It was probably inevitable that I'd meet Singapore President S.R. Nathan when I sneezed. After the Commencement ceremony was a reception, and I picked up a tray of food. I went to the vegetarian reception, not because I'm vegetarian but because the lines were shorter, and got some fine bee hoon (I bet you didn't even know bees had hoons) and potato cutlets. Thus when I felt myself about to sneeze, only my right hand was free, so I sneezed (not too messily) into that. Since the SARS crisis last year the public health recommendation is to sneeze into your elbow, a feat I can't really manage.
And so that would be when I stumbled into President Nathan. He smiled and though he had to have seen me sneeze shook my hand; I hate shaking hands for just this sort of reason. We had this compelling conversation:
``Good day ... I'm honoured to meet you, sir.'' (I was trying not to sound stupid.)
``Where do you come from?''
``New Jersey -- uh -- the U.S.'' (Singaporeans know, roughly, where New York City, San Francisco, and Vancouver are. The rest is a vague blur labelled ``U.S. and Canada'', yet I persist in saying I'm from New Jersey despite the confusion it brings.)
``Ah; are you a graduate?'' (I get this a lot. I guess I still look like a grad student.)
``Faculty, actually, I'm a teaching fellow.''
``Ah.'' He nodded and moved on, no doubt to get somebody else to sneeze on him.
When I second entered the auditorium for the ceremony (the first time didn't take; it was a kind of ridiculous sequence of events), the ushers took me to the third row from the stage, and said to take any seat I liked. No seat assignments. I'm not sure whether that's stranger than the fact no student had any unfunny jokes or decorations caked onto his or her cap.
The ceremony was not too different from those of the U.S., although they did not have a nice long Pomp and Circumstance march of students entering. This ceremony was also just one of literally dozens they'll hold over the next few weeks. The graduates this time were various doctors and masters for joint projects with other schools, many of them in the U.S., as well as some bachelors from the Faculty of Science. The University President asked what could be prouder than a joint program with Massachusetts Institute of Technology; I'd have called out Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute if that first wouldn't possibly be the most disruptive thing to happen all day today, and second if RPI had enough self-esteem to have graduates proud of their school. Plus they had more schools, like Georgia Tech and University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign, among the partners. (Singapore is big on partnerships.)
The presenters introduced their graduating students all with a line like ``Mister Chancellor, I give you the graduates who have previously received the Doctor of Philosophy from the Singapore-MIT Alliance'', leaving still unanswered bunny_hugger's question of exactly when a person does turn into a doctor.
The audience applauded every name. Some names were a touch odd, since we do have here a mix of several ethnicities, occasionally with etymologically very separate names fused. Many also will add a Western nickname to theirs, so compounds like ``Ng Matin Qawiy Ramachandra Victor'' (to make one up) aren't outrageous. I tried listening closely to get a better handle of how to pronounce my students' names (I do pretty well, but still trip on some), and my faith in the reader was thrown when she pronounced the Western name Lloyd as ``Lee-odd''. One student somehow had an @ in her name as printed on the monitors, which seems awfully Alfred Bester of her.
I had an invitation that somehow (I think by its color) marked me as faculty, not a graduate or guest of a graduate, so the ushers -- there were many ushers -- were determined to tuck me in the V.I.P. section. I've never been V.I. except to a few close friends and family. Being shuttled down corridors past ``reserved'' signs and being handed off from one usher to another to another to another left me with that Gogol-esque unease that I've been mistaken for somebody a lot higher-ranked in the world and have no way out but to go along, which ultimately is why I met a head of state.
Trivia: The ``Eternal Edict'' of the Estates of Holland, prohibiting those of the House of Orange from becoming Stadtholder, lasted less than five years before repeal. Source: European History 1648 to 1789, R. M. Rayner.
Currently Reading: Louis Pasteur, Patrice Debré.