In the second semester of my junior year, when I fell in love with Tina, I had to tell Ellen that she and I were through: “It’s not you, it’s me” or, more correctly, “...it’s Tina.”
Tina Han Su, the girl originally from Kunming, China, and Douglas Winslow Cooper, the boy originally from Manhattan, met in the course Chinese 102 on the first day of the second semester at Cornell, in January 1963. In retrospect, it seems miraculous, life-altering, for both of us.
The so-sophisticated and experienced upperclassman was enchanted immediately. Beautiful, slender, refined, soft-spoken, smart, Tina was his Platonic ideal of femininity. Quiet, with a bright smile and an easy laugh. Nothing crude, nothing coarse, somewhat shy, not quite a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (Churchill on the Soviet Union) but–yes, it’s a cliché –initially a bit inscrutable. Blouse and skirt were her standard attire, rather unrevealing, modest.
I asked her out for a “coffee date” with me at the student union—a traditional way at Cornell to start. Did she drink tea? Did I? Can’t recall. The lovely face, the soft but confident voice, the delicate hands, the just-right lips, flawless light tan skin, jet-black hair, and adorable nose, the brains coupled with modesty. The more I learned, the more I liked. Her family was quite educated, and they were Republicans, my brand. She played the piano seriously and exceptionally well. She herself was serious but happy, at ease. I thought maybe she liked me.
She says she liked my sense of humor and my intelligence. I liked to joke. Tina liked to laugh. It was a good match.
So considerate. I had little money, as she knew. One early date, we walked downtown to a movie. It was late and cold, and I suggested a cab for the trip back. She would not hear of it. Later, Tina would carry out some of her prepaid lunches from her dorm to share with me at nearby Noyes Lodge, overlooking the small and scenic Beebe Lake.
Diplomatic almost to a fault, Tina would find the nicest way to express her disagreement. It took time for me to learn to translate the hint of an objection to mean she really didn’t agree or didn’t want what was proposed. “Not necessary” or “you needn’t bother” often meant “not wanted.”
We’ll back up a bit here before we continue. Tina’s very close friend, Elaine Tashiro Gerbert writes about the young woman Tina was during her first semester at Cornell (a longer version of Elaine’s memoir can be found in the “Tributes” section at the end of this book):
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 l960s, one was an anomalous presence in an environment that was grand, imposing, and sometimes forbidding….
[Tina] 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….Her dress was subdued…I now realize her mother’s influence and the taste of a Chinese gentlewoman with scholarly inclinations in her clothes….
Tina was a disciplined person. Her manner was soft and she was kind to others. But strict with herself….
Years later, fellow Cornellian Georgia Paul remembered Tina 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 sorority 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.
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.
to be continued