A picture on Facebook taken in the basement of Franklin College’s Bryan Hall in 1973 set a reunion between a retired professor and student 40 years later.
I am the professor and Dong Tran is the student. I came to Franklin College in 1972 and taught for almost 40 years. I have had many students over the course of my teaching career. As I get older, it gets harder and harder to remember all of the students who have sat in my classroom. Dong was one of my best students and has an unforgettable story.
Dong was a foreign student from Vietnam, and I was a foreign professor from Taiwan. It was this common background that made it easy for us to share our American experience.
However, this wasn’t the only thing we shared. We both practiced and appreciated the martial arts. I have a black belt in chin-la (a form of self-defense called jujitsu), while Dong had black belt in karate and several other styles.
Dong organized a martial arts club at the college and shared his skills with other students. They would meet in the Bryan Hall basement regularly. When Dong found out that I also was interested in martial arts, he invited me to share my skills with the group.
After he graduated in 1973, he returned to Vietnam and we lost contact with each other until we both saw a picture posted by Jay Hunsucker on Facebook.
Jay’s picture immediately received many responses including mine and Dong’s.
Ray Manley posted: “I think that is Machale Tuoti in the second row on the left.”
Pam Essex posted: “Jay, thanks for this. I tagged.”
Pam Essex posted: “Friends and family, John is the one with the best mustache and white headband.”
Jay Hunsucker: “Tell John! Found Dong and he is tagged here as well.”
John Essex: “Talk about a blast from the past.”
Me: “I remember Dong Tran well. Not only he was physical fit, he was a straight-A student. I hope he can get in touch with me when he sees this comment.”
Dong Tran: “Hi Dr. Ling, I am so glad we’re back in touch with one another. I have a very nice dojo in Caldwell, N.J., called the Asian Arts Center. I have very found memories of the times I spent at Franklin College.”
Facebook was only the start of this reunion. Fortunately for me, I found out that a meeting that I had to attend for the American Association for Chinese Studies was going to be held at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I immediately emailed Dong and asked how far Rutgers University was from his home. He replied that it was not too far, so we arranged a meeting.
My meetings ended Saturday night so we planned to meet Sunday morning for breakfast. We sat in the lobby, two excited old men, and tried to tell each other what happened with our lives during the last 40 years. My story was pretty boring compared to his.
After graduating from Franklin College, he traveled back to Vietnam. Because of his background, he worked for an American bank in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Fortunately for Dong, he and his family were able to escape from Vietnam soon after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He and his family took the last flight out of Vietnam and came to United States as refugees. I vividly remember watching the news and witnessing the chaotic and panicked-filled withdrawal from a falling Vietnam.
He and his family first relocated in Michigan. Soon thereafter, he and his family moved to New York. Interestingly enough, a Franklin College graduate helped him with is move to New York.
While in New York, he worked for a bank, but he quit because the working atmosphere and ethics did not fit his temperament. He went into freelance artwork in midtown Manhattan for a few years before opening a dojo with a partner in 1980.
Then, in 1988, Dong went out on his own and started the Asian Arts Center.
Dong’s dojo offers traditional Japanese, Chinese and Okinawa martial arts. He regularly brings his students to demonstrate martial arts at various academic institutions.
He also continues to improve his individual skills by learning from masters in Asia. I did not sense any bitterness in his words, only strength and confidence and self-dignity, which he learned from his martial arts experience. His American dream was tough and challenging, but he made it.
We also talked about our family. He is married with two sons, both of whom are very talented. What impressed me the most is that his mother (well into her 90s) lives with Dong and his family. He still cooks Vietnamese food for her. What a good son.
As I had to catch my flight back to Indiana, we did not have as much time as we needed to catch up. At the airport, we hugged and gave each other our best wishes. I have not had an emotional moment like this for a while.
Individuals are like clouds in the sky drifting and floating away by chance or fate. This is a part of life. People meet and drift apart. However, what makes life special are those moments when we can reconnect with our past and appreciate all those special people in our lives.
Professor Yu-long Ling, a Franklin resident, is an expert in foreign policy. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.