Women in America no longer bring a dowry of gifts or money to their husbands-to-be. They bring themselves, with ideas and attitudes that have been influenced by their upbringings and cultures. Asian women often have both Taoist and Confucian modes of thought and behavior.
One encyclopedia describes the central tenets of Taoism as compassion, moderation, humility. My dear wife, Tina Su Cooper, brought these attitudes into our marriage as her dowry, and they have greatly helped to produce marital harmony. They have meshed well with some strains of Western thought that shaped me, too…my wedding gifts to her.
Asiancemagazine.com readers are familiar with Taoism [pronounced in America as “Dow-ism”], the philosophy of the sixth-century-B.C. Chinese sage, Laozi. Even when not explicit, Taoism still influences much of the culture of Chinese-Americans, certainly of first- and second-generation immigrants such as Tina‘s parents and brother and sister. Occasionally, these principles can be at odds with being modern or trendy in today‘s America, not necessarily a shortcoming.
Compassion: As a little girl, Tina sometimes took care of her younger brother, Gene, who would often ask for her rather than for his mother. Her family sheltered for a long period a cousin who had been orphaned. Even now, though quadriplegic, Tina shows great interest in the ups and downs in the lives of her nurses.
As our friend Wendy Garfein wrote about Tina, in our memoir, Ting and I:
She lives a daily life today which I know of no other person could easily bear, but which brings her happiness and love, knowing she can still share in her husband’s and children’s lives. For her husband and children, her choice to live today has given them as much or more. Her daily courage has been an inspiration to me, her compassion even now for others’ suffering always amazes me, and I continue to find her a woman of great integrity and abounding love for others.
Although America is sometimes pictured as a nation of cut-throat competition in business and politics, the Golden Rule, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” frequently prevails, as a goal, an aspiration, at least. My church’s teachings emphasized this.
Moderation: “Clothes make the man” it has been said. True of women also? Though an overstatement, clothes do communicate. In our memoir, Tina’s life-long friend, Elaine Tashiro Gerbert, describes her first impression of Tina at the beginning of their freshman year at Cornell University:
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….
Moderation discourages ostentation, not just in clothing. Wealth, if there is wealth, is kept quiet, partly so as not to make others feel inferior. A decade ago, when we could do it more easily, we would ride around our rural neighborhood in December, appreciating the Christmas decorations, but now and again a dazzling display would trigger from Tina, “Gaudy! Gaudy! Gaudy!” Understated elegance…not.
Moderation and thrift are cousins. “Waste not, want not,“ my New England ancestors would say. Tina and her family, as did mine, featured saving, not spending: one home, little jewelry, less expensive educations. Tina and her older sister went to less costly schools to save for brother Gene‘s private school, college, and eventual M.D. [Some favoritism shown the youngest, a son?]
Western philosophy has been influenced by Aristotle‘s urging of “the Golden Mean,” virtue as a middle ground between opposing vices. Said differently, “every virtue can be over-done.” Or, as the Roman pre-Christian dramatist Terence wrote, “Moderation in all things.” East and West agree.
Humility/modesty: Tina consistently puts others before herself. Heart-felt or just as a matter of courtesy, being humble is very attractive. From Ting and I:
Confident in her own self-worth, Tina is still modest. A compliment will be acknowledged, but with the equivalent of “You are too kind.” It is, she tells me, a Chinese thing. Praise a Chinese cook’s elegant and lavish dinner, and she may reply that she just “threw it together.” It is hard not to like.
Rather than keeping up with the Joneses or showing off, the tendency is not to embarrass the Joneses by making them look lesser in comparison. No conspicuous consumption, generally.
Of course, not all Chinese behave this way, but it is traditional.
One principle of Chinese interpersonal behavior is not to lose face nor cause the other person to do so. Objections or refusals are stated obliquely. It can be hard for an American to sort out. Concern for public appearance can be excessively other-directed and stultifying, but it helps produce polite behavior….
Modesty loses out to pride when Tina starts talking about her family’s education or my family’s. It’s a Chinese thing.
Emphasis on proper public behavior and on higher education seems more Confucian than Taoist. Whichever it is, Tina’s Han Chinese ancestors were writing books while my Scotch forefathers were painting themselves blue and raiding the English to their south. A respect for education and for the past can, however, be overdone, which may be why the Industrial Revolution started in the British Isles.
It has been written that the Chinese are often “Confucian in public; Taoist in private.” Part of the meaning is that in public they conform to conventional norms of behavior, but in private they show a greater latitude of thought and, perhaps, of action. We will be surprised if Chinese athletes engage in “trash talk” during sporting contests. The corresponding Western adage is “Pride goeth before a fall.” I was taught not to brag.
Last November, www.asiancemagazine.com carried an article, “A Guide to Online Dating by Ethnicity,” summarizing research done by AYI.com, which had analyzed 2.4 million interactions among the users of its Facebook-integrated app. One of the most interesting conclusions: “Asian women have the highest success rate with online dating because they not only appeal to, but are also the preferred ethnicity, for all men—except Asian men, who prefer Hispanic women.”
Where does that leave our Asian-American female readers? Continue to be compassionate, moderate, humble, literate and well-behaved…and brush up on your Spanish?
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer, author, writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, as are his co-authored memoirs The Shield of Gold and Ava Gardner‘s Daughter? and a memoir he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers. His writer-coaching web site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com.