Damage control

Wong repairs and reassembles sports cars with her father

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One night when her father arrived home from work, he surprised senior Kaith Wong with a pair of small-sized nitrile gloves. Being only 10 years old at the time, Wong didn’t fully understand the gift’s significance. But the gift foreshadowed the future memories they would share together while working in the garage.

Wong helps her father repair and assemble cars in their garage. Currently the manager of the aeronautics department at SpaceX, her father has “a natural curiosity for the mechanics of all things technical,” and as a result of growing up around this curiosity, she shares in her father’s hobby. 

In the beginning, she was simply a spectator, handing her father tools and watching him as he worked, but when she turned 10 years old, she received her very own pair of gloves.

 “It was a heartwarming moment for me because it meant that I had a place in the garage,” Wong said. “Little did I know that a small box of gloves could’ve had such a lasting impact on my life moving forward.”

Since then, the time spent in the garage has become a “special place” for Wong, and it is often the place for friendly banter while Bon Jovi  is playing over the car speakers.

“My dad is a funny guy and we both love joking a lot, but we get serious when we’re working on a tough project,” Wong said. “Even then though, the garage is always filled with music. My dad and I love listening to rock and roll.” 

But more importantly, the time spent in the garage has become appreciated daughter and father time. “As soon as we started  working in the garage, we began having these deep conversations, and he began telling me his memories from childhood,” Wong said. 

Wong’s father, a first generation Chinese American, has always wanted the best for Wong, his only child. “He is my best friend and my number one supporter,” Wong said. “I enjoy spending time with my dad and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Wong’s first major project was the 818S car kit when she was in the 6th grade. Car was  designed to use a gas-powered engine, but her dad wanted to convert it into an electric-powered car. This was an “ambitious” project at the time since Tesla didn’t exist yet and the production of electric-powered cars was still in infancy. The project was also especially difficult for Wong, since she was still too young to know about electrical engineering. 

Unfortunately, when she entered high school, work on the 818S was postponed since Wong joined the Beach Cities Volleyball Club where she was drawn to the sport’s team atmosphere. She played competitive volleyball for 2 years until she got into an accident where she dislocated her rotator cuff and was forced to sit out for an entire season.

“I decided to quit volleyball because it just hurt too much to play,” Wong said. “that’s when I started working on my own car projects.”

One of Wong’s projects during this interim period was the 1974 Datsun 260Z. It was an old car required a lot of “tender love” and took a lot of time and effort to complete. Many minor repairs were done, including changing the oil gaskets and master cylinder and furnishing the car with new seat cushions.  The 260Z was the primary car she drove in her junior year, and Wong still calls it her “baby.”

Nevertheless, a series of unexpected mishaps occurred during her junior year that continued to put her out of work in the garage. Wong was involved in a car accident in which her BMW 30CI was hit from behind, resulting in major damage to the car’s exterior. She was unharmed, but was not so lucky when a car transmission fell from a stand and landed on her hand, cutting two tendons and one nerve on the right side of her pinky. 

In addition to physical therapy required to regain feeling in her hand, the accident limited her independence.

  “It was tough because I only had one hand,” Wong said. “I needed a lot of help from my dad and from my friends in order to do everyday things like putting up my hair.”

Senior Katalina Connoy, one of Wong’s closest friends, recalled her behavior during the injury. “I noticed her being a little frustrated and sad because of her injury, but she never stayed that way,” Connoy said. “Kaith always led with a positive attitude despite her struggles with the injury.”

She also received backlash from her friends and relatives telling she shouldn’t be doing a “man’s work”. She recalled one time when she had a flat tire. “So many random guys came up to me, pushing me away and trying to do the work for me. Even though I knew what I was doing, this guy ended up breaking one of my lug nuts, which was really annoying,” Wong said.

Yet, despite the chaos of her junior year, the still unfinished 8I8S, and the occasional criticism, Wong acknowledges that “everyone has received criticism in every line of work. hobby, or even sport.” Wong believes that working on cars has made her a “stronger individual, and even a stronger woman”

Wong also believes that everyone, male or female, should know how to perform basic car repairs. 

“I would encourage all people to learn these skills, the car is an everyday invention that most of us take for granted. If something were to happen, it would be useful to at least be knowledgeable of the basic functions of a car,” Wong said. “It’s better to know rather than to be stuck in the unknown.”

Recently, she has made much progress on the 818S and she is finishing the car’s body. She is also recycling parts from the crashed BMW CI onto a used car of the same model.

Although engineering has provided her “a fast-paced environment” where her curious mind is constantly challenged, Wong “wants to discover her own path, rather than simply following her dad’s footsteps.”

Consequently, she plans on becoming a Nurse Practitioner. “I’ve always been more of a people person, and I’ve never wanted to work at a desk job where you don’t have any social interaction with people,” Wong said.

Wong cherishes the lessons that she has learned amid the chaos.

 “Working on the garage really put me on my toes and forced me to think logically,” Wong said.

For Wong, she acknowledges that it was not the hobby itself that necessarily grabbed her attention in the first place, but it was simply a way for her to bond with her father.

“Working on cars helped establish a foundation for the strong relationship we currently have,” Wong said. “These are memories I will always keep close to my heart and I will definitely miss when I go to college.”