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I had a good week last week, but with some rough edges late in the week. Thursday my mother was hospitalized - car accident, broken ribs, trouble breathing (home Sunday, doing OK). Friday I had emergency surgery for a torn retina (an easy surgery, and no effect on my vision since I had prior vision problems and couldn't see out of that part of the eye anyway.) Saturday afternoon was the funeral of a neighbor whom my wife and I will miss very much. By Saturday evening I needed cheering up.
Saturday evening, the first week
of class at the University of Memphis, January 2001. My last regular semester,
as I'm retiring at the end of this school year. I'd seen something
in the student newspaper inviting people to a Vietnamese New Year's Party
at the University Center. I suggested it to my wife. She pointed out it
was cold and damp and I needed some rest. I said, some of my students may
be there and they always enjoy it when we turn up at their programs. If
it is too crowded or noisy we can do one circuit of the room and come home
early. We decided to go.
It turned out it was the New Year's Party not of the students, but of the Vietnamese Community of Memphis (that name may be translated wrong, all the printed matter and the program were in Vietnamese). Apparently Memphis has something like 5000 Vietnamese, I was told, and the party seemed to have five or six hundred of them, mainly Vietnamese-speaking families, with an incredible number of wonderful small children. I saw a few students, including (at a distance) my Vietnamese Ph.D. graduate, but few if any other faculty and very few Caucasians -- I talked to a journalist and a representative from Memphis Mayor Herenton's office. But the food looked good and the Vietnamese costumes looked interesting, so my wife and I took seats among the crowd at one of the tables.
Shortly I was approached by some older Vietnamese men. They asked me some questions in Vietnamese. Pause while they found a translator. Who was I? Why had I come? I explained that I taught Computer Science at the University of Memphis, I'd had many Vietnamese students. I've attended a wedding of one of my Master's students in the Vietnamese community, and followed one of my students through her becoming a U.S. citizen. And I mentioned that last year my student David Dung Vu had completed his Ph.D. in Computer Science.
Eyebrows rose. (Perhaps David Dung Vu, or his family, or his clan, is prominent in the Vietnamese community. I don't know). The older men conferred, in Vietnamese. Then one of them asked, would I be willing to be introduced as the Official Representative to the festivities from the University of Memphis? I hadn't seen any administrators present, and hadn't seen Clara Nunis, the International Student Advisor. So I said, if no one else turned up to be the representative, I was willing.
My wife and I were escorted up and put near the center of the head table! We then sat through an hour or more of ceremonies and speeches in Vietnamese, many untranslated. But they did translate into English the brief introduction of the representative of Mayor Herenton, and the unexpectedly long and flowery introduction of the University of Memphis' Representative, Dr. Ordman, with mention of all I had done for Vietnamese students, all the University had done for the Vietnamese Community, and how wonderfully the Vietnamese students were doing in Mathematics and Computer Science.
There was a wonderful Vietnamese dinner -- egg roll (I probably have the wrong words), barbecued chicken, rice with shrimp, pork, things I don't have a name for. The serving lines were very long, with 500 or 600 people at the party, but the head table guests got waited on. And then there were Vietnamese traditional ceremonies, songs, dances, and fashion shows.
And there were lions.
I'd seen pictures of Chinese New Year Dragons. The Vietnamese, it turns out, call them Lions, but they are the same sort of creature. They had four two-man lions, with huge heads, and so many moving parts (ears, eyes, eyebrows, mouth, tongue) that I wondered how they were operated. They did multi-legged dances, precision acrobatics and somersaults, and poses and jumps and turns on tiny foot-sized platforms six and eight feet in the air. I'd never seen anything like it, and had no idea that we had people in Memphis who could give a performance like this with such skill. [Were some of them students? I wonder how we can find a way to give other students, or the community, a chance to see this?] I suspect that very few Caucasians anywhere have had such wonderful seats at a performance this excellent, at the head table, with the lions less than six feet away and their heads often coming almost directly to us as if seeking approval from the honored guests.
I have no idea how my wife and I got to be so lucky. Was there supposed to have been an official university representative, but a missed signal at a time when so many administrative positions are filled temporarily? Was I recognized from having been at the wedding a few years ago, or pointed out by a student? Did they know of me, or approach me because I was the longest-bearded, or best-dressed, or oldest-looking faculty member present? It was one of those miracles that come but a few times in a career, sheer luck, happy coincidence, but impossible unless you are in the right place at the right time and your karma (to mix cultural terms) happens to be exactly right.
For myself and my wife, the evening will be remembered for many years, a very special example of the wonderful experiences we have had at this university and that would not have been possible without our long time here and our wonderful relationships with so many students of all kinds at the University of Memphis. I've appreciated my Vietnamese students very much, as I have appreciated all my students, but few faculty members ever get to feel as much appreciated and rewarded by their students as I did on this very special Vietnamese New Year.
(C) Edward Ordman 2001
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