I have saved all Tina’s letters to me, as she has saved the Chanel No. 5 perfumed powder I gave her almost fifty years ago. More foreshadowing?
We knew we might only have our three semesters at Cornell to be together. Near the end of the second of these, that fall semester, for my birthday in December, 1963, she wrote:
You asked me what I would think of these sixteen months a few years from now. My reply –now, after one year, after fifty years:
[She then quoted much of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” including the following lines]
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Interassured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”
Happy birthday, darling.
Donne’s “Valediction” is a favorite of mine, but a poem I haven’t read for many years. I recently found my copy of Donne’s collected poetry. “Valediction” is there among scores of others, including some other favorites of mine, but its page was the only dog-eared one. I had read it to Tina at our wedding in June of 1984.
Toward the middle of the poem, Donne likens the connection between separated lovers’ souls to “gold to airy thinness beat.” The thin gold foil may lengthen and attenuate, but it never breaks apart. He ends with the metaphor of a circle-drawing compass, with its moving foot representing the lover who must travel away, while the central “fixed foot” always leans and “hearkens after it.” The poem ends, in our case prophetically,
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
As Helen Keller wrote: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we have loved deeply becomes a part of us.”
Phi Epsilon Pi
I have on my bedroom bookcase a group photograph labeled “Phi Epsilon Pi Spring Weekend May 1964.” Among two-score college students in various stages of inebriation, Tina and I are present, dressed somewhat more formally than the average. Tina is in a Chinese high-collared dress, and I am in a white shirt and tie, the tie thrown over my shoulder, in an attempt to look less formal. We are obviously happy, even though we were due to be separated within a month.
We were at Phi Ep through the hospitality of the fraternity brothers. During freshman year, the fraternities and sororities “rush” the newcomers, inviting a selected subset to their houses to hear why they should join, “pledge” the group, then selecting, from those still interested, the students they would invite to join.
I think there were fifty-odd such organizations at Cornell. So far, so good. Not so good was that they were fairly distinctly divided into Christian and Jewish houses, each perhaps having a token few of the other, “minority,” members. Phi Ep was almost wholly Jewish, as were my roommate at 5406 University Halls, Jerry Baker, and another friend and fellow debate-team member, Al Berkeley. Only a few fraternities showed an interest in me, and I preferred Phi Ep partly because this pair would be in it and partly because I did not want to pledge a non-Jewish fraternity, on principle. Quickly into the post-pledge period, I realized I had neither the money nor the interest in alcohol that would make joining appropriate. The fraternity brothers took my withdrawal graciously, and I attended an occasional party at Phi Ep, when no longer a member.
Why Not Marry?
Why didn’t Tina and I get engaged, in 1964, or even get married? Lately, half of Asian Americans (second generation or later generations) marry Caucasians. In 1964 such marriages were much rarer, if only because there were so few Asian Americans. In the 1960s, some states still had laws against interracial marriage, anti-miscegenation statutes. While the occasional stare did not bother us, we believed that our children would have “marginal man” status in America, not accepted fully by some members of either race. The racial mix might have produced the loveliness of a Nancy Kwan or a child with a combination of our personal strengths, but there was no guarantee.
We were 20 and 21 years of age, too young to marry with confidence, though a long engagement might have been feasible.
Both sets of parents were against such a pairing, for reasons ranging from the practical to the ethnocentric. Tina was an obedient Chinese daughter. I was less obedient, but I did value my parents’ wisdom and greater experience. A marriage would have caused much family discontent.
In this period in America, more so than today, interfaith or interracial marriage was often discouraged. As Tina’s dear friend Deanne Gitner tells it (see more of her contribution in “Tributes”), a dutiful Jewish girl, too, was expected to find a Jewish man to marry:
There were only two Asian women in our class in 1962, one of whom was Tina. Tina’s parents sent her away for her junior year to London to study and, probably, to get her away from Doug.
Another question troubled me: Would Tina and I have remained good to each other in the future if external forces became oppressive? I had read Orwell’s 1984 and was convinced and saddened by the protagonist’s capitulation: Winston loved Julia, but broke under torture. They were to continue with him or turn to her. “Do it to Julia,” he croaked. Love was not enough. It was too believable that one would blame the other if the conditions became very unpleasant. I’d like to think we wouldn’t succumb, but I was by no means sure.
If marriage to a successful Chinese professional who loved her would be better for Tina and eventually better for any children she would have, it would be selfish of me to stand in the way. Tina felt the same about me and my best interests. We left it that if neither had married someone else in five years, we would feel free to marry each other. I meant it. Tina suspected that this was a polite refusal. We had a communications failure.
As I have mentioned, Tina’s siblings, Gene and Irene are both married to Caucasians, as is Irene’s elder daughter. The more recent the marriage, the less the controversy it aroused, if any.
Tina’s Diary, June 1964
Tina twenty years later extracted the following from her diary, written at the time of our separation:
June 8, 1964
At present I am trying my best to alleviate the pain that fills my whole being: Doug and I parted last Saturday, after he met Mom and Dad, and he has not written yet. I know he thinks it is best, and rationally I think it is best. However, it is not easy to erase the memory of a person most dear....
He became my reason for being. He has influenced my thoughts and actions to a great degree. I have matured because of him and have learned so much .... It was the most beautiful thing–the most sincere, earnest, appreciative, trying, fulfilling, happiest experience....
The pain comes and goes. It is not as persistent as two days ago. It is a painful price that I gladly pay in memory of the past.
Whatever the outcome, I admire him most deeply–his spirit, his strength, his kindness. I will always. He has given me so much.
I had been Tina’s first love.
Excerpt from TING AND I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion,
published in 2011 by Outskirts Press, available in paperback and ebook formats from Outskirts and from http://amazon.com