Thursday, January 31, 2013

TING AND I, Megawatt Smile, Modesty


I check on Tina in the Tingdom a dozen times a day. If she’s awake, she greets me with what I call her megawatt smile. Bright and lovely. I kid her, telling her it may cause us to get a huge electricity bill. She smiles more. I kiss her on the cheek, loudly, long and gently. To prevent infecting her, we do not kiss on the lips, another loss.

If it’s the afternoon, I ask her whether she wants to get up “sooner” or “later,” and we—the staff and I—are guided by her wish.

We roll her onto a sling, then raise her with a hand-pumped Hoyer hydraulic lift. When we reach our lakeside kitchen, the first order of business is for me to brush her teeth, to keep that megawatt smile bright. We do it with a minimum of toothpaste and water, to reduce the risk of aspiration. Next will be chatting, watching TV, having me read to her. After an hour, it’s back to bed. Once a day, every day.


When I suggested calling this memoir The Ting and I, Tina demurred. “THE Ting” seemed grandiose to her. Ting and I would be okay. She never was showy. Even her Christmas lights needed to be subdued, not “gaudy, gaudy, gaudy,” as she characterized some neighbors’ dazzling displays. Tina Han Su, reserved.

Confident in her own self-worth, Tina is still modest. A compliment will be acknowledged, but with the equivalent of “You are too kind.” It is, she tells me, a Chinese thing. Praise a Chinese cook’s elegant and lavish dinner, and she may reply that she just “threw it together.” It is hard not to like.

Rather than keeping up with the Joneses or showing off, the tendency is not to embarrass the Joneses by making them look lesser in comparison. No conspicuous consumption, generally.

Of course, not all Chinese behave this way, but it is traditional.

One principle of Chinese interpersonal behavior is not to lose face nor cause the other person to do so. Objections or refusals are stated obliquely. It can be hard for an American to sort out. Concern for public appearance can be excessively other-directed and stultifying, but it helps produce polite behavior,

It was likely the second year of our “going steady” that I got the Debate Association to go along with entering Tina into the Fall, or Spring Weekend, Queen competition. She looked lovely in her Chinese high-collared dress, but she had arranged to downplay her lovely figure, modestly. She knew her figure was “not bad,” in her own words. She had understated, I knew. About fifty girls competed, and Tina was in the top 25 but did not make the second cut. Since the affair was run by the fraternities and sororities, Tina was a long shot. Being Asian may not have been a plus, either. What sting there might have been in not winning was gone when we noted that the clearly prettiest girl in the competition, a knockout of a blond, did not even make the top 25. We told that girl that we thought she should have won.

One time we were in my room in the house I shared with several other guys, on Wyckoff Avenue. My room was actually a converted porch, had a nice view, with windows on the ground floor. That evening, a housemate (with a date) came in the front door, and Tina and I climbed out the porch window. We could have said “Hi,” but sneaking out seemed even better. Modesty? High spirits? Both.

In her current situation, Tina has been a good sport about being undressed so many times daily by so many different nurses for her personal care. Excessive modesty in that regard could have been a major problem.

Modesty loses out to pride when Tina starts talking about her family’s education or my family’s. It’s a Chinese thing.

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