Thursday, October 27, 2011


In social situations, in dating, in marriage, in housing, do opposites attract and later merge? What helps “blended” couples and families actually blend, and “diverse” communities become united, the differences among the individuals dissolving rather remaining intact?

Long ago, while studying physics, I learned that time, temperature and turbulence were three factors that influenced the rate of mixing and then dissolving of a powder in a liquid. It has occurred to me lately that these elements have similar implications in matters small and large, from my coffee cup to our society.

As I dissolved my instant breakfast powder in hot milk, I stirred vigorously and waited, somewhat patiently, for the powder to mix and dissolve and spread uniformly throughout the liquid. I noted that the mixing and dissolving went best when the powder was added slowly, steadily, rather than rapidly or in clumps. Often, you do not want to start with all of the powder in a pile at the bottom. That works with instant coffee, but not with my brand of instant breakfast, which sticks together in an impenetrable lump. Some materials just like to stick together.

Where am I going with this? To America as a “melting pot,” where new ethnic and religious groups are added to the mix, spreading more or less uniformly throughout the country, over time. An alternative vision is America as a stew, with pieces that never blend in, never spread uniformly.

Ethnic mixing or segregation is of particular interest to me, the loving and beloved husband of a woman of Chinese ancestry, Tina Su Cooper. I have told our story in Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion. Tina’s highly educated parents came from China to America right after World War II, and her father, Dr. G.J. Su, had a long and distinguished career as a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester. Her mother, S.T.C. Su, had a chemistry degree, but she applied her talents to home-making, child-rearing, and the painting of lovely watercolors, some of which adorn our walls.

Tina’s elder sister is an orthodontist; her younger brother is a rheumatologist. As a family, they were “outside and above” most of their neighbors in Rochester, NY, and were among only a handful of Chinese families near that city during Tina’s childhood in the 1940‘s and 1950‘s. Any racial slights could be dismissed by the Sus as the bad behavior of lower-class individuals, thus less hurtful. Their situation was a far different starting point from those Chinese who arrived here as laborers, whose children stereotypically ran Chinese laundries and restaurants, often sending their children to medical, law, and engineering schools.

Time is needed for successful mixing. The second and third generations have different resources and face different conditions. Education, industry, thrift, and investment produce higher standards of living. Society learns to accept, often to respect, the newcomers. Patience is helpful, but so is impatience. “Time heals all wounds.” This adage overstates, but healing does occur. In 1963 Tina Han Su and Douglas Winslow Cooper met in the Cornell University language course Chinese 102 and fell in love. In 1984, we married. Some of that delay was due to ethnocentrism. Parental pressure and persuasion kept us apart, although our families eventually approved the match, twenty years later. Tina’s elder sister’s first marriage was, like Tina’s, to a man of Chinese ancestry. Her second marriage, like Tina’s, is to a Caucasian. Dr. and Mrs. Su’s third child and only son married a Caucasian, a marriage that took years to win his parents’ acceptance. I have read that now in America roughly half of second-generation and later-generation Asians marry Caucasians.

How do “turbulence” and “temperature” play roles in the mixing– dispersing– dissolving model of the interactions among diverse individuals and groups?

Turbulence is random motion on a relatively large scale, having some similarity to human migrations, especially those with a variety of speeds and directions. If we all head west, that is just a flow, but if we go hither and yon, sometimes even returning to where we started, that is more like a turbulent, eddying motion. It gets relatively large numbers of us spread throughout the country, often in pockets, such as “Chinatowns,” a term in disuse now. Within those pockets, life is much like it was in “the old country,” even if those groups are close to pockets of other people much unlike themselves.

The transition from large-scale mixing to smaller-scale was humorously described in the following poem by the meteorological scientist L.F. Richardson:

“Big whorls have little whorls,

Which feed on their velocity;

And little whorls have lesser whorls

And so on to viscosity

(In the molecular sense).”

Viscosity is a resistance to motion on the molecular scale. Temperature is a measure of the random motion of the molecules. For people, this fine, “molecular,” scale is that of interpersonal relations and, notably, of marriage, the ultimate level of mixing or not mixing.

Centuries ago, most people lived in their home towns all their lives, meeting and marrying people from that town or from nearby areas, people not so different from themselves, though still as different as women and men are from each other.

Now, our children often move far away to take jobs for which they have trained that are not available nearby, meeting others also from distant places, marrying them, and creating new unions of types of people rarely paired in prior eras. The engaging reporter who came to interview Tina and me about our memoir was the product of a marriage between a woman from Turkey and a man from America, who met, as did Tina and I, decades ago on a college campus. Our interviewer wore a lovely ethnic (likely Turkish) dress to the interview and spoke impeccable English. She was obviously quite intelligent. In biology, the mixing of somewhat dissimilar stock can produce “hybrid vigor,” arguably true for humans, as well.

I think economic activity resembles “temperature.” We say the economy is “warming up” or “cooling down,” displaying more or less economic activity. Prosperity produces jobs that lure us from where we are to where they are. Prosperity allows us to move to a nicer neighborhood because we can afford to do so, getting a better house or a better school system for our children, hopefully getting both. This movement produces small-sale mixing, where we find ourselves next door, or in adjacent cubicles at work, to people from widely different origins from our own, though often of a similar economic class. This kind of person-to-person closeness is, I believe, a beneficial result of a drive toward greater “diversity.” A stagnant economy brings much of this to a halt.

Back to my instant breakfast, I note that pouring it in very rapidly can lead to poor dispersal. Occasionally, clumps come out of the package that are hard to get to dissolve. Similarly, there may be rates of influx of newcomers that are too high.

Certain groups, such as some religious groups like the Amish or the Jewish Hassidim, do not want to disaggregate. Their tight bonds with each other have value, too. We cannot be sure that they would be better off if they were more dispersed throughout our country. “Each to his own taste,” within limits, limits set by law and custom.

What kind of society is best? Continuing my cooking analogy, a simple homogeneous society is like a cup of coffee, uniform, nice. Add cream and sugar, mix well, and some will find this even better. If the sugar does not disperse and dissolve, this is not so good. Tasty soups run the gamut of beef broth to cream of tomato to purees to chicken noodle to stew, each with a different degree of variety, of diversity. On different days, I like different soups.

Over time, especially during prosperous times, when people are free to move and meet, the melting pot metaphor replaces the salad bowl simile. As individuals and as a country we gain from the inter-mingling strengths of our different cultures, being mixed and blended. melted and dissolved, achieving the motto on the Great Seal of the United States: e pluribus Unum --- out of many, one.

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