Saturday, September 8, 2012


From Ting and I: A Memoir...


Although I was born first, fourteen months earlier, as I like to remind her, I’ll start with Tina’s entry into the world. She would insist that I go first, but I often tell her, “We can’t both go last.”

Her nurses and I have marveled at Tina’s inner strength, her tenacity and her good cheer despite her paralysis and dependence on a ventilator and gastric tube feeding. Her early childhood provides some clues to that strength, suggesting cultural, familial, and genetic contributions.

Kunming, China

Su Ting-Ting was born April 3, 1944, in Kunming, a medium-sized city in southwestern China. The second child and second daughter of Mrs. S. T. C. and Dr. G. J. Su, she began life during the Second World War. Her father, having earned a Sc.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was running a factory that manufactured gasohol motor fuel. Her mother had trained as a chemist, but was concentrating on raising her elder daughter, Irene, who was then recovering from typhoid fever, and caring for her newborn little girl, Ting-Ting. Times were difficult in that overcrowded city during the war. “May you live in interesting times” is said to be a Chinese curse. These were interesting times. This family was equal to the challenge.

G. J. (Gouq-Jen) Su

Tina’s father had earned his M.I.T. doctorate by working feverishly during the few years initially thought sufficient only for obtaining his master’s degree there. He had won a national scholarship for studying in the U.S. that was awarded to a select few. He was eager to finish up, not only because of his limited finances, but also because his wife-to-be, S.T. Chiao (now more commonly spelled Qiao), awaited his return.

Once Dr. Su returned from America, the two were married. Mrs. Su left the security of her wealthy family for a life of considerably less luxury and, as it would turn out, less security as well. During the Kunming years, her younger daughter Irene was told, Mrs. Su would commandeer her husband’s pay, saving some of it in gold bullion, a prudent policy that shielded the family from the terrible inflation (roughly 200 percent per year) of Chinese currency in this period. Luckily, some of Dr. Su’s wages were being set aside for him in America, as he was assisting China’s U.S. allies.

S. T. C. Su

Mrs. Su, born Chiao Shou-Tsung, was the third of six children born into the highly successful, very wealthy Chiao merchant family. The family compound, expropriated by the Communists after their 1949 victory over the Nationalists, is now a national museum known as the Qiao Family Compound, with some 300-plus rooms, 14 courtyards and the lavishly decorative architecture that such wealth can provide. Chiao Shou-Tsung was highly intelligent and highly independent, with a practical side and an artistic talent evident from the elegant watercolors that now grace the homes of her descendants. She had met her future husband when she was a student—and he an instructor—at Tsing Hua, China’s pre-eminent university, analogous to America’s M.I.T.

Mrs. Su showed an independence of mind at a very early age. About five, she tested the superstition that it was unlucky to wash one’s feet on New Year’s Eve by deliberately washing her feet that evening, then waiting on the front steps to see if anything bad happened. From then on, we are told, she had a healthy skepticism about much that was being instilled in her by the culture in which she was immersed. Certainly leaving her wealthy family to marry “beneath her station” and then moving to America shortly after the war showed that independent streak. On the other hand, in Rochester she was the one to mow the lawn, while Dr. Su sipped tea in their kitchen. Independence went only so far.



In the autumn of 1946, the family flew into Calcutta, there to board a ship for a vacation, and perhaps relocation, in America. Tina—then the year-and-a-half-old “Ting-Ting”—reports that she “learned to walk on the ship.” Irene, four years older, found her own diversions. The family visited Washington, DC, and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Dr. Su worked briefly for Seagram distilleries. In 1947, he joined the faculty of the University of Rochester, teaching chemical engineering. Eugene Su, third child, first son, and five years younger than Tina, was born in Rochester. Over the years, Dr. Su rose through the academic ranks, becoming a full professor, and retiring in 1974 as a professor emeritus, having supervised 33 masters and 14 doctoral students. A Su Scholarship Fund and Su Distinguished Lectureship series have been established in his honor.

Tina Han Su

A few years after their arrival in Rochester, the Su family became naturalized U.S. citizens. The name on Tina’s certificate reads “Tina Han Su,” as it does on her Cornell A.B. and her Harvard M.A. diplomas, both obtained with distinction. “Han”? The name means “reserved,” in the sense of quiet and contemplative. She was not given that name at birth, being simply “Ting-Ting.” It was chosen much later, to convey a truth about her. She was—and remains—thoughtful, considerate, deliberate, taking her words and yours quite literally. When she knows you are joking, she laughs easily and enthusiastically, but it is not her first inclination.

“Han” (not meaning “reserved”) is also the name given to China’s dominant ethnic group, formerly heavily represented among the country’s elite. Mrs. Su was from that stock. Dr. Su less clearly so. Those of Han ancestry have a barely concealed pride in it.

At home, she was “Ting.” I use this name when I want to emphasize my love for her, as in “my dearest Ting.” She signed many letters to me with it. She’s an American woman with a Chinese flavor. A touch of ginger perhaps?

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