight on Jupiter.”
Second-world Asian Americans would be, as Loh explained, “ the ones like me.”
As proof, she related the tale of her daughter who, once being assigned to create a school report on one of the 50 American states, was given Hawaii, to Lowe’s inestimable joy.
Picturing live-action volcanoes and stunning palm tree-filled dioramas and pineapple upside-down cakes, Loh was up to the eight-week challenge.
Eight weeks quickly became eight days, which quickly became the night before the assignment was due. The daughter showed up at school the next day with a “night before” essay written by Loh, and a faint pencil sketch of the Hawaii state bird. Second-world Asian Americans.
Ironically, Third World Asian Americans would be Filipinos, (Spanish/Asians, actually), those countless home healthcare workers who, as Loh related, are being paid $15,000 a month “to do things that none of us would do.”
She showed a photograph of her father’s caregiver, Eugene, who she said, probably gave her father “four more years of life,” while providing for his own family.
And so it goes full circle.
From the hilarious to the humiliating, Loh described her past decade, to the delight of her in-person and online audience.
And to the social misfits of her audience and readership, especially those still in school, she offered her own advice: “Find your own weirdos, and bond with them.“
That works for me.