Friday, March 21, 2014

Falling in Love at Cornell


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, “’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):

I first saw Tina the day I moved into Clara Dickson Hall VI at Cornell in September 1962. It was in the lounge area of the dorm, where there was a grand piano. She was playing something (which she later told me was Schubert) that sounded terribly complicated and difficult—a waterfall of notes that kept coming….
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.

Chinese 102

Chinese 102 was the second semester of the double-credit, six-days-a-week introduction to Chinese at Cornell. It met at 8:00 a.m. in the basement of an ivy-covered building. Adorable, cheerful, pint-sized Mrs. Ni taught most of the spoken Chinese lessons, being a native speaker. Miss Mills, attractive, serious, taller and somewhat sterner, a former resident of China, dealt more with the written language and the grammar. The class had eight students and was rather informal. We all were interested in the language and enjoyed the class despite the early hour.

What brought Tina to Chinese 102? What brought me?

Tina and I were both in the College of Arts and Sciences, which had a foreign language requirement. I think that a few years of college language training were sufficient. The first-year courses were typically double courses, so I could meet this requirement by taking a language in my junior and senior years.

Tina entered Cornell in the fall of 1962, as a pre-med student. I had entered in the fall of 1960, intending to major in physics, which met the requirements of some of my scholarship aid. Tina had learned enough spoken Chinese, but not the written language, to skip the first semester–Chinese 101–as long as she worked on the written language on her own, which she had done. She had taken French in high school, but French was no longer the useful, “universal language” it once was; perhaps she could more quickly become proficient in Chinese. (Was there even the thought that she might one day marry someone from China?).

Why was I taking Chinese? I had studied French and Latin in high school and could likely have passed Cornell’s language proficiency test with only another year of college French. But ever since my elementary school years, when I would go a half-dozen city blocks to bring my father’s shirts to the Chinese laundry, I had been fascinated by the little picture-words, ideographs, characters, of the written Chinese language. The people at the laundry, through kindness or merely good business practice, were friendly toward me. My stamp collection and coin collection had many more examples of the cryptic written Chinese. I was curious.

In practical terms, China was a potential world power, though slow to bloom, and my Chinese might lead to an alternate career, if physics did not work out. I did take enough of the language to be able to pursue a master’s degree if I chose to and came very close to enlisting in the U.S. Army to be trained as a Chinese interpreter/translator.

The spoken language, the Mandarin dialect of Peking and of the educated classes, has a simple grammar but is hard for Westerners to master because it has many homonyms whose only distinguishing characteristics are the tones superimposed on the syllables. Mau can mean feather or cat, depending on the tone, and there are at least two more mau words with still different meanings. (A few years later, during her first marriage, Tina lived for a time with her in-laws in Taiwan; her confusing the tones sometimes led to humorous misunderstandings, with some loss of face for her.)

The written language has its own special difficulties. Some of the Chinese characters are self evident: “-” is yi, meaning “one” and “=” is er, meaning “two,” and three has an added horizontal line. But from there on, the numbers are not obvious: “+” is ten, for example. A small box is a mouth, and the word for “middle” or “central” has an added vertical stroke. Most of the ideographs simply have to be memorized. They are composed of one or more of 214 “radicals,” often combined so as to give hints as to sound or meaning or both.

A reader of Chinese newspapers can get by with between a thousand and two thousand such characters, where we ended up after the first two years. More challenging work might require memorization of as many as 5,000 characters. Contrast that with the typical educated speaker of English, who probably can read and spell correctly (or almost correctly) 50,000 or more different words.

This disadvantage of the Chinese written language is offset by the fact that speakers of different dialects of Chinese, which differ from one another as much as do the various Romance languages, use the same ideographs for the same words. They can all read the same texts. Sometimes, two speakers of different dialects trace the word-pictures on each other’s palms to communicate.

Tina and I had pleasant times each morning in Chinese 102, followed by hand-in-hand walks to whatever came next, often a coffee or tea date. When it was cold, we would each take off a single glove and hold hands inside the pocket of my coat. Bliss.

By Valentine’s Day 1963, we were deeply in love. We still are, 48 years later. I can offer reasons that we fell in love, but I’m not wholly convinced reasons explain it. Ducklings follow their mothers right after being born, but if they first are in contact with a human being instead, they will follow him, I’ve read. Would they offer up reasons for following him? Perhaps. Some mix of reason and physical attraction had put me head-over-heels in love with Tina. Still am. Character trumps all the rest, and she has proved she has it, in spades.

Destinations in Flux

When Tina and I met, I was pre-physicist, if there had been such a designation. Actually, I was in the “B” physics option, for those who might not be intending to go on to physics in graduate school. I wasn’t certain. The Soviet satellite Sputnik had launched in 1957, and the nation was hot for science. It looked like a way to get an interesting white-collar job, indoor work with no heavy lifting. I did not want to have the money worries my family had during my early years. My freshman year advisor, eventually a Nobel laureate, had little interest in my plans, whatever they were. It may have been clear even then that I would not be a physics superstar, but well-above-average was still achievable.

After a poor start, I got better grades and eventually graduated cum laude in physics, not spectacular but not chopped liver, either. By my junior year, I had obtained a much better part-time job, minding and “tuning up” the atom-smashing cyclotron overnight on Saturdays (and some other hours). I watched an oscilloscope, with its faint, dancing lines, and twiddled with any of a dozen or so knobs and switches to keep this beam of charged particles at a high current.

Often, however, one needed only make sure the current stayed between certain limits, and the job was about as taxing as babysitting a sleeping child. That left lots of time to study my Chinese, memorizing those little characters and practicing the words with the different tones. Many a Sunday morning, after my shift was over, Tina and I would eat breakfast together in Noyes Lodge overlooking the lake.

Tina’s pre-med coursework went well until she came to the dissection laboratory, probably in comparative anatomy. The cat saturated with formaldehyde was her Waterloo. She was often tired, too, and may even then have been showing early signs of her (as-yet undiagnosed) multiple sclerosis. At that point Tina’s sister, Irene, was studying dentistry (and eventually, orthodontia). Their parents had high expectations for the children, including Tina, but Tina herself was not really committed to medicine. That semester, she switched to Asian Studies, in which she graduated With Distinction three years later.

Tina’s parents would ultimately get their M.D. child in their youngest, Gene. He had no trouble with Brown University, Rochester School of Medicine, and whatever extra hurdles he needed to jump to become the rheumatologist he is today. He married a smart and career-oriented Caucasian girl, Christin Carter, whom he met at Brown. They now live in Ann Arbor, where he has his medical practice, and where Christy is a professor in the physiology department at the University of Michigan, as well as the associate director of a biomedical research center focusing on diabetes.

To brag a bit about my own family: Nick graduated in civil engineering from Cornell and has become one of the vice presidents of a major engineering firm. Diana became a nurse, worked a variety of jobs, and subsequently has cared for my mother at home. Cliff obtained an M.S. in biology, then to law school for a J.D., and on to become a finance manager at a car dealership in California. Chris majored in chemistry, earning his B.S. from Clemson and his M.S. and Ph.D. at Stanford. Chris is now Senior Director of Chemistry for the TB Alliance in New York City, a nonprofit research-management organization dedicated to fighting drug-resistant tuberculosis with the help of money from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, among others.

In both families, Su and Cooper, the apples had not fallen far from the trees. Our parents were all college educated, at a time when such attainments were much rarer than they are today. Both families prized intelligence and education, and it showed.

Summer Vacation, 1963

In June of 1963, Tina and I were separated by the summer break. Tina worked at the University of Rochester library, and I was at the Cornell University cyclotron, “tuning up the beam.” It was hard on us to be apart. Letters helped.

A fellow graduate student, Charlie, was nice enough to agree to give me a ride to Rochester one Saturday, in return for Tina’s finding him a date for that evening. Coming out of the library that afternoon, Tina saw me and ran toward me, and that vision took my breath away. Lovely, beloved, loving—Tina was all that and more.

We could hardly wait for the fall and her return to Ithaca.

Fall semester was wonderful. Was this to be our last year together?

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