Written by Brandon Priddy
(Originally published 8/28/2012)
On Thursday night Vanderbilt will open their 122nd season of football in front of a sellout crowd and national TV audience. It will be an outstanding environment for college football, something that is unfortunately unique in the recent history of the Commodores. Often those stands have been half-full and sometimes less. But always among that crowd, whatever the size, has been Song Michael Han. He’s cheering on his ‘Dores, high-fiving strangers and making new friends in every section.
He is, without a doubt, the biggest Vanderbilt football fan I know. If you knew him he’d be at the top of your list, too.
How can a person be such a dedicated fan of a team that hands out gut-wrenching moments and disappointment the way most teams distribute free t-shirts or spirit shakers? How can he so willingly live and die with a team that mixes so much of the latter with so little of the former? In a region where winning is everything, shouldn’t a guy get tired of losing?
Does he even know what winning really is?
After hearing Michael’s story, maybe you’ll wonder if WE know what winning really is.
Because even more interesting than a man who so willingly pours his heart and soul into a program that seems to give so little back is the story of how that man came to be in those stands and how his team has given him as much as any team has ever given any fan in this ultra-competitive corner of America. It’s a fascinating journey that began on the other side of the world, in the unlikeliest of places and in the midst of protest.
I met Michael when he started at Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, the Nashville design firm where I work at as an architect. As a University of Kentucky grad, I have an avid interest in all things SEC and my curiosity was immediately piqued by the new structural engineer who’s cube was plastered with every manner of Vandy paraphernalia imaginable.
Having lived in Nashville since 2002, it has always been a curiosity to me that the hometown university is the only conference member that seems to have no discernible fan base. I see Bulldog flags (of both the Mississippi State and Georgia persuasion) and Tiger license plates (Auburn and LSU) and of course the healthy smattering of bright orange everywhere I turn, but bolts of black and gold are few and far between.
Who was this rabid Commodore fan?
I learned the first time I entered that cube. Sports memorabilia always catches my eye and I enjoy studying the various pieces, figuring out where they come from and asking the owner the story behind them. I had walked into a treasure trove. Here’s an autographed poster from Vandy’s 2008 bowl team. There’s a picture of the Neyland Stadium scoreboard following Vandy’s historic upset of the Vols in 2005, right beside a picture of Michael posing with a victorious Jay Cutler immediately after that game.
Then a surprise – something that wasn’t sports memorabilia at all – a print of the iconic 1989 World Press Award winning photograph of a young Chinese man standing in the path of a column of tanks. And next to that a picture of another young man with his arms raised cheering as a banner waved in the background. A young man who bore a striking resemblance to the structural engineer with whom I was speaking about a framing plan.
Me: “Mike, is that you?”
Mike: (with a small grin) “yeah.”
Me: “You marched at Tiananmen Square?!”
Mike: (grin widening) “yeah, man.”
Me: (completely forgetting myself in a professional setting) “Holy shit!”
Mike: (laughing) “yeah man, I was there.”
And that’s when you learn that maybe Michael sees the football foibles of the Vanderbilt Commodores through a little wider lens than you or I.
Michael the rebel “fighting the commies”
He was born in 1962 in Manchuria. While it resides within the political boundaries of China, it’s a region with its own distinct culture and history. A former independent nation, part of the Great Wall of China was actually built to keep the Manchurians out (it failed and they took Beijing in 1644). As such, it’s people have developed a burgeoning sense of nationalism in recent decades and see themselves as a unique culture, separate and distinct from the larger Chinese country.
It was this independent streak that was so important in shaping Michael’s early life. Born only 13 years after the Communist Revolution, Michael’s family instilled in its members a healthy skepticism of Mao’s grand experiment. At the close of propaganda radio messages celebrating a great harvest, his grandmother would tell him the truth about millions dying of starvation. His grandfather would roust him early and lead walks that would sometimes take them to a public shaming of one of Chairman Mao’s “enemies of the state” – a person who had displeased the government. Michael has a vivid memory of one such shaming that was the denouncement of an actual corpse.
That same grandfather had built a carpentry business and treated his employees well, presenting newlyweds with furniture sets and providing caskets for those who had lost loved ones. The government then moved in on his business, forcing a “partnership” on him. When he resisted, they decided to subject him to one of these “shamings” but his employees refused to do it. Eventually he was forced into the “partnership” and replacement workers were brought to provide the show. He wanted his grandson to learn the truth about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.”
They didn’t carry their Little Red Books.
Despite these constant frustrations, Michael thrived in school, graduated at the top of not only his class, but his town (of 300,000) and was sent to Tsing Hua University, a prestegious Beijing college that was actually made possible by American Funding. He graduated with a degree in structural engineering and then took on graduate-level study. In graduated with a masters in 1988 he landed a good job with the state railroad company. Life was going well for a young professional in mid-1980s China. Michael and his wife had their one child and went about building a happy future…….
Then the protests began.
Actually “protest” would have been a misnomer in the beginning. It started, as these things often do, as nothing more than a large memorial service for Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party and a liberal reformer. His sudden passing (of a heart attack) formed the impetus for a gathering of the like-minded among China’s emerging reform community (chiefly students) at Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital city of Beijing. And as like-minded folks of any stripe are wont to do, they got to talking.
Think of a road tailgate. You become emboldened when you’re around people that think like you, even when you know you’re surrounded by more that don’t. It’s always easier when you’re together.
Michael was visiting relatives in Manchuria at the time of Hu’s death and immediately told his family “you watch – something big is going to happen in Beijing.” It started as cheering and a few speeches. Then cheers became shouts. And shouts became protest. And protest became a movement. The movement begot monuments; a 30 foot paper mache “Goddess of Democracy” (inspired by the ‘Statue of Liberty’) was constructed by the students. The eyes of the world were on the square in the heart of a reclusive nation.
Michael returned to Beijing and would frequent the square during the six weeks of protest. Having just left graduate school the year before, he knew many of the students and certainly shared their disillusionment with the status quo. He would walk throughout the square, meeting with various groups of friends and joining them in meals provided by area establishments who wanted to show their support.
He was not alone as thousands of Chinese from around the country streamed into the square, adding to the crowd that topped out around half a million. And it wasn’t limited to Tiananmen; demonstrations of various sizes were taking place all over the country. They demanded reforms from their government and the opportunity to take control of their lives. They wanted democracy. They wanted a free press.
They wanted freedom.
The world began to wonder if this was the beginning of the end for Chairman Mao’s communist experiment.
It was an amazing moment – a moment we’ve seen and read about so many times before. A population would once again rise up to take control of its own destiny. This time it was China’s turn. As Michael says “it was the first time people weren’t scared.”
It was not to be.
In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, Chinese officials put aside their humanity and placed the government ahead of the governed. The military was given the order to clear the square by dawn. No excuses.
That scar on Chinese history is all but ignored by the current incarnation of the nascent superpower. No monument exists and no public displays pay tribute, but it forever changed the trajectory of one young man’s life who found himself in the middle of the carnage.
Michael’s perpetually bright mood darkens as he remembers the events of nearly a quarter-century past. His gaze becomes distant and the quick laughter is gone. He admits he hadn’t thought those days in a long time. You quickly understand why.
When the shooting began, he was actually having a couple beers in his 4th floor apartment with some friends. They headed down to the street to see what was happening, all of them “arming” themselves with the recently emptied bottles. It seemed adequate ammunition to combat the rubber bullets that they were expecting.
A steady stream of people were headed towards them, fleeing the square. “Don’t be scared!” they told those they passed. It was just some teargas and chunks of rubber. They could withstand it. Then they passed a sobbing woman walking with a shattered bike and knew something was different. Rubber bullets don’t tear through steel handlebars.
They saw the wounded and had to make a choice, fight insurmountable odds or re-group. It was a choice was more difficult than you might at first imagine. “You’re so agitated you don’t care. You want to fight.” But then the voice of reason in the form of a passerby who laid the ugly facts of the situation bear for these angry young men: “Don’t waste your life.”
They decided to help instead and ran to a nearby hospital to join a hastily-formed volunteer brigade of stretcher runners bringing the wounded inside. All around them were the sounds of gunfire and the carnage it created. “I picked up a body and the doctor pointed away from the hospital. He was pointing toward the morgue. I carried several bodies like that.”
At one point an armored vehicle manned by soldiers hoisting automatic weapons passed by the hospital. The driver, probably a young soldier from the countryside unfamiliar with the Beijing streets, had gotten lost. “You could see they were frightened too” Michael says. Everyone was warned to do nothing to agitate the soldiers and luckily they passed without incident.
Maybe losing to Florida for 20 years in a row isn’t so bad after all.
The worst part was afterwards. “At the time, you’re consumed by anger. You don’t think of the consequences. But after, it was really tough. But it made me stronger.” When the smoke cleared the cost became much too clear. Thousands died that day, among them several people Michael knew from school. One of them was a friend with whom he’d often played soccer.
As far as Michael was concerned, that was it. He owed nothing to a country that ordered its forces to turn their weapons on him. “I thought, I did my part. I tried my best. I worked hard to make this a better place and this is what happens? I’m done with this place.”
“I’m going to America.”
He began the transition immediately, searching for a job so he could quit working for the state. He finally found employment with a firm owned by an American woman who had come to China years before it was common business practice. He began the visa and college application process, searching for a graduate program in the states that would both allow him to pursue an advanced degree in structural engineering while working to pay his way. But how to decide from a collection of schools he knew little about (remember that this was pre-internet 1992) in a land he’d never visited?
That’s when fate intervened.
Living in Beijing, it was impossible to exchange Chinese yen for US currency at that time, so in order to pay the mandatory college application fees, Michael turned to a cousin in Arkansas. Having covered the fees for Yale and Columbia (he was accepted to both) his account of borrowed US dollars was down to $30. The application fee became the most important determining factor in selection of a final school.
Vanderbilt’s fee: $25.
“I didn’t even know what a Commodore was,” he says, laughing at the absurdity of it all. “I just needed something under 30 bucks.”
Isn’t it funny how our lives’ biggest moments often turn on the most trivial of circumstances?
Michael was accepted to all of his choices, but only Vandy would offer the opportunity to work and pay his way. He was headed to Nashville.
Amid a grueling schedule that included a full course-load as well as the responsibilities of a teaching assistant, Michael had little time for pursuits like football fandom. Growing up in soccer-dominated China he hardly knew the game. As Shane Matthews and Antonio Langham tore up Dudley Field, Michael focused on his work. There was no other option. He’d put everything he had into this American gamble. Or more accurately left everything behind.
While a student visa had secured his passage to the west, the American embassy was unwilling to grant visas to his wife and young son. The separation was all but unbearable. Pushed to the limit by labyrinthine immigration process that ended in ultimate denial, an exasperated Michael shared his frustration with Mark Onan, a Vietnam vet whose family had served as Michael’s host family when he had first come stateside.
“I don’t know what to do! How am I going to get my family here?” a desperate Michael asked. His American friend replied with the simplest of solutions: “We’re going to see (then Tennessee senator) Al Gore.”
Michael was floored at his friend’s audacity. He was raised in a communist-ruled Manchuria where such a move would have been unthinkable – especially with a high-level official. The leadership owed you nothing and you certainly didn’t ask favors of them, much less in person and with no notice. There was protocol for such things.
Onan persisted and the next thing Michael knew, they were standing in the lobby of Gore’s Nashville office. A stunned foreign graduate student looked on in dumbfounded amazement as an American citizen demanded to see his representative in government. “I want to talk to Al Gore,” Onan insisted. “This guy needs to see his family! He’s working on a NASA project (he was indeed doing work funded by NASA at the time). How’s he supposed to work for NASA with his wife and son back in China?”
It was a moment quintessentially American, a moment that encapsulated everything he loved about his new home and every reason he had left his place of birth. Where Chinese demands of those in authority were met with gunfire, this lone American’s demand of his senator was met with sympathetic ears.
This was where he wanted his son to grow up.
Unfortunately Senator Gore was unavailable at the time (1992 was a particularly busy time for him if you’ll remember) but a helpful staffer had a letter faxed to the embassy and not long after, the visas for his family were granted.
Michael’s life was complete. Almost.
And it is here patient reader, having gone halfway around the globe and back, that we return to that most American of traditions – football. SEC football, to be exact.
“College sports were just not a big deal in China,” Michael says. “I hadn’t been to many college games at all. And never with a crowd.” But he caught on quickly.
One day he happened upon a stand selling Commodore gear. Liking the look of a black and gold t-shirt, he snatched it up. Maybe he didn’t know what a ‘commodore‘ was yet, but he knew he was one for life. To put it in the parlance of James Franklin, the anchor was down.
He’d made the occasional football game when the grueling work schedule permitted, but it wasn’t until after graduation that he attended games with regularity. As he learned the different schools and traditions throughout the conference, he developed a deep appreciation and respect for the traditions of his new home.
You can see his passion as he describes the game he’s grown to love. “It’s totally American. Elegant, playful, innocent.” He adds with a laugh, “and expensive!”
“I learned about my university and its people through football” he says. “And everyone else in the SEC. I fell in love with the culture of SEC football. It’s a tremendous window to see the culture through. When you follow a football team here you get a sense of identity. You feel like you belong.”
While working a job that required extensive travel, Michael found himself often meeting new people. An immigrant might have had trouble breaking the ice were it not for the common bond of the SEC. “It gave us something to talk about – it was a way to relate to people.”
With nearly all of his extended family remaining in Manchuria (he has one cousin in Kansas and another in Hawaii) the connections Michael has formed at Vanderbilt are invaluable. “This is my family,” he says. He sees athletics as an avenue for other international students to learn about their university and contributed a chapter in the guidebook for newcomers to Vanderbilt for a foreign student organization: “A Guide to Vanderbilt Sports.”
Michael stays very involved with the alumni association and met some of his closest friends there, currently serving as the Athletic Co-chair for the Nashville Vanderbilt Alumni Chapter, charged with organizing area events around Vandy sports. They tailgate at home games and put together watch parties for roadies. There’s even hope that maybe they can get Coach Franklin to put in an appearance during basketball season.
With the deep appreciation he gained for the culture of the SEC, Michael has set a goal to take in a Vandy game at every conference stadium. He’s off to a pretty good start having seen them win in all the stadiums he’s visited. In fact it was on one of those trips that he enjoyed what he calls his greatest moment as a Vanderbilt fan: upsetting the long-dominant Tennessee Volunteers on the Neyland Stadium turf in Knoxville Tennessee. “I was crying, the guys around me were crying. To finally beat those guys, it was just a great feeling,” he says of the emotional win.
There were more to come. In 2008 the Commodores finally broke through with 6 wins and a bowl appearance (and a visit from College GameDay to boot). Michael was at both the dramatic 6th win bowl clincher in Lexington and the Music City Bowl at LP Field. His fondest memory of that night? Sitting a row down from a group of 2007 graduates who had all made the trip back to their alma mater for the game. Together they cheered the ‘Dores on to victory, high-fiving all night as they celebrated the program’s first bowl win in 53 years.
It’s what he’d like to see more of – not bowl games, but Vandy grads coming out to enjoy events. “We need to mobilize the local alumni – get them involved.” Yes he admits, there are plenty of Vandy grads who aren’t from the southeast and may not hold football as dear as at other schools, “but hey, I’m from Manchuria. They’re missing a lot of fun.”
He’s done his part. His favorite Dudley Field memory didn’t have anything to do with a football game – it was the graduation of his son Oliver this past May. Michael speaks of the desire to start a Commodore tradition- generations of Hans collecting Vanderbilt diplomas and then taking in ball games together. It’s a tradition seen at other SEC schools but not so common at Vandy. He wants to change that.
Those ball games would certainly be sweeter with victories and like most Vandy fans, Michael is enthusiastic about the future and can’t say enough about the job the second year coach has done. “I firmly believe Coach Franklin can bring this team to a new level. He changed the attitudes of players and fans.” He met the coach briefly at an NCAA tournament game watch party and was impressed with his attention to detail – for example quietly setting aside his beer before posing for pictures with young fans.
Change the culture enough and perhaps Franklin can bring the Commodores another step closer to Michael’s ultimate dream: winning the SEC East. “It might never happen, but I keep my hopes high,” he says with a laugh. “Being a Vanderbilt fan, you gotta be optimistic you know, otherwise you can’t survive!”
And that is the crux of the thing. That is why Michael can endure 2-10 seasons, plaster his cube in black and gold anyway and come back every season for more- and all the time with a smile on his face. Unlike so many of us, he understands that a bad day of football is better than a good day in a lot of other places. More importantly he’s appreciative of the place that provided such life-changing opportunities for him and his family- opportunities that would have never been possible in the land of his birth. And that supercedes anything that could ever happen on a football field.
“Love of the school is more important than the game.”
Wise words from a man who knows better than most how well we really have it here. In Nashville, in the SEC, in America.
Besides, when it comes to being the underdog, Michael is always up for a good fight.
You can follow Brandon on twitter: @ABPriddy.