By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
At 16, Rebecca Yeung has already built two houses for the poor.
Beyond her compassion, Yeung’s story has lessons on the pursuit of science, breaking stereotypes for girls, nurturing passions in unconventional hobbies, including building a homemade spacecraft, and more.
A 10th grader at Lakeside High School and only 5 feet tall, Yeung is also the coxswain of her varsity rowing team. She “calls and commands the crew what to do,” Yeung said, even though many teammates are much bigger and taller than her.
Yeung hammers, nails, and navigates a power saw like a pro. The first tiny house she and her younger sister, Kimberly, built was three years ago for Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). Kimberly recently turned 14 years old.
“We were blown away to find out how young they are,” said Sharon Lee, CEO of LIHI.
“It was great to see their use of hand and power tools. I love the photos of them on the roof putting the shingles on!”
What steered the Yeung girls to participate in LIHI’s Tiny Houses? Their curiosity led to asking questions. And more questioning ignited their desire to explore and be a part of the solution for the homeless.
Four years ago, Yeung’s dad, Winston, drove them to their usual weekend martial arts class in Chinatown-International District. They saw Nickelsville’s Tiny Houses. Yeung began asking questions about the project. Winston connected the girls with LIHI.
So began their involvement in constructing tiny houses. LIHI provides training to volunteers. From start to finish, the Yeungs learned how to design, study blueprints, use the tools, paint, and lay floors. Also, they learned how to implement COVID-19 safety practices, while completing construction.
The girls “demonstrated their dedication,” said Lee. “Their enthusiasm is unsurpassed. The houses turned out well. They’re beautiful tiny houses!”
“Even little kids can help,” Yeung said. “And if they can help at least one person off the street, it’s satisfying.”
The Tiny House experience has been positive, not only for the Yeungs, but for their friends and families. The Yeungs ended up recruiting dozens of friends, including 9 family members, to help build more houses. It was inspiring to watch LIHI’s video showing how the Yeungs and their friends assembled one of the houses. Many of the volunteers were adolescent girls.
Yeung said building one tiny house is a lot of work, but she learned a lot “and it’s a lot of fun” because she got to hangout with her friends. All the construction was done outside on weekends and after school.
“It’s manual labor and doesn’t require much thinking,” she said.
The Yeungs on raising girls
The Yeungs have had their share of fame from their science projects, like photographing the totality of a solar eclipse and launching a homemade craft to the edge of space. Major networks interviewed them, and ABC’s “Good Morning America” called the Yeungs “the solar sisters.” They even got to go to the White House. The Gates Foundation also invited them to be panelists with other female scientists.
What kind of parenting philosophy and style do the Yeung parents have on raising their daughters?
“I’m not sure what parenting style we have,” said Winston, an entrepreneur. “I think we value experiences over possessions, and emphasize effort over achievement.”
Winston was quick to point out that the girls were the ones to come up with most of the ideas, including the spacecraft idea after seeing Youtube videos. Although “they didn’t invent the balloon launch idea,” Winston said, they showed interest in it. As parents, he and his wife did “what we could to support” their interest.
Both Winston and his wife, Jennifer, have bachelor of science degrees, and Jennifer has two master’s degrees.
“We don’t really have training” in the daughters’ projects, “but we do all enjoy doing family projects.”
The family doesn’t have sons. However, Winston said, “We wouldn’t trade our daughters for anything. Of course boys and girls naturally differ in certain ways, but we think both girls and boys should be taught the same values: confidence, respect, compassion, curiosity, inclusion. Helping LIHI build a couple of tiny houses was actually a great way to encourage the development of these values!”
The couple’s goal is to raise “independent thinkers and have their own minds! We just kind of follow along and provide support when they need it.”
The projects were “really driven by the girls,” said Winston. “It’s pretty cool and I am proud of them,” he said.
Although Winston didn’t take any credit in encouraging his daughters to participate in daunting projects, he and his wife deserve credit for supporting their daughters to go after adventures and bold projects. The fact is, his daughters are fearless when tackling unknown territories, which even adults would consider unthinkable.
The tiny houses were built in the family’s garage. The garage was also the birthplace of many projects, including a storage bench, canoe, and the spaceship (which flew 20,000 miles into space), four years ago. Their spaceship project made it all the way to the White House’s annual science fair in 2016. It was President Obama’s favorite project, according to the White House photographer Pete Souza’s Instagram post. Winston said his daughters did all the math calculations for the spacecraft.
How many women like me, several years older, are weak in math and science, scared to touch power tools, and nervous about anything that has to do with construction? My trick is to delegate my husband or son to do the work. I say, “Hey, fix this,” when anything goes wrong at home. In hindsight, it’s a bad idea for women to develop irrational fears and misconceptions about home repairs and heavy equipment. The truth is, I am also lazy to learn. But the Yeung girls are often hungry for new knowledge and discovery.
Their success in turning ideas into reality empowers them not only to be free and introspective thinkers, but it gives them confidence and skills that they need in real life.
Some parents, myself included, are quick to assign gender roles too early in their kids’ lives, especially for families that have both sons and daughters. As a parent who has daughters only, Winston could just ignore gender issues at home. I was always expected to do household chores when I was a little girl, while my brother was spared from them. It was also a different era back then.
There is no study that shows male and female brains differ and that “men are biologically better suited for math and science,” according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a CNN commentator, neurologist, and author of “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age.” There is certainly no rule that says “girls shouldn’t do what boys do or vice versa.”
It reminds me of what author Maya Angelou said.
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels…You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
Rebecca and Kimberly are not trying to kick ass. Their goal is not to prove someone wrong. They just want to satisfy their curiosity, believe in themselves, and make a difference. By doing so, they have become role models for all to experiment with new things and make mistakes.
Like Yeung said on ABC, “Don’t give up because even if some people tell you not to do this, even if something goes wrong, keep going and persevere.”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.