[Storm Buster series] Fainted in Freezing Rain
Author: Pius Chi-Shing Lee
My name is Pius Chi-Shing Lee. Until last year, I worked in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for two decades as a meteorologist. Since 2011, I have been the team lead responsible for implementing and upgrading NOAA’s air quality forecasting system. My job was to recommend and get the latest and greatest science to be incorporated into the forecasting system, in order to improve both the forecast’s accuracy and timeliness.
I had to admit that it was an exciting but heart-attack-prone job since every day our forecast affects the livelihoods of many people. Sharing a glimpse of such a momentous responsibility is both prestigious and humbling. The effects of air quality impacts may not heighten public attention to the same degree as the effects of hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, and flash floods, but our jobs at NOAA are in lockstep with all walks of life. On the job, I would sit at the edge of my chair as a gambler — I do not mean our forecast was purely spinning a roulette wheel of chance, hoping that realization of our forecast was perfect and useful for saving lives and safeguarding properties.
NOAA deals with storms. Storms are perilous. Storms are one of the means by which the atmosphere uprights itself from instabilities. By the same token, in its disturbance and rectification senses, the storms of life may not be all destructive or meaningless. As a Christian meteorologist, I am intrigued by not only the physical storms but also the tumultuous life-storms that often start a cascading avalanche of cleansing and reconstruction in people’s lives and livelihoods.
In this sharing, I would like to introduce myself on how life-storms prompted and propelled me as a career meteorologist and a research team lead at NOAA. I hope my sharing with you through the many windings and detourings of my career does not deter you from identifying your own life-storms in an uplifting and encouraging light. It is gratifying that I retired last year with the NOAA Administrator’s Award, one of the highest NOAA awards, for my leadership in implementing and upgrading NOAA’s air quality forecasting system to the benefit of the nation; now, I am a full-time co-worker in New York Christian Short-Term Mission Training Centre, Inc. (NYSTM). The career change is not as large as many may think, and I will continue to unravel this mystery to you in a subsequent sharing.
I grew up in Hong Kong during the tumult of the 1967 political uprisings and riots. In 1973, the passing of movie star Bruce Lee, my boyhood hero, havoced a psychological dust storm in my heart — life is short and unpredictable. Fortunately, I was shielded from much of the upheavals and chaos of the 60’s and 70’s as I grew up in the remote countryside of Hong Kong and for high-school resided in a boarding high school in Aberdeen. In the 70’s and 80’s, Hong Kong achieved the most flamboyant economic growth the world had witnessed. I was ambitious to contribute. I went to Canada to study mathematics and sanitary engineering thinking that Hong Kong needed these cutting-edge sciences to curb her environmental deterioration that inevitably arose accompanying its economic development.
In my junior year, I experienced my first storm-related near-death experience. It was Christmas Eve. I was driving alone from Ottawa to a friend’s countryside home in Quebec. It was precipitating sleet and freezing rain. My camper van swerved off a gravel road, and turned over, and I was knocked unconscious. Little did I know at that time, there was one of the most remote and sparsely populated regions in Quebec, where almost every household ran its own diesel generator. Winter car accidents there would not be discovered after many days — sometimes not even till after the Spring snowmelt. Miraculously, I woke up by myself and freed myself from the overturned van through the shattered windshield. I was not a Christian. However, I grumbled to heaven and lamented that it had snatched away even my meager belongings. Nonetheless, this sleet storm left in me an indelible near-death memory – life is short and can be abruptly taken away even from a young man.
In graduate school at UC Berkeley, I studied ocean engineering, thinking that Hong Kong has long coastlines and many interesting projects related to sanitary engineering of ocean outfalls and large structures. I lived on campus while my oldest sister and her family lived across the bay in San Francisco. As graduation approached, I sensed a storm beginning to brew between us. Like a tornado’s touching down on the ground, the whirling funnel in the air had formed well in advance. I sensed the treacherous air in her home whenever I visited her. One day, the storm from my sister touched down. She ordered me to go to a Christian church to look for a bride so that I would not wander anymore to yet another country. Coming prepared, I explained to her that I had already signed a work contract to go to Norway after graduation. To appease her, however, I went to a nearby Chinatown Christian church with her. The Sunday School lesson was on the Gospel of John, chapter 11 verse 25 where Jesus proclaimed himself to be the giver and resurrector of life: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). I was awe-stricken at Jesus’ words as they flashed me back to the scene of a ditch 15 feet below road level in Quebec. The lesson ended, and I followed the teacher’s prayer in my heart, saying that I would like to know Jesus better as the life-giver. Within a few days, a friend of mine who attended the Cantonese Christian fellowship on campus knocked at my dorm door and plainly said he could explain to me the good news of Jesus. I was surprised, but hid my pleasantness and brushed him off saying that: “Okay, but let it better be abbreviated because I am packing up to move away.” That evening, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord. Now the tables were turned; and I regretted having signed the Norwegian contract and feared that there might not be a church for me in Oslo!
There was no Chinese church in all of Scandinavia in the early 80’s; though Danmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden had fellowships and Bible study groups, many of them due to the unwavering love of returned former missionaries to China. I was able to grow as a young Christian in Oslo and witnessed for myself the many sacrifices the former missionaries made to strengthen and nurture the Chinese Christians they had seen migrating to their own homelands. There are plenty of North Sea winter storms gave poignancy to my work, but in my leisure time those years in Oslo gave me the most tranquil haven to develop a missionary heart for the lost, especially for the Chinese-speaking people for whom many Scandinavian missionaries had lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty. It was also a fertile ground for me to find my future bride —Thuyen-Anh, my dear wife, who in this same issue writes her own story about becoming a Christian in Vietnam and migrating to Sweden.
Author: Dr. Pius Lee is the Director of the Development Division of the NYSTM. In 2021, he retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, and was selected the winner of NOAA’s Administrator’s Award for the Air Pollution Forecasting Research Group in 2020. Dr. Lee and Mrs. Ancy Thuyen-Anh, Lee have three sons and one daughter. The couple relocated from the capital, Washington, to New York to take up the post.