Midpeninsula Post

Under the elderly exterior: Tomoki Chien does it all

Chien and Howmiller pose on the track for a pre-prom photoshoot. (Courtesy Jake Howmiller)

Note: This article belongs to a collection of features of the Post’s staff members in the graduating Class of 2022.

Tomoki Chien’s just finished sprinting at track practice, and now, he’s popped on a collar and hopped into his VW Golf for a marathon of its own: a Mountain View-Los Altos School District board meeting.

At first, the recent Los Altos High School graduate seems like any old overachiever. He runs track and cross country, takes photos for the yearbook, is a part-time photographer for the district, is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Midpeninsula Post and was Los Altos High School’s homecoming king. But surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s more to him.

“He’s got like, two different sides,” best friend Jake Howmiller said. “He’s like super businessman one moment and then the next, he switches and he’s this super goofy guy.”

Chien maintains excellent posture while playing Bananagrams at a Midpeninsula Post meeting in June 2022. (Melody Xu)

Chien’s got a lot on his plate. So how does he do it all? According to Los Altos rising senior and girlfriend Megan MacKenzie, “He just does it.”

“[When] we do homework together, I’ll be like ‘Okay, I’m gonna take a 10-minute nap” and then I’ll do one assignment,” MacKenzie said. “[Tomo] just sits there the whole time and then in like 45 minutes, he’s like ‘Okay, done. Let’s go do something.’”

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, hands down,” Howmiller said. “I could never live his lifestyle. It’s impressive. This guy goes into his house in the ‘Hobbit Hills,’ works in his insanely clean room — which I don’t understand either — and he does more in one hour than I’ve seen entire companies do in days, which is beyond me.”

Chien’s hard work and charisma have racked him up a mob of adoring fans; at this point, he might even be considered Los Altos High School’s very own celebrity. MacKenzie said that in just one walk across campus together, Chien typically says hi to upwards of 10 people.

“Anytime someone reposts one of his posts or something it’s always like ‘From the GOAT Tomo’ [and] ‘We love Tomo so much,’” MacKenzie said. “I mean I love him too.”

Chien makes dinner at the MacKenzie house once a week; these are his “burger bowls.” (courtesy Megan MacKenzie)

It’s all for a good reason: Not only does Chien manage to do everything he loves most, he somehow does it all well.

“I feel like [for] most people there’ll be something that they’re really good at,” MacKenzie said. “But he does so much. And he’s so good at all of it. And he makes time for all of it. It’s very impressive.”

“He’s very true to himself,” said Set Sato, Chien’s mom. “He never lies, and he doesn’t bend his way. He’s so freaking stubborn, but he’ll do what he thinks is right.”

And if what’s right is fighting for the right to ditch Los Altos High School’s “open campus” during Academic Collaboration time for Jamba Juice, that’s exactly what Chien will do.

“He goes to the principal and he’s like ‘This is outrageous. I’m just leaving,’” MacKenzie said. “So he starts walking out. But then there’s a gate and there’s [administrator] Ms. Julie and her golf cart there. And she’s like ‘You can’t go,’ and he’s like ‘I’m leaving.’ So he throws his backpack over the fence in front of her and just jumps over the fence.”

MacKenzie said Chien later apologized to the administrators. He’s somewhat of a conscientious rulebreaker.

“He’s very headstrong,” Sato said. “So he doesn’t listen to us or anything. He just tells us after he makes decisions.”

Chien’s made all his major life decisions like this, like turning down the opportunity to play hockey competitively on the East Coast; quitting Los Altos High School’s newspaper, the Talon; and choosing to not use a private college counselor. 

A young Chien smiles at the camera. (courtesy Set Sato)

He’s also either ridiculously humble or embarrassed about his achievements; Sato said Chien typically neglects to tell her about them, and, more often than not, she finds out through her friends. 

“He came to the kitchen and he said ‘Yeah, I’m supposed to give a speech in like an hour and I don’t know what I’m going to say,’” Sato said. “He didn’t elaborate, but all I know is my phone blew up because people who knew me and Tomo from middle school and elementary school, the moms are texting me saying ‘Oh my god are you seeing your son give this speech? He’s amazing.’”

Still, when it comes to important decisions, Chien tries to keep everyone on the same page.

“He’s really good about sitting us down and saying, Listen, this is what I think? Do you have any questions or concerns?” Mrs. Chien said. 

And Chien has had that same candor since before he could read.

“I remember him going to kindergarten and he’s like telling everyone ‘Oh yeah I’m illiterate,” Sato said. “It’s weird that [he knew] the word, like, what a weird kid. … None of the kids knew what illiterate meant.”

Sato captioned this one “Smiling is the hardest thing for me to do.” (courtesy Set Sato)

Chien’s now quite a capable reader — and, he’s managed to surpass many of his peers in another aspect.  

“He’s a very good driver,” Howmiller said. “He’s one of the best drivers; I feel very safe in the car with him.”

In fact, Chien’s such a good driver that other people’s bad driving can leave him feeling frustrated, to say the least.

“While driving, he gets road rage because everyone else is worse than him at driving,” Howmiller said. “So he yells at everyone else. But I mean, I guess if the world was run by Tomo it would be a lot better.”

Driving isn’t the only thing that sets Chien apart from his peers. He’s seemingly got it all: he’s smart, talented, kind, occasionally funny and impresses all the ladies and lads by dressing like a 45-year-old man.

Chien poses for a photo with his brother at his Los Altos High School graduation. (courtesy Set Sato)

“It’s not your casual normal teenager look, and he irons — he irons — on Sunday night,” Sato told us. “What teenage boy does that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know how it happened. Some of his friends say, ‘You dress like a grandpa.’”

But behind his elderly exterior lies someone truly special.

“He really sees all,” Sato said. “He observes people and situations and he’s got a really good handle on people and their personalities and their motivation, and within that, he’s pretty good at finding humor.”

“He means a lot to me,” Howmiller said. “He’s like one of the most genuine people I’ve met. There are people who you just respect — You just meet them and you just respect what they do and who they are and they’re just good people. That’s gotta be Tomo.”

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