“Outside and Above” is how I characterized my wife’s Chinese American family in the book I just completed, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, largely a tribute to Tina Su Cooper, my love of 48 years and wife of the past 27 years.
Tina (Su Ting-Ting) was born in Kunming in April of 1944, second daughter of Dr. and Mrs. G.J. Su. Dr. Su was running a liquid-fuel-making factory in that city, to which most of the Nationalist government had moved in the latter part of World War II. In 1946, at his wife’s urging, they took a trip to the U.S., a vacation trip that became a permanent relocation. Soon after, Dr. Su became Assistant Professor Su at the University of Rochester. Eventually, this M.I.T. – trained scientist/chemical engineer became Associate Professor, Professor, and Professor Emeritus, a very important member of that faculty, one in demand by industry for consultation, as well.
A third child, their first son, was born in America, easing their path to full American citizenship. Su Ting-Ting became Tina Han Su, “Han,” the Mandarin word for “reserved,” fit this quiet, thoughtful little girl. The family was one of the very few Chinese families in the Rochester area. The eldest daughter became an orthodontist; Tina became an Asian studies expert at the Encyclopedia Britannica; the son became an MD, a rheumatologist.
In my book, I address the family’s attitudes about being minority group members:
“The three children “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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Talent, parental example and encouragement, personal strength –all played roles in the Su children’s successful transitions to adulthood.”
Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, a retired physicist. His latest project is a book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, to be published this September by Outskirts Press (Parker, CO) and available through www.tingandi.com.
W/C 830 3 July 2011