Coming here from China, Der-Tsai Lee had a tough enough time mastering basic English.
But throw in all of the not-meant-to-be-taken-literally phrases we Americans speak — “even the simple ones,” Lee says — and even the smartest of immigrants can be at a complete loss.
“As a foreign student, I did not quite know the meaning of a phrase, even simple ones, and could only take it literally," says the former president of National Chung Hsing University, who earned a master's (1976) and Ph.D. ('78), both in computer science, from the UI.
"This story is related to the phrase 'See you tomorrow,' which was said to me at the end of our daily discussion on research with my advisor, Professor Franco Preparata of the Computer Science Department.
“I was under Professor Preparata’s supervision from 1975 to 1978 and our offices were just across a hallway in the Coordinated Science Lab located on the corner of Springfield and Goodwin. We were working in a newly emerged area, computational geometry, and studying a variety of geometric problems.
“At the end of discussion in the late afternoon, my advisor would always say, ‘OK, let us stop here. I’ll see you tomorrow.'
“I took that phrase literally. I went to his office the next day, with more thoughts about research problems. You can imagine the stress, wanting to generate new ideas when I go to see my advisor the next day. You experienced frustrations from time to time, when the ideas lead nowhere. Of course, you also experience exciting moments, when some progress has been made.
“In summary, that ‘See you tomorrow’ has kept me going, and in one year — in May 1976 — I finished my master’s degree and in two more years I got my Ph.D. degree and joined the EECS faculty of Northwestern University, until 1998, when I returned to Academia Sinica, Taiwan to be the director and distinguished research fellow of the Institute of Information Science.
“‘See you tomorrow’ has changed my life in a big way."