To understand the engineer Tina Yu and how she became known as a traitor to her country, we must go back to the beginning: to those glorious and informative days of her childhood, when she sat in the back row of a blue minivan, on her way to Chinese school, a Sandy Lam CD playing on repeat in the background. It was the only CD in the car and it played on all their drives: to Chinese school, to airports, to cello lessons. Tina’s brothers, older and longer-legged, got to sit in the middle row, while she looked out the back window, fogging it with a dramatic sigh.
“Can we please listen to something else?” Tina asked her parents politely.
They would only turn the volume higher, telling Tina that it would be good for her Chinese, and how dare she insult one of the all-time greats like Sandy?
She did not miss Sandy when she went off to college, finally free from her parents’ minivan. All the songs she could ever want were just a few keystrokes away. Her new college friends recommended indie bands, and together they would look for the songs with the least number of plays and make those their favorites, to show their commitment. She went to her first concert and came back with oversized T-shirts she would wear as pajamas for years to come. She imagined her future filled with nights like that one: friends in close proximity and music all around.
Yet her first year out of college proved otherwise. She was alone for the first time, an adult far from her family, trying to make friends in a new city, working the only entry-level job she could find. It was then that Sandy came back to her, as if she knew she was needed. Sandy’s song played over the speakers at a Taiwanese bakery in Chinatown, where Tina, with tongs in hand, was choosing pastries. Tina dropped her pineapple bun and exclaimed, “Why, that’s Sandy!”
She said it as if Sandy were her friend and not one of the most famous singers in Asia. The song playing in the bakery took her back in time, to those weekly trips to Chinese school. It brought back her mother’s tears as she watched the news and learned of Sandy’s divorce from her also famous singer husband.
“They were such a perfect couple,” her mother had sniffed.
Tina knew nothing about that, but she did take a newfound interest in Chinese pop music. On her way home, sitting on a bus that groaned through the city’s traffic, she put on her headphones and searched the internet for the latest hits. She found a playlist made by a karaoke chain in Taiwan featuring their most sung songs of the month. For the first time since leaving home, she felt connected to a place—if not physically, then at least in her mind. While she had enjoyed the music of her college days and could actually understand all the lyrics, it was precisely the difficulty in understanding that hooked her now. The breakthrough moments when, after listening to a song enough times, a phrase suddenly became clear—each of these moments a tiny miracle of someone’s words on the other side of the world reaching her. And a reminder of those minivan rides from long ago, dozing off to this kind of music.
The only problem was that she did the bulk of her listening during work, where the music became the background to her fingers clacking on a mechanical keyboard, stringing together code into its own symphony.
Until now, we have neglected this aspect of Tina Yu’s life, and so we must once again return to that informative childhood period. Specifically, to when she was playing dodgeball in middle school gym, where her strategy was to get out as quickly as possible by stepping to the front lines, an easy target, and attracting three dodgeballs at once. But she betrayed herself. Something kicked in at the last moment: a sudden desire to live, to not go down in a heap of dodgeballs. Instead of taking the hit, she extended her hand, her cello-strengthened fingers approaching a glorious catch—when she jammed her index finger and could not play the cello for weeks.
Those weeks of mandated time off from music yielded a startling amount of free time in young Tina’s life. While her eldest brother complained about his robotics assignment and went to play basketball instead, Tina tapped nine-fingered at his computer, completing his assignment to make the robot follow a line. Those weeks away from the cello, she built an automatic plant waterer and a robotic mouse for the family cat to chase.
As much as she was a natural at building, it was not much use when it came time for her to find her first job. Call it a tough economy, or gender bias, or the fact that everybody wanted software engineers who worked on big data and big ads and not hardware engineers who worked on small gadgets and robotic rodents. In any case, she ended up in an industry she was not proud of, but which had a wealth of hardware needs: national defense. They made her give up her dual US-Taiwan citizenship, extracting just the part they found in harmony with their work and tossing the discordant parts away. They made her list the names of all her relatives in foreign countries and every time she traveled out of the country in the last ten years.
The security clearance officer looked at the long list of trips to Taiwan and asked, “Did you really need to go so often?”
“I had a lot of funerals to attend,” Tina said honestly, and the officer let her go, so long as she reported all of her future travel plans months in advance. She told him he need not worry; she did not have nearly enough vacation days to go to Taiwan anymore.
In her first year at the job, she worked quietly and obediently, without any music. But when her office mate started blatantly streaming movies on his second monitor, she figured it would be fine if she listened to her Chinese music through her headphones. It made her code faster, the music drowning out the action movie soundtracks behind her. And perhaps it really would have been fine, if she had worked in a different industry, or if she herself had been fundamentally a little different.
We must once again return to the refrain of Tina’s childhood in order to understand how she arrived at the groundbreaking invention that became her downfall. For this, we need to travel not only through time but through space. We must follow her across the world to Taiwan, where, back when she had citizenship, she used to go every summer to be eaten alive by mosquitoes yet love her time there all the same. In Taiwan, she could safely take public transportation, see the doctor for every small thing thanks to national health insurance, and of course, sing karaoke.
At first she hated karaoke. Her only exposure to Chinese pop music back then was the Sandy CD. And she did not actually know Sandy’s songs—knew their melodies, sure, but could hardly understand their lyrics, much less read them at the pace of bouncing pixels on the screen. When her cousins pulled up supposedly easy Chinese songs, she had to look them up first, search for their pinyin so that she could sing something. Sometimes she made up words. The great thing about karaoke was that nobody really cared, so she learned to have fun. Eventually, she even began to see something more to it. The way it stilled time when the singer held a note at the climax of a song, trying to match how long the original singer had held their note. The way time seemed to rush back again at the end of a song, after the singer perfectly timed each rapid lyric amid bursts of applause. The way you could queue up a song in the machine for the future, and by the time it came on, you were in the past, in the minivan, with your family, instead of alone in a sterile lab in a faraway city.
The longer she spent away from her family and away from Taiwan, the more the sounds around her dulled. She listened to the same playlist, still full of Sandy, yet no longer new or exciting. Even when she did find new music, she no longer had the motivation to parse the language. The friends she made through work thought karaoke weird and vulnerable. She waited for underfunded buses in the snow and took no vacation days, hoping to one day accumulate enough for a trip across the world.
So, now we have established these crucial facts about Tina Yu: she had a long relationship with Chinese music, she worked for a defense company, she had a weakness for karaoke, and she was unhappy with her present state of being. It should be obvious what her next step was. She built a karaoke time machine.
Since this is not a science article, we will not delve into how the machine worked. Suffice to say that Tina had a Top Secret clearance and access to some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Nobody in the defense industry was looking into karaoke machines. Nobody else saw what Tina saw in them. Nobody else considered that once you sang as one with a singer—the same lyrics, the same harmonies, the same emotional core—you bridged not only words but even time and place. None of them had the same desire she had—to scream into something until she could remember the feeling of belonging and possibility.
She would not risk doing anything dramatic during her first trip back in time, she decided. Her only goal was to see her past. To see if it really had been better, or if she was just overly nostalgic, just going through a natural part of growing up. So, she queued up a Sandy song, the first one on that old minivan CD. She caressed the microphone, brought it to her lips, and then sang just as Sandy had, all those years ago.
But before she could make it to the past, she was caught. As mentioned earlier, she was not careful with her work computer. She was already being monitored for suspicious activity due to all the Chinese videos she was watching. As soon as she turned the karaoke time machine on and one of the infosec guys saw millions of Chinese characters flow into the lab’s secure network, a security guard barged into Tina’s office and tackled her off her ergonomic office chair, her microphone falling to the ground with an amplified cry. The infosec guy severed the karaoke time machine from the network, and somewhere a computer in a server room transmitted the last few bytes of Sandy’s ballad, a final whimper, before being silenced forever.
Every part of the karaoke time machine was destroyed. Tina was brought to her boss, who escalated to his boss, and soon Tina was before court judges and military officers, testifying that she just wanted to listen to her music, to relive happier times, and why would you throw away the promise of something as miraculous as a karaoke time machine?
“Too foreign,” the judge ruled, handing down a severe verdict.
It is not kind what happened to Tina after that. A heavy fine and years of imprisonment. An isolation fiercer than any she could have imagined. Her world became silent. She was separated not only from her friends and family, but also from country and home and all that was once familiar. We will not linger on her misfortune or the loss of her time machine. Instead, we will honor Tina and the life she could have led, with or without a miraculous invention. After all, her story is not unique—her childhood like so many of ours. We will return to the period of Tina’s life she herself was trying to revisit, the one we are already familiar with, the one with the comfort of a much loved chorus.
Tina is thirteen years old. She is in her parents’ minivan. Her index finger is bandaged from her dodgeball injury and her head is swimming with robotics problems discovered on her brother’s computer. Her parents are driving to the airport. The whole family is heading back to Taiwan for the summer, where they will eat stinky tofu and drink bubble tea and burn off all the calories by singing their hearts out at karaoke. During the summer, they will hear about Sandy’s divorce and her mother will cry. But for now, Tina sits in the minivan. The Sandy CD is playing, as always. Her parents hum along and her brothers kick the seats in front of them to the rhythm of the song. Tina cannot understand the lyrics, but that only means they contain every possibility. In the back seat, only she can see her smile in the reflection of the window. She is surrounded by her family, heading to her favorite place in the world, and her future is bright.