A professor's star role at a Vietnamese festival

MEMPHIS, TENN., January 2001. It was my last semester before retiring after 32 years of teaching college. The University of Memphis student newspaper announced a Vietnamese New Year's Party at the University Center.

I said to my wife that despite the cold and damp, some of my students might be there, and they always enjoy it when we turn up at their programs.

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. Apparently Memphis has about 5,000 Vietnamese, and the party seemed to have 500 of them, mainly families, many with small children.

I saw a few students, including (at a distance) my Vietnamese PhD graduate student, but few, if any, other faculty and very few Caucasians - I talked to a journalist and a representative from the mayor'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. Then paused while they found a translator.

Who was I?

Why had I come?

I explained that I taught computer science at the University of Memphis, where I've 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 process of becoming a United States citizen.

And I mentioned that last year, my Vietnamese student David had completed his PhD in computer science.

Eyebrows rose.

Perhaps David, or his family, is prominent in the Vietnamese community. I don't know. But one of the men asked if I would be willing to be introduced as the official representative to the festivities from the University of Memphis. Seeing no more obvious candidate around, I accepted.

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 unexpectedly long and flowery introduction of the University of Memphis's 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. There were 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 multilegged 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.

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, 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 who didn't make it?

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 oldest-looking faculty member present?

It was one of those miracles that come but a few times in a career: Sheer luck, but impossible unless you are in the right place at the right time.

I and my wife, who is also a retired college teacher, will remember the evening for many years.

It was a special example of the wonderful experiences we could not have had without our years of teaching 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 at this very special Vietnamese New Year's celebration.

• Edward Ordman is a retired associate professor of computer science at The University of Memphis in Tennessee.

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