In one of the tributes at the end of this book, Nancy Meisenzahl sheds light on the Tina of their high school years, as well as on the period following their graduation. Here is an excerpt:
While Tina was at Cornell, she mentioned a wonderful friend she had. This young man’s name was Doug Cooper. Tina had expressed concern because he was not of Chinese descent and her parents probably would not approve of her choice.... I cannot remember all the particulars surrounding this relationship, but I do remember Tina’s being horribly saddened to have to leave Doug and continue on with her life.
Classmate Mary Kay Solera offers this portrait of Tina in high school:
Tina was school newspaper editor, National Honor Society member, valedictorian, class president, accomplished pianist, a lovely, quiet, kind, thoughtful young woman.
OUTSIDE AND ABOVE
Tina and Irene, and possibly Eugene, often felt like outsiders, coming from one of the very few Chinese American families in the Rochester, NY, area at that time. But in contrast to some members of other minority groups, they did not feel themselves to be in any way inferior to the Caucasian majority. If anything, there was a sense of innate superiority that softened the impact of any slights done to them because of their Asian ancestry.
In reading Elaine Tashiro Gerbert’s recollections of Tina (see “Tributes,” at the end of the book), I’m struck by the difference in their experience or in their responses to their experience. Elaine was highly aware of anti-Japanese or anti-Asian feeling around her. Tina was not. Some people may have distinguished between Elaine’s Japanese and Tina’s Chinese ancestry, leading to some disparity in treatment. Both women were very smart and very pretty. That’s not the difference. Tina had been high school valedictorian, something she earned, and high school president, something her peers bestowed on her. At Cornell, she was invited to join all of the sororities she had “rushed” (visited), another indication of the favorable response she received from non-Asians at school. As a pair, she and I received some stares, but no hostile act ever, and we were accorded genuine hospitality at “our” fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi. Some of the credit for differences in treatment and for differences in perception about that treatment must go to Tina’s personality. She radiated a quiet, good-natured confidence in herself and in others.
The year I graduated from high school, 1960, the student in New York State with the highest New York Regents Scholarship test results was Steven Chinn of Middletown, almost certainly Asian American. When he decided to go to college outside of New York State, I became eligible for the Regents scholarship to Cornell University that he had forfeited. Such scholarships were awarded to New York State students who scored exceptionally well on special exams given to all high school seniors, but the funds had to be used in-state. I note that today, in a competitive exam recently given in New York City, Asian Americans still excel. Half the Asian American students reached the highest level, a quarter of the whites, and roughly an eighth of the blacks and Hispanics.
I recall results of intelligence testing done in Japan: their student population was roughly a standard deviation above a European student population on a corresponding test. This means that 84 percent of them were at or above the 50th percentile for those of European ancestry. Nature or nurture? Probably some of both.
Until the post-World War II era, the Chinese most Americans came in contact with, if any, were generally from the laboring classes, often poorly educated and from the southern provinces. Unless they were well-spoken, they were likely assumed to be relatively unintelligent. These days, as more than one Chinese American I know has noted, the assumption is that if you are Asian, you are probably smarter than average.
It is no surprise that the Su children—having highly educated parents, and being themselves smart, attractive, talented—handled what discrimination they experienced as though they were above it.
Irene was admitted to all five top-caliber colleges to which she applied, choosing to go to Cornell to help save family funds for the subsequent schooling of Tina and Gene. (The Cornell option was less expensive because Irene received a New York State Regents Scholarship, applicable only to in-state schools, as well as a tuition waiver through an exchange program with the University of Rochester, where Dr. Su was on the faculty.)
Eventually, Irene became a dentist and, after that, an orthodontist.
Tina was accepted at almost every one of the top schools to which she applied, choosing Cornell partly on financial grounds, too. She had been class president her senior year, indicating that any negative feelings about her race that may have existed were overwhelmed by general approval of her personal characteristics and her achievements.
Eugene attended a private high school and went on to Brown University and medical school. He eventually became a rheumatologist.
Talent, parental example and encouragement, personal strength –all played roles in the Su children’s successful transitions to adulthood.