From Ting and I: A Memoir...
A tribute to Tina Su Cooper by ELAINE TASHIRO GERBERT
Elaine has been one of Tina’s closest friends since they met at Cornell in the fall of 1962. A member of the University of Kansas faculty, she was recently honored for twenty years of service to the school. Here she describes Tina during times when Tina and I were apart and later when we were together. Her contribution is greatly appreciated.
I first saw Tina the day I moved into Clara Dickson Hall VI at Cornell, in September 1962. It was in the lounge area of the dorm, where there was a grand piano. She was playing something (which she later told me was Schubert) that sounded terribly complicated and difficult—a waterfall of notes that kept coming–compared to the Turkish Rondo by Mozart that I had played at my second and last piano recital two or three years before. (I was very surprised to learn just recently, from reading the advance copy of other sections of this book, that Tina had played a concerto with an orchestra! In all the years that I’d known her, she never mentioned that astonishing achievement. What is also notable is that her first husband, who was Chinese, never mentioned it once it in the many times my husband and I spent in his and Tina’s company. It is typical of well-bred people of societies influenced by Confucian values to not call attention to their achievements or those of their family members.)
I don’t quite remember when we first talked, but I know it must have been in the dorm, for her corridor and mine were adjoining. I think we were on the top floor (sixth?) of the dorm. Unlike Donlon Hall, where students shared rooms, we in Dickson had single rooms. They were small, just large enough for a single bed, a dresser, a desk, a small bookshelf, a closet, and a chair. I remember spending part of the first Sunday at Cornell sitting on the windowsill of my room reading a book by a well-known scholar (Kitto?) on the Greeks for a Western history class. I read it self-consciously and conscientiously, looking even at the page with the publication information, something I had never done in high school. This was big time. Not just college but CORNELL University! With so many in the freshman class coming from downstate, New York City and Long Island, where people seemed so much more sophisticated and knowing than many of us from small towns in upstate New York, Cornell was awesome. I felt like and was a small-town girl with a tiny repertoire of social skills.
Tina and I noticed each other right away. There were few Asians at Cornell in 1962, and none from upstate New York, except us. Moreover, she was from an area not far from my hometown of Geneva. I recall being introduced to her parents and older sister in the lounge area. Her sister smiled at me with kind interest. As an Asian in a virtually all-white university in the early 1960s, one was an anomalous presence in an environment that was grand, imposing, and sometimes forbidding. Later that fall, I saw Tina and her brother running across the lawn in front of the dorm. She may have been chasing him. That they could have felt so at ease as to play like that on Cornell grounds surprised me. I could tell that they had a special bond, that they really liked each other. And that surprised me, as my brother and I would never have played like that in public. We didn’t have that kind of relationship or that kind of ease in American society. The consciousness of the Second World War and our Nisei parents’ enemy status and internment was branded too deeply in us to permit such spontaneous displays of sibling affection.
Tina and I often saw each other in the dorm, and to this day I remember well her appearance then. She was slender and fair-skinned, wore her fine, black hair about chin length. She dressed simply, and her clothes were well made and different from the store-bought skirts and blouses that a lot of the young women wore. Understated elegance might be a way to describe them. She seemed not to have many outfits. She often wore a dark blue full skirt with a bright pink blouse that set her complexion off nicely (she had rosy cheeks and her lipstick was rose red). She wore a wide, soft, black leather belt that had a large buckle in the front. Her skirt was longish and her black shoes were flat. She also had a dark coat, I believe, with a large, round soft collar that complemented her face very nicely. Her dress was subdued. I now realize her mother’s influence and the taste of a Chinese gentlewoman with scholarly inclinations in her clothes.
I would sometimes see Tina in the corridor bathroom in the morning or just before bedtime. She wore a white terry-cloth bathrobe and brushed her teeth vigorously. (Georgia Paul on my corridor sometimes scrubbed her face with laundry detergent. Young women can be very determined when it comes to keeping themselves clean.)
Tina was a disciplined person. Her manner was soft and she was kind to others. But strict with herself. She restricted her intake of sweets because, as she said, they were not good for you. (I think I probably kept cookies in my room.) She held herself to a high standard. She told me that she would not ever engage in certain kinds of behavior, not because it would be wrong according to religious principles, but because it would hurt her parents.
Years later, Georgia Paul remembered Tina Su as being “a cut above the rest of us.” Of the Chinese women students at Cornell at the time, she seemed more mature, more refined, wiser, and fundamentally surer of herself and her values. She made an impression on Caucasians. In the spring of 1963, she went through rush because she wanted to experience it, although she did not intend to join a sorority. I heard someone say that Tina Su had received an invitation to join from every single sorority that she had visited.
Tina was studying Chinese and had papers with brush-written Chinese characters hanging from the walls of her room. She dated Chinese men. Bob Tzu, I think was the name of one. And another was Victor, a sophomore who was killed in a traffic accident returning to Ithaca after Thanksgiving break. (She was not outwardly upset by Victor’s death. It must have been a great shock, but she was philosophical about it. It made her think about the meaning of life. I recall her challenging me by asking if I ever thought about death.)
She seemed to have a date every Saturday night. On one occasion she went out with a Caucasian student named Rick who was a friend of a woman in my corridor. I recall Moneen telling someone that Rick felt that Tina was uneasy about going out with a non-Chinese man. I also heard that she was criticized by the people in the Chinese student community for doing so.
One spring day in 1963 some of us were walking down the Balch Hall sidewalk on the way to class when all of a sudden two people holding hands rushed past us, flying down the steps. They moved like birds and seemed full of joy. It was Tina and a guy, whom Georgia Paul pronounced as “cute.” On another occasion Tina told me about a poem sent her by an admirer who saw her in the library. It was a poem about “the girl in the red sweater.” I don’t know if the author was Doug or someone else. On another occasion a male student whom she didn’t know saw her photo in the freshman directory and called her up for a date out of the blue.
I left Cornell after my freshman year and transferred to UC Berkeley because my parents had moved to Riverside, California. Tina and I corresponded a bit. Her last letter came as she was about to go to England to study. She commented on how frighteningly similar our lives were (although I thought they were quite different).
I remember calling Tina’s home in Rochester around the year 1967 as she was getting ready for her wedding. I spoke briefly with her mother but could not speak with Tina as the ceremony was drawing nigh and people were intensely engaged in the preparations. Her mother seemed excited and proud that her daughter was marrying a University of Chicago scientist.
Then, in the fall of 1969, shortly after I had entered the graduate program in Japanese in the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Chicago, I was walking through the library in the card-catalogue section when who should I see but Tina!! She was walking with a quick, light step and looked very slender and smart in her nice clothes (she always wore skirts or dresses). She had had a recent haircut. It was such a surprise to meet again like that. She was then working in the East Asian library.
At Thanksgiving time, Pierre, whom I would later marry, came out to Chicago to visit; Tina and her husband invited us to their apartment for dinner. Pierre and K were drawn to each other and became good friends. As K later said, they were both foreigners in America. Both were highly intelligent, excitable and high-strung. They reacted quickly to things and laughed a lot. I believe that they shared an understanding of life. We spent many pleasant times in Chicago with K and Tina. There was always laughter as Pierre and K spurred each other to laugh when they were together. They seemed to find relief in each other’s company.
K worked very hard, spending long hours in his lab. He had to perform in a foreign culture, and Tina helped him a lot, writing and editing his reports and doing a multitude of other things for him. She took her role as a wife seriously and did her best to be a responsible helpmate.
When I finished my MA degree in 1972, Tina and K did something for me that astonished me. They organized a party in their apartment to celebrate the occasion. Tina had me invite all the people I thought should be invited, and they prepared a table of foods and drinks and opened their home to strangers. I was wondering whether I should invite my advisor, Mr. McClellan, who was like a god at the time. Would he actually deign to come? Tina said, of course, you must invite him. So I did. He said he would have to consult with his wife, who kept their social calendar, and of course they were busy and did not come. But it was a good thing to invite him. McClellan had met Tina earlier. She had interviewed for the job of administrative assistant in his department (he was chair) when she first arrived at Chicago. He remembered her well, telling me that she was very pretty but overqualified for the position.
One early summer day in the early 1970s, we met for lunch in the cafeteria on campus. Tina came dressed in navy blue slacks and clogs. She was wearing a light blue shirt with a navy blue sweater or sweatshirt on top, but the sleeves were short so that the shirtsleeves were exposed. It was the first (and last) time I had ever seen her in slacks. She said, “I must look like a field hand.” It was funny, because Tina could never look like a field hand. Even in this garb, she looked delicate and refined. Another piece of clothing I remember well is a long, gold winter coat with a black herringbone pattern. It was closely fitted and was striking with her dark hair.
By the beginning of my third year in Chicago, I knew that Tina was under a lot of pressure. K would sleep in the evening after dinner and then get up after midnight and begin working in the lab. He’d then come home and sleep again until it was time to prepare for his classes. The schedule left little time for socializing and relaxation as a couple. One time I and a few other graduate students were eating lunch in a dining hall in the building where Tina had her office. She was then working on a project dealing with American Indians for the Encyclopedia Britannica. I saw Tina and K having lunch together at another table. Later, Tina asked me about my lunch companions. I sensed or imagined that she missed that kind of life, where a group of graduate students meet for lunch and natter away. She was working on the EB project but it seemed to be a kind of stopgap measure, something to do to be busy and productive. I think she would have been happier if she could have plunged herself in work for a Ph.D. in Chinese studies, in a field closer to her heart. I wonder if she thought that her duty to K came first and that she ought not to give herself to her own studies. She was serious about the project and attended an Indian powwow. Later, K said that he could still hear the tom-toms beating in his head.
Living in Hyde Park was not easy. The neighborhoods were not safe, so one could not easily leave the apartment high rise to stroll about at will. I believe that Tina felt trapped in that physical environment. Their apartment was up high, and living far from the ground is not healthy. (My cousin, a physical therapist, recently attended a workshop in which the importance of having physical contact with the ground for physical and psychological well-being was stressed.) Once, Tina telephoned me on a late Sunday afternoon. Pierre and I had just come back from a long walk. I think she wished she could have been out that afternoon instead of shut up in the apartment while K was in the lab. I wish I had thought to invite her to join us on our meandering strolls.
Tina had spent time in Taiwan, but I don’t think she particularly enjoyed the experience. She wasn’t fluent in Chinese and was treated as an outsider. One day she saw an enormous rat in the kitchen of the family house and she screamed. It was not appreciated by the family. Relations with her mother-in-law did not appear to be warm. On one occasion she had been very upset when her mother-in-law visited them in Chicago and without asking, took it upon herself to rearrange the contents of her kitchen cupboards. (They also traveled in Japan, and she seemed to like it very much. She told me that she had had her hair cut in a Japanese beauty shop and that one of the other customers asked that her hair be cut the same way.)
I was in their kitchen one day when they opened a can of peaches, and one of them thought it looked or smelled funny. They immediately threw it away. At the time, I thought it was a rather extreme reaction. Now in retrospect, that was the first sign of the concern for health that would grow more pronounced as problems with health came to dominate their lives. (The problems became full blown after Pierre and I had left Chicago.) It was health problems that turned their second European vacation sour. K had to be hospitalized because of food poisoning when they were in Italy. He told us that Tina with her quick thinking had saved his life. (Pierre also remarked on Tina’s quick thinking and efficiency one day when she took a telephone message.)
When we were about to leave Hyde Park for Japan in late summer 1973, Tina was pregnant. On one of our last evenings in Chicago, she invited us for supper. We had Kentucky Fried Chicken and petit fours. We went into the nursery that they had prepared, and she showed me the things she had bought. They didn’t know if it would be a boy or a girl so the baby things were yellow. Ducky yellow. She had even bought safety pins with plastic heads. I was impressed by her forethought. It was so characteristic of her to be organized and to think and plan ahead. Needless to say, their apartment was always immaculate.
We corresponded while we were in Japan . In her letter Tina said that she was painting the apartment and that the work was therapy for her soul. I knew that she was in deep distress.
We stopped in Chicago to pick up our things in storage after our year in Kamakura. I have a photo taken of the four of us sitting side by side on their couch. Tina was then quite pregnant. I remember her telling K to photograph her from the neck up. We are all smiling in the photo, happy to be together, and happy over the coming of their first child.
We visited them in Chicago when the Association for Asian Studies had its meeting there in March 1978. We were then living in Iowa City. They had moved into another high-rise apartment and were experiencing great aggravation over carpenters who had begun making the kitchen over but hadn’t returned to finish the job on schedule. The dinner that Tina prepared for us that evening was elaborate, with many meat dishes. She kept getting up from the dining table to go into the kitchen to stir fry yet another dish. Teddy, then around 3, was seated to her right. She sat up very straight in her chair and coached him carefully, telling him to close his mouth when he chewed. He was a beautiful little boy with perfect features. He looked a lot like his mother. After dinner we sat in the living room. Pierre and K carried on as usual. Tina looked tired. She seemed disengaged and depressed.
When we were living in Tempe, Arizona, in the early 1980s, we didn’t receive the usual Christmas card from Tina and K. She always sent the card and always signed K’s name first and hers second. Pierre telephoned their apartment and learned about the difficult divorce.
In the mid 1990s I learned about Tina’s MS and felt devastated by the appalling news. Pierre said that in Chicago oftentimes Tina had a kind of halo around her head. He attributed it to the electric waves generated by the activity taking place in her nerves. I thought of the many times that Pierre and I had walked into a restaurant and had dinner and so wished that Tina might be able to do that with Doug again.
We saw Tina and met Doug for the first time shortly thereafter, when we were in NYC and took the train down to Ramsey. At that time she still had use of her left hand. We all had dinner that day at the dining table. Chinese take-out, followed by ice cream. Tina then had her parakeet, Amy.
The next time I saw her, she was living in Walden and had suffered greatly. She was wearing sunglasses because the light hurt her eyes. She tilted her head and reassured me, “It’s Tina. I’m still here. I’m still the same person you knew forty-four years ago.” One of the first things she did was to make sure I had eaten lunch. And then she wanted me to walk around the lake with Doug, to be sure to enjoy the lake. This was in the fall of 2006, after my mother died in April. I remember a telephone conversation I had with Tina early that year when my mother’s cancer returned and she was getting progressively worse. Tina told me to pray. To pray, pray, pray. She knew what she was talking about.
After Pierre died in May 2010, I visited Tina and Doug. Because of her immense suffering, which she bore so stoically, Tina knew what loss and grief felt like, and she consoled me many times over the phone.
The day they took Pierre’s body away, I spent the night on his hospital bed air mattress to see what it was like to sleep there as he had done for the previous six months. It was not pleasant and I could not imagine how he could have stood not leaving that bed a single time throughout 180 days and nights. Tina’s trial was so much greater. Pierre was confined to bed when he was 84 and he enjoyed food and drink up to the end. He had free use of his arms. I don’t know from what depths Tina drew the strength to be as compassionate and courageous through all the years–
over 6,000 days–
in the face of such extreme trials. When I think of her life I have to conclude that in spite of her many losses, she has been loved deeply and she has loved deeply. She has retained her belief that life is good and she has lived profoundly and well.
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