Sunday, February 23, 2014

From TING AND I, Chapter 2, "Apart to Start: 7883 Miles Apart"

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?


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:

Tina excelled in all classes, and I did not—so we saw less of each other during our high school years. Fortunately, we have kept our contact with each other. We wrote many letters, and heard each other’s ‘news’ of our lives. Tina went on to college at Cornell University ... I went to work at Rochester Gas and Electric.
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:

Entering in January was very difficult [for me], as students had their “clicks” and groups and had been together since grade school. I have to say that Tina was the first person to actually talk with me….she was friendly, beautiful, smart, well rounded, and she made me feel welcome. As the semester continued, we had a few classes together where we got to know each other better. She was so interesting, and we found we had many things in common. Tina had a depth and value to the discussions we had and the way she did things. She wasn’t your typical teen talking about frivolous, trivial things, but rather a strong, cultured individual. She was much wiser and more mature than the majority of the class. I truly enjoy and appreciate this about her. We enjoyed some serious debates over a variety of topics. I knew Tina was going to succeed in whatever she decided to do.

Tina was school newspaper editor, National Honor Society member, valedictorian, class president, accomplished pianist, a lovely, quiet, kind, thoughtful young woman.

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.


“Pride precedes the fall,” the Bible warns us.

And pride in one’s ancestry can slide into ethnocentrism, especially among new arrivals to this country.

To be politically correct, we are very careful not to imply that one group is better or worse than another. The groups themselves are often allowed or encouraged to exhibit pride—be it black pride, Chicano pride, or gay pride. Don’t try to exhibit WASP pride, however. Pride can become a problem, despite its utility in preserving self-esteem. Tina’s family’s pride in being of Chinese ancestry insulated them from accusations of inferiority, but it obviously prevented them from welcoming her marriage to me when we were of college age.

In the spring of 1964, Tina’s parents visited my family in Rosendale, New York. Everyone was cordial, proper, nice. But both sets of parents were not eager for this relationship to progress to marriage. My parents emphasized to me the added problems for any children we might have, and thus also for the parents, of an interracial union. Tina’s parents indicated that she would be better off finding a nice Chinese boy. Both sets of parents held views that were not quite racist, yet both sets frowned on the pairing.

No doubt, similarity in background helps marriages succeed. Opposites may attract, but misunderstandings may more easily arise. “Stick to your own kind” has its rationale. But “kind” is hard to define. I jokingly say that a “mixed marriage” is one between a man and a woman, given the different ways each gender tends to approach life.

Recent statistics show that today about half of Asian Americans marry Caucasians. Tina’s second marriage was to one (me). Gene’s marriage was to one (Christy). Irene’s second marriage was to one (Bob). Irene’s elder daughter, Stephanie, married one (John). Irene’s ex-husband (Hing) married one (Therese). There’s a pattern there, although some of it may be simple statistics: with a few As and a lot of Cs you’ll get, if picking pairs merely at random, very few AA pairs, more AC pairs and mostly CCs. Minority parents (such as Asians or Jews in America) often fear that the AC pairs will no longer carry on the virtues and traditions that their parents prize.

The results of parental pressure? Limiting the options available to their children, or potential estrangement when children choose to go against parental advice.

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