Some (Chinese) philosophy on relationships

bnu-forbidden-group-shot

Forbidden City, with the BNU Philosophy Summer school 2016 batch

Context: This is a reflection on the friends I made at Beijing Normal University Philosophy Summer School. as well as some musing on people from my 23 years of relating with human beings.

Prior to the trip in Beijing. I had two intentions: First, I want is to learn more about what is happening in Beijing and China at large, what people there care about and how they are thinking about the country and where it is heading towards. Second, I want to make some new connections, for people always trump places for me. I was excited to know that the group was rather diverse; my 45 classmates came from many different places in the world, from the land of the Kiwi to various parts of Asia and Europe to the US of A.

There are a lot to observe about Beijing — the streets, the city planning, the pace of life, the way people interact with each other. Whenever I travel to a new place, I always ask “Can I see myself living here?” I do have that sense in Beijing, even though I don’t speak Mandarin. The city reminds me of Saigon, Vietnam somehow — things move fast, lots of opportunities and exciting happenings beyond commercial stuff. Nevertheless, people have always left a  stronger impression on me, so I find it easier to reflect on the people I met. I learned a lot through the perspectives of my friends, especially how they all see China and have different responses to the lives here.

It is such a rare and wonderful opportunity to have people who care about philosophy not only in the academic sense but also in a personal sense.  When a group of thoughtful people is put together in a new environment for two weeks, some close friendships are bound to happen. I made new friends, some at a deeper personal level. Some opened up and drew for me their inner landscapes, which are all very beautiful. I did regret not having enough time with some people. Nevertheless, I know this human to human connection takes time to grow, and every encounter we have is always the beginning of something real and good.

The last night many of us went to have a drink at a street restaurant (that is how people in many Asian countries “hang out”). We all sat around a few tables, playing a drinking game as a way to share and know more about each other. The experience was particularly memorable for me, partly because of what was said but even more so because of what it reminded me about being human.

As the night went on, we were more and more drawn into each other’s life through the questions we asked the group. I could tell that the quality of my listening started to shift to a deeper place. What are the important lessons you are taking away from this experience? How has our sexual identity influence our lives? What makes a good person? What would you do differently from the trip? Each question asked met with many beautiful responses. Our Brazilian friend Hander made a comment: “This group of philosophy people is way more interesting than political science people”. Perhaps philosophy students do ask good questions, although I don’t know if the experience was meaningful because of our philosophy background or because of our shared humanity. After all, there should never be a distinction between the study of philosophy and the living of it.

I closed my eyes and tried to resonate with the emotions behind the stories. The whole scene felt like a piece of music that was both well-written and spontaneous, so beautiful that I could not just stand by listening to but have to sing along. Whenever I am engaged in anything, from writing to listening to good music to talking to people – and this maybe a common experience for many –  there is a paradoxical sense that I feel like already knowing what the next moment is and yet every moment feels fresh as it arrives. Every note is at the right place; every story shared at the right time. Even and especially the silence seemed right, when I could step back, breathe, shifting my attention to the whizzing sound of the cars on the street and take the entire scene in. Staying silent allows me to enjoy the beauty of the moment and also to honor the person behind every story with their full, messy, pretty self. It was important to be in and to hold the space.

In a sense, the stories told were not entirely new. They were all parts of the collective human experiences — be it self-doubt or the pain of rejection or a struggle to accept ourselves and other people. I’m lucky enough to have been a part of several circles of authentic sharing like this. Yet they were so fresh and delicious — the difference was as stark as between frozen packaged broccoli and the one we get directly from the farm.

There is something quite sacred about being on the street of a foreign place, with a group of initial strangers who turned into friends. It must be strange for the Chinese restaurant owner to see a group of mixed colors and genders occasionally bursting into tears (as long as we were still getting more beers). Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that tear is what happened when a person feels connected with oneself, with others and with some greater Force. That is why crying should be celebrated instead of shunned (plus the salty tears are pretty tasty – try licking next time).

Speaking of tears, whenever I hear stories of “Big men don’t cry” and how it leads to the over development of “maleness” nowadays, I just feel thankful for being raised by a single mother. If crying is ever bad, it is because it is messy, not because it is a sign of weakness, which is really nice because messiness for me and many others is much easier to embrace than weakness. I’m also less inclined to make the trite distinction between “masculine” vs “feminine” energy; it just means we are exploring and embracing a fuller sense of who we are and how we can be in the world.

The experience also made me think more about how to respond in the presence of someone’s outpouring of so-called difficult emotions. I often don’t say “It’s ok” and “We love you” and I wonder if I should say these phrases. To this day, I still wonder how to show my affirmation better. Should I say something along that line, offer a hug or just stay silent? The answer is always “It depends”. What does the situation look like? How does the other person tends to receive? From my side, I have to learn to both be more well versed in these different expressions of affirmation as well as to read the situation better to know what best to do. Words can be powerful, sometimes too much so. Hug is great, but I wonder if I hug people because they really need a hug or I just really want to hug?

Generally, action does speak louder than word, yet especially in this kind of situation it might be better to do nothing. As the Daoist concept of “wu wei” goes, sometimes nonaction speaks the loudest.

For example, when someone expresses how she feels about me, should I respond “Thank you” or “That means a lot to me” even if I don’t feel it? Or should I remain silent? I used to value sincerity and only express what I really feel. My common response to compliment these days is silence. If the person is curious enough to ask me how I feel, I will say “I’m just enjoying the moment.” Learning about Confucius and his emphasis on ritual has swayed me a bit though. It is tempting to think of ritual as insincere scripted actions, but that is missing the spirit of his teaching. Sincerity is to stay true with one’s feeling, but feeling can be cultivated. As such, sincerity and tactfulness do not contradict at all if we cultivate ourselves to have the appropriate feelings in every moment. And as with anything else for the Chinese masters, it is a life long practice.

Generally grownups need to have a clear, compelling reason to do something. (That’s why Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan is mostly for them; children don’t need that push) I often hear “start with Why”, yet what happened when I dug deeper within myself with these Why questions is the realization that I could not get to the answer just by asking. I have to start doing something. In other words, I can also start with What.

It has got easier for me to practice something without fully understanding the reason or meaning behind. With diligent practice the meaning will come. (Perhaps my next practice will be to say “I love you” more often to more people more often. Too much philosophy like “What do we mean by love?” and “Who are you and anyway?” are pretty counter productive as you can tell.)

On the last note, I’m often humbled and inspired to hear what people are working on about themselves. In our journey of becoming, we all need support in one way or another, even and especially those whom others have always leaned on. Which is why my answer to the question “What will I do after the trip?” was “To do a better job of following up and following through”. Even though I will probably never know the impact I have on people, I know for sure that I can be a lot more, and that I will have to do a lot more.

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Evolving “career” thoughts

My priority has been “Learn first, earn after”. Ideally the work should be about a cause that I care about, that I can make a contribution to. I am very very fortunate to not have to worry too much about money (yet), which frees me to think and test what I want to do.

At the end of last summer, I came up with a few conclusion about where I want to head next.

In terms of learning, I knew that the startup environment can offer me the most. It also has youthful and idealistic energy that resonates with a part of me. There people learn fast, because they have to and more importantly they want to. That’s where most innovation happens because it is the norm. At some points youthful enthusiasm yields in to stability, but as of now I know I want to be surrounded with that kind of spirit of learning and contributing.

On the other hand, I also know that we learn much faster with good mentors, which I think happens often at a more established organization. There are mentors for startup of course, but they very much serve as advisor rather than someone we can shadow. To learn, we need to both observe and practice. If I can see the day to day working of someone else I can learn a lot. People say “You won’t really learn something until you actually do it”. True, and you will learn even more by observing someone really good and then doing it yourself. Eventually we all have to climb our own mountains, but learning how to climbs with good form from the beginning can save us much trouble further down the road and thus allow us to go much further. Having good teacher is important.

Here is what I am thinking in the moment. Whenever I experience a contradiction in what I want, I try to tell myself: how can I do both? Call it ambitious or greedy or whatever (I call it “aspirational”) Work is a big part of life, and since my theme of this year is “Integration” I’d need to be more thoughtful about it.

The term “startup” doesn’t have to be a new company. Any initiative or project that involves people can be considered one. I am working on an initiative that involves a lot of people, on a cause that I care about and with people who are willing to guide me. I remind myself daily how it seems to be such a blessing.

Some lessons in life are unpredictable, but many can be planned. I learned from Gary Bolles his model of the three domains of skill: knowledge, transferable skill and self-management. For knowledge, I’m trusting that domain knowledge is becoming less relevant than making novels connections across domains. I love theories, so much so that I’d rather apply theories to the wrong context than not apply them at all.

Transferable skills can be broadly categorized into three categories: data, people and things. Here are the most valuable and also difficult tasks to do with each.

  • Data: Synthesize.
    – How to test: Able to explain a complex set of data to someone else.
  • People: Mentor
    – How to test: The mentees are able to surprise us with the quality of their work.
  • Thing: Set up / design
    – How to test: well-designed things are used they should pleasantly surprised both users and creators.

Self-management is a whole other set of skills. Know ourselves: how we work, perform, communicate. Gather and interpret data systematically. Hone our intuition and trust it in the most unpredictable circumstance. Be our best ally as well as our fairest critic. Develop the attitude of not taking ourselves seriously but our work very seriously. Last and perhaps the most important one: ask the right questions – questions that invigorates instead of debilitates us.

It is quite a helpful model to guide my thinking. I’m pretty on track with many of these, and I’m quite happy. I know I will learn a lot and appreciate the journey along the way. Something difficult will eventually happen, and I want it to be struggle together than struggle with each other.

What is my long term plan? If I wanted to stay in America in the next five years, it may be safer to go on an established path like working at a bigger company or going to grad school? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters as much. What is more important is learning to position myself in places where opportunities confluence, where I can be used well to make good contribution.

One of my mentors once asked me: “Are some young people really wise or they only say things that make them seem wise?” I really don’t know. I think this roadmap I’m writing makes sense. Following it is another story. As of now I think I’m sticking to it fairly well. Another thing that I learned is that I now really understand the importance of “start with the end in mind”, not only in terms of external goals but more of internal state. I’m already imagining the end of the summer: I will feel fulfilled, joyful, touched, loving, thankful, learned, wiser, ready, confident, If I can feel like that most days then I’m doing great.

“Education is not selfish”

This is a follow up from my ranting about Theory vs Experience . I am still asking myself the question of “Why am I in college?”

And I am still struggling with answering that.

Learning in school is so much fun for me, but when I hear my friends mentioning about the usefulness or lack thereof of their classes I cannot deny. They too are right. I may just be justifying to myself that what I am doing is good.

Now I can argue with you the value of learning calculus or the art even if we will never use them again to make a living. Part of me loves learning for its own sake; you can put me in lectures, doing problem sets or writing essays for the whole day. Even philosophy, the seemingly most impractical subject, does one good thing for me in addition to messing up with my brain. It gives me some ideas to practice in thinking, and boy, thinking hard is uncomfortable and exciting. It wouldn’t be too surprising if I really become a philosopher, thinking through worldly problems and conversing with fellow pipe-smoking philosophers.

But I have yet to reconcile within myself with the mantra that “Education is not selfish”. It’s such a privilege to be able to study just for fun in a good college, isn’t it? The other part of me yearns to show to the world that “Hey, what I am learning matters”. And that’s why I have to build things. I know that there is little point in arguing with people if my goal is to persuade: nobody cares if I am right. People care if I am useful for them. (some people just care because it is me, but those are exceptions that I put in my “to-treasure” list)

On a side note, while I know that it is impossible to change other people’s minds, I have a strange feeling that the rule does not quite apply to me. I change my mind so often, especially if you give me a good point. Maybe that is a side effect of being a student of philosophy. A common experience is that I read one text and thought “Omg, the author made so much sense!” and became so inspired that I started sharing with people about the point he made. Then the next day I read another text whose author completely disagreed with the first one while still making so much sense, and I was simply mind blown. How on earth am I supposed to write anything for or against anyone when I am totally sold by both, and how am I supposed to have my own view? It is a very humbling experience.

It is easy to dismiss philosophers as great hypocrites who simply talk about big and impersonal issues. I can talk about saving the world all the time and here I am not doing anything much. I see the point. I can say that I am now equipping myself with the thinking and doing skill so that I will be even more useful in the future for the world, but isn’t just my excuse for having fun learning random stuff here in school? This is perhaps the most honest line of the entire post: I may just be a petty guy trying to appear to be good to himself and others.

Dang, sometimes I wish I could just be innocent. But I’m like a huge stone rolling down the hill, already set in motion towards the direction of “figuring thing out” that it is almost impossible to stop this mode by myself. Question is the simplest and most effective way to direct one’s attention. It can mess up or enlighten our mind, however we choose to see the effect. As such, the ability to ask questions is both a boon and a bane, and I’d better use it wisely. It is okay to experiment on myself. I dig in myself pretty much, questioning even personally taboo topics. They are shit scary, like taking a cold shower in this freezing weather. But not everyone is ready for more difficult questions about his lives. People who are way wiser than me will probably tell me that I too am being overly confident, that I can deal with questions that can shatter my innocence. They are kind enough to not ask.

If someday I go really crazy you should just slap me in the face.

p/s: Thinking too much is no good, so I’m experimenting with no-thinking activities. They work pretty well and I’m reasonably sane.

How many years will I live on after I die?

This post is inspired by a recent talk by a friend. He wasn’t saying anything particularly new for me, but it was such a good reminder for what I want to do and what I can do (hint: “I still don’t know”).

Sharad shared with us a question that he most often asked himself and invited us to do the same.

How many years after I die do I want to be remembered for?
Some philosophers lived for a few thousand years. I remember justifying to myself that perhaps it wasn’t because they were influential. They were simply born before me; if the arrow of time was reversed, wouldn’t Socrates and Plato be remembering me now? Then I realized it was just a bad excuse. There were many people at that time who were not remembered at all.

Sharad pointed out how long we will be remembered depends on how much we add value to others. The more lives one can positively impact, the longer his name will live on. Of course notorious guys in history still live on today because they serve on as negative examples for children and object of study for history. (“How did this initially good guy become a villain?”)

Strangely enough, I was not at all motivated by this question. Do I care that much about living posthumously? I recall a fable of a king talking to an unknown man who was lazying around. The King asked the man “Why are you lazying around? Aren’t you afraid that you would die one day and no one remembers you? Go and do something!” The man simply replied “Why should I do anything anyway since we are both going to die? Instead of worrying about my death I would rather live now. Why do you have to build a statue of yourself if you would not be there to enjoy it?”

Are you the man or are you the king?
I don’t know. I feel that conflict often in myself: I don’t want to sit around, but I also know that my striving may very well be pointless. I have never been that motivated by fame, not because I think fame is not fun. It is just strange and somewhat uncomfortable for me to not know about someone who knows about me.

People often talk about living your life to the fullest so that you won’t regret on your dead bed. The king may regret for not relaxing while the man can regret for not trying harder. Maybe neither of them will. In the end, how we feel about our lives is our own choice.

If I am that ambivalent, why do I care to write this?
I am very grateful to hear my friend speak. The best thing Sharad has done to me is to be “brutally honest” (his words) and live his own life well (very similar to what my mom has done) He shows me his own example so that I know it is possible; he throws at me a challenge so that I want to do it. The fearful side of me kept giving itself excuses: “He is out my league.. How can he be so sure about his own direction? He may be missing out a lot of things in college given the commitment to his startup. I can’t be like that. My goal is different; I want to keep exploring in college, I don’t want to narrow myself down to that one path yet.”

Dear Khuyen, all lame excuses. It’s ok to not know what I want to do, but it is not ok to use that as an excuse to avoid the unknown. I can tell that Sharad has done a lot of soul-searching because no one at that stage who has not faced many difficult decisions. Sharad knows his direction because he has tried. Have I tried genuinely and forcefully enough, and if so have I made a decision? Is college is making me more mediocre by giving me four years of easy fun? If I am kicked out of college right now, what will I do?

What does this mean?
Two things for me. First, a rule for myself: Whenever presented with difficult choices, always choose the one I am more scared of. My future self will thank me. Second, a reminder: time is short and the most important resource in college is the people, so surround myself with people who genuinely care and inspire me. To my standard, I think I am still very shy, so this is the best way I can learn and grow and help others.

How should I spend my time helping others?

Why bother?
My energy is limited; how should I allocate it more effectively if my goal is to help as many people as much as I can?

The tricky trade-off
Do I want to be the generally nice and helpful guy, or do I want to be selectively with my help? Helping one person to a great extent (mentoring) or more people but less carefully for each?

It really depends. On one hand, helping selectively does have huge benefits:

  • Fewer people mean deeper personal connections, and as I’ve mentioned before in my blog, relationships can only get better with depth.
  • More detailed feedback: helping one person for a long period of time will give me a lot of feedback on how to help well.
  • I’m always a fan of simplicity: do one thing, do it well.
  • On the other hand, helping more people is like throwing a wider net. I don’t expect to be paid back for my help, but I expect to help effectively. Who knows, one of the people that I’ve helped turned out to benefit a lot from it? That will feel so good. Yet I will never know how much my help has contributed to another’s success. Measuring what would happen in the alternate world is an exercise in futility.
    • Another good thing: if I help many people I will have different kinds of feedback: some people will benefit more from more careful guidance while others flourish from figuring out on their own after being pointed to the right resources.
  • Anyway, whenever I have that selfish (in the excuse of being “efficient”), I think of Adam Grant, who wrote the phenomenal book Give and take] in which he argued that givers tend to do either much better or much worse than takers. The benefit of helping others is clear; the more important takeaway for me at least is his articulation on how each person should find out the most suitable way for her to give. Adam Grant himself is an extremely generous soul and effective giver. As a professor, he has office hours where anyone could walk into to ask for his help, and he often leverages his knowledge, resources and connections to help as much as he can. Definitely a good role model for me.
  • My own conclusion to this ongoing struggle requires some reflection.
    • What do I like to do and tend to be good at? I enjoy thinking, learning, building connections with people and ideas. I’m also getting better at asking people tricky questions to help them get unstuck – without annoying them too much. I can do these things without getting tired!
    • How does that translate to an effective way I can help? Bringing people together, spark some thoughts and let the conversations rolling.
      • Meanwhile I should try to be more public about what I do. The first thing I do when I want to do something I don’t know is to either search or ask around, but not everyone thinks this way. The question of why is it so hard for some people to ask for help is another huge topic on its own, but one answer for now is that others people don’t know that I can help. Everyone has at least one thing where she is better than others, which means that she can share and teach – knowledge and experience matter.
  • Thinking about it this way makes talking about my stuff a lot less scary and vulnerable. I’m doing this in the name of efficiency, not for personal gains.
    • I’m very inspired by this TED talk recently Be an opportunity maker How to have an awesome potluck party if everyone just brings a fork right? Serendipity, the driver of wonderful thing in life, comes from greater connections. To be a better opportunity maker, I will keep 1) honing my strength 2) seeking patterns by getting involved in different worlds and 3) communicating around these sweet spots of shared interests. Which is why I’m writing this.
    • A friend of mine in Tufts founded this awesome platform Dexterity Global that connects millions of students in India to opportunities: how wonderful is that?
    • I have been going to events of by Harvard Effective Altruism; it’s so exciting to be in a community where people think seriously about the question “How to do good well”. 😀

I have been writing regularly as a practice and as a ritual. I once heard that “The more you think you don’t have time for meditation, the more you need to do it”. It makes a lot of sense: the busier we are with other commitments, the more we need to “fight back” for our time. It’s not about what we do with our own personal time, it’s about we declare a personal time. The psychological benefit is huge: more sense of control, more satisfaction confidence with life and most importantly the constant reminder of what matters for us. If you are not serious with yourself, who can take you seriously?  –  ’nuff said.

With the digest group I can share more raw thoughts, get more feedback and ideas from people. Good conversations beget interesting thoughts, which is great. I welcome you to join and share.

On Choices. College is one of them.

Some quick updates:
Going back to school has been so good. I missed it. While it’s true that this initial excitement will soon fade as mid terms come, I’d rather enjoy it more right now. It is now the 4th week of school, and I still find the experience of being in a class, listening, taking notes and contributing to be quite surreal. I miss this kind of studying, especially after the summer. Learning is fun, whether it’s from doing in real life or from bouncing off ideas. I’m taking a challenging Computer Science class that takes roughly 25 hours per week excluding class time to finish. Now I understand what people mean by “common suffering unifies people”. Joke aside, I think the juicy part of the college experience is when there is struggle. No challenge = no learning = no fun.
Catching up with friends were nice too, but doing too much of that in such a short amount of time can be rather tiring. Instead of rushed conversations with too many people in the dining hall like last year, I scheduled walks with one or two this year. It’s a lot nicer to walk around, enjoy the air and chat.
Nature has been amazing. I didn’t realize that it was one of the things I missed the most from the summer. Note to myself: go out more often. Especially when I’m taking that 25 hours/ week class. Seriously. School work can wait; the good life can’t. Also, going out = exploring + enjoying. I’m very excited for all the opportunities this year. Do less, do better.


 

Done with updates, now to the point of this post: Our choices.

I have been asking my friends the questions of what excites them the most coming back to school this time. I received many different and interesting answers, yet I realized my questions presumed that we were all coming back to school. Haven’t I been saying about how awesome college is?

How about a gap year or even dropping out?

I did think of that, not because I badly wanted to do so. I just want to make sure to myself that it is not unthinkable. In evaluating that option, I’ve come to be more certain of my current choice of staying in college. Education is life, and college is just an experience in that. I still follow the traditional path, but I chose to do so while considering the other paths too.

This mantra has always served me well. “It’s my choice.” When we deliberate our choices, we become more of ourselves. We become that slightly better version that we think we want to be. The more difficult the choice, the more deliberation we have to do, the more we become. When I decided to go out with friends instead of calling my family, I’m becoming a bit more sociable. That’s not too difficult. When a friend of mine decided to send me an email telling me how what I did upset her, she was becoming a better friend. It was a more difficult decision, because it required her to have a more complex self-image: being a good friend now did not just mean that we always complimented each other. A good friend now means someone who thinks for each party and for the relationship. It was difficult because who would like such a big change in how one thinks of oneself?

I keep that in mind when I meet other people, often those around my age who believe that they have to do certain things. Some believe that they have no other choices. I often point out to them that choosing such belief is already a choice they make. Being aware that we make choices all the time, including what we believe in, may be the most powerful realization one can have. Some people tell me afterwards that they still stick with their original choices, like a major or job or a partner. I’m more that happy to hear that: once we deliberate, we have more conviction in what we do. We will do well, whatever that endeavour is.

Recently a friend told me that college students, those in liberal arts especially, all had the right to be confused about what we wanted to do. I think calling it a right can be misleading: where does that right come from? Does that mean some other people do not have that rights?

I like the ethos of that saying though, and here is my version. I choose to explore different options, which can be confusing, so that I can figure out. College does not suppose to give us a direction. Quite the contrary, it exposes us to different viewpoints and to the world of ideas (borrowing the terms from Computer Science – who says it’s only about machine and code? Technology, after all, is created by human, for human). If anything, college is supposed to disorient us in a good way. College may facilitate or hinder our quest to find a sense of purpose, but after all is entirely up to us. Only once we start asking that question can the answer emerge.

At least I should not be confused by this one decision I make everyday: I choose to be in college. Being aware of that deliberate choice alone can change the whole experience.

Relevant links:
– Ruth Chang knows why difficult decisions are tough. And important. One of my favorite TED talks.
– College does a lot of thing. But it can’t do everything.
– For those who may be a bit confused about what to do, I may have a solution.

“The ideal family”?

Last week, I had a chat with a friend about my favorite topic, the Vietnamese family. The “traditional Vietnamese ideal family”, we both agreed, was one where the husband worked more to support the family and had a lot of say in big matters whereby the woman would take care of household issues and childrearing. Each person has a well-defined role (by the contract they made among themselves and by social expectation).

Nothing new here. This ideal version says a lot about our cultural values: unity and harmony above all else. If most husbands and wives are happy with this “ideal”, society will be cohesive. There will be some outliers, but most families would hope to become the ideal.

My friend then mentioned that such ideal might not be the ideal after all. The husband can feel too much entitled for his contribution (is that what a lot of men feel? I’m somewhat disappointed of my own race… I understand that males need to have big egos to survive and thrive and procreate from evolutionary perspective, but that’s a bit too much. Big ego is the nemesis of unity).

This isn’t too new either, for I have lived overseas for several years. In the West, invididual right is at the core of how people think about living; consequently, the division of labor in the family is less pronounced because every member of the family should be treated and contribute to the family on roughly equal terms.

I was raised by a widowed mother, so these points weren’t immediately applicable. However, I thought about the host parents I was living with in Saigon. The division of labor was clear: My aunt would do all the housework; my uncle would spend time on business. My aunt often came back home earlier, had dinner and enjoyed TV programs while my uncle came home late after hanging out with his friends and went upstairs to read online news or play computer games. Ok, so what do all these observations mean?

Living with other people and seeing their different lifestyles have two distinct benefits on me. First, I became a lot more accepting. It’s no surprise that as we meet more people, we withhold our judgments more readily because everyone is different! My aunt and uncle chose to live that life, so it must be something they both prefer. How can I know I am better to judge that it’s not as good? If a drug addict tells me he’s enjoying his life, what can I do? Live and let live, right?

Thinking this way requires two assumptions: first, people know what they like. Second, they are telling us what they really think. We can examine these assumptions, but that’s for another philosophical essay. For now, pointing out these two assumptions should help us see that there are ways to counter this argument.

The second benefit, which is more important for me, is that as I had more exposure to different lifestyles, I understood much better what made me tick. I personally would not want to live this way, having too little interaction with my future spouse. Admittedly, there must be personal time and space. But part of the social contract of marriage includes time together. Conversation is not always necessary, but at least one must feel the presence of each other in everyday life (literally). I believe that “Quality of a relationship = Time spent together x Depth of each interaction.”, as mentioned in my previous post on friendship.

I appreciate the value of such division of labor in the family. It frees up the husband to earn enough money to support their needs. It also lets the traditional wife perform what she’s good at: taking care of household issues. It’s great if the goal is to maximize efficiency in dealing with money and household matters. But that may not be the only goal, especially up to the point where the family has sufficient financial support. The goal now maybe to spend more quality time together and rejoice, not get bored, in each other’s presence. In the end, how can love and mutual understanding, the most important factors of marital satisfaction, grow without interaction?

How much is “enough interaction”? Our preferences keep changing over time, let alone the fact that we have to compromise that with our partner’s too. That takes a lot of planning and constant re-evaluation of our plans. A few of my friends told me “Khuyen are you crazy? This is not a project!” To which I replied “What does “a project” mean for you? For me, it’s a series of steps to achieve a goal”. Building a family, getting fit or finding a job are all projects in that sense, and to do a project well I need to start with a design recipe.  That’s learning in real life.

I’ve seen a number of unsuccessful marriages, divorce or worse – still staying together yet already divorced in hearts. While I’m no counselor, have no experience or even know the full circumstances to judge, these stories still pain me: Why do we make bad choices in such a big matter? (and it’s not one single choice but rather a series of choices, each leading up to the next one in a slippery slope). I need to know the Whys before I can help.

Some people worried for me that I was thinking too much, “You still had the entire young adult life in front of you to explore the world, why bother thinking about this, Mr Old-n-Wise?”
I appreciate their concerns. I don’t think I’m spending too much time on this; it’s only one blog post, a few hours of thinking here and there. Maybe a few hours less from Facebook (still surfing too many random feeds anyway). Plus, for something of this big, it doesn’t harm to think in advance. Learning from both positive and negative examples is never wasted. And isn’t seeing the lives of people part of this great exploration?

As usual, after writing a blogpost I end up with more questions than before. How can I and my host parents think so different? Is there really a better version of the “ideal family”? What if they haven’t tried living a different lifestyle and thus not having enough information to choose? If so, what is my role?

I recalled another friend’s favorite quote: “You can’t change the way people live, but you can live the way that will make people change.” Perhaps that’s the answer for me now.

p/s: Perhaps I have been thinking about this topic since my brother is getting married soon. Can you believe that my 3-year-older brother who used to play pranks with me around the neighborhood is marrying in less than a month!?

p/s2: I initially planned to write a looooong reflection from these two months living in Saigon, but with this rate of writing I probably won’t have time before school to clear up all my notes to publish. At least I recorded all of them down.

Sharing secrets.

Whenever summer is about to end, my urge to write always yells at me – perhaps it’s afraid that I will neglect it once school year comes. Okay dear, I promise to treat you well.

As you may know, I love asking questions. The best explanation I can give for that crave is that it is an innate seed in our nature to make sense of the world. Somehow I’ve been watering that seed, so it grows. The more questions I ask, the more sense I make (after struggling to answer, of course), the more I want to know about the world.

The questions of today are something that has been on my mind lately: secret, intimacy and empathy. My experiences and reading magically point towards this direction, so let’s give them some thoughts.

Can we ever share too many secrets?
I don’t know. We have to maintain healthy boundaries in order to “live our own lives” – we need to see ourselves as individual agents making choices about our lives. If someone else knows everything about me, I will not be living “my” life anymore!

Yet, it is possible to “know” someone completely? For something as fuzzy as our sense of self, the only hope to know it better is in looking inwards AND connecting with others. If we allow others to see ourselves for real, we understand ourselves more.

Have you ever told yourself after meeting or reading about people “That’s so me!”? I surely do. I see myself in others more and more, especially after listening to their stories, which led me to conlude that despite the countless variations, we humans share the same few central stories. (That’s what distinguishes great writers: they write powerful stories that everybody can relate to). The cheesy expression comes to mind: “Everybody is different in the same way”. I think it’s the most fascinating thing about people: everyone is so different yet still so relatable somehow. It’s wonderful to know ourselves better that way, through connecting to others, intimately.

That brings me to the next question: How do I build such connections? Since the post on friendship, I’ve thought about it a lot more. 

It’s secret. Not a secret.

“Truly intimate relationships depend on really seeing another person, which means knowing the deep reaches that not everyone has access to. We can never completely merge with another, nor should we — being an adult requires maintaining healthy boundaries — but sharing these tender parts of ourselves allows others to love us, just as accepting others’ secrets allows us to love them.” – ideas.ted.com

I don’t keep a lot of secrets; the ones I keep are often planned to reveal at an opportune time. I find that sharing personal, difficult secret is often transformative, not only for the one who shares but also for the one who listens. The relationship changes and, dare I say, becomes more real.

One strange thing I just realized about secret is that we want to share it somehow. When we tell ourselves or others that “Something is better off being kept to myself”, we are consciously forcing ourselves against the default option to share it – otherwise we wouldn’t even have to think about that decision.

But why is it often so hard to share secrets? And why are some people less afraid of sharing secrets than others? Let’s listen to shame and hear Brene Brown saying it best.

“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.” – Brene Brown.

So with a bit more vulnerability, love and empathy, sharing secrets doesn’t have to go with shame anymore. It becomes more natural – and doing something in our nature is very rewarding. I’ve been fortunate to be able to share and to listen to stories of people, many of which are difficult secrets. I’m thankful for their trust, for giving me the opportunity to listen, to learn more and connect with them. It takes a lot of courage to be real, to be vulnerable enough to share deeper secrets, so I learnt to acknowledge it when people do. Perhaps it’s kind of gift that I’m getting better at giving.

Last question for today: Will I ever run out of secrets to share?
Nah, sharing is always generative, not exhaustive. The fact that I share with you a secret becomes a secret in itself, isn’t it? I share some secrets with one, some with a few others. In doing so, each of us becomes more – true for two. Or more.

A far-fetched analogy is about why nations now prefer trade rather than conquering other nations compared to in the past: exchanging and sharing create more resources for everyone! Any kind of relationship, between two nations or two people, can only sustain if it’s generative, not possessive.

p/s:

I’m experimenting with this new method of writing: answer my own questions. It’s more fun to write, and I hope some of my readers share these questions too. 

What do you think? What should I write for the next post? I’m waiting for some powerful questions to inspire me. You can certainly help, and please do so by asking in the comment, or in the “Ask me anything” link to the left. Thanks : )