A recent discomforting experience showed my progress in the journey to be a better person.

I was returning a room key to a friend whose room I stayed in during the break. I received a very honest feedback from a friend about leaving his room in rather a messy condition. At that very moment I could feel my ears reddening; my field of vision blurring; my mental balance trembling. I think I stood numb for a few seconds. Or perhaps time slowed down as I sensed a peculiar sensation swelling up within, waiting to consume me.

But I did not lose to it completely. I managed to still have a tiny bit of conscious focus. I could notice in my friend’s eyes that it was not comfortable at all for him to tell me so.

You may want to say “Of course it is not comfortable to say it.” That was what I thought too, and that is just a thought that anyone can imagine. The value of the real experience comes from the noticing of what was going on: his tone, my body, his words, my response, his eyes. The whole scene became ingrained in my psyche.

The first thing I said was “Thank you for letting me know.” I could tell that I meant it; I was honest. Then I apologized and asked if I could do anything to help – now that was basic courtesy, the default contrived response I would usually say. As you can imagine, it was awkward.

Yet that moment was very inspiring for me. I surprised myself at how I responded to the situation, given my deep-seated fear of confrontation. Was my heart still racing fast? Of course. Emotion is darn powerful, and being with it, let alone making use of it, is hard. But I was more in control of myself, more observing, more honest. Celebrate the progress!

On the way back, I had an interesting conversation with myself. Part of me still yelled “This sucks. Go away lousy feeling!”. The more optimistic and practical me eagerly told the panicking voice “Use this not so good feeling to make sure you do better the next time.” So far so good: very typical of me, right?

But there was a new voice. It simply said: “This is discomfort. Feel it.” And I was tasting the sensation for real. Was it shame? Or guilt? I don’t know. I don’t want to and don’t have to name it that way. It was a particular sensation, and I remembered its texture. That was enough. I was experiencing “it” more deeply, touching its contour, sensing what it was doing to myself internally. It was very similar to the itchy sensation of a mosquito bite. The next time you get bitten, pause. Don’t scratch. Feel the itch. I bet you will realize that it is not that itchy after all. In fact, it feels quite interesting. Then after playing with the sensation enough you can even hi-five yourself “I did not scratch!” (I did. Silly? And fun).

What I learned was that many of us tend to perceive these discomforting experiences, whether they be physical or psychological, as something dreadful we want to avoid head-on. We want them to go away as soon as possible. We want to get distracted from the pain, hoping that it will go away when we come back. In other words, we see discomfort as enemy.

My experience taught me that discomfort was first and foremost a sensation. Remember the advice our moms gave when we had a toothache? “Just ignore it.” Not a very helpful advice: how can I ignore something painful? Paradoxically, the only way to let go of those sensations is to pay full attention to it. Not what we think “it” is.

Now that I have experienced discomfort fully and become more familiar with what it really is, I fear it less. I can choose to see it in a different light. What do I want to come out of such discomfort? A better me. This is not even about optimism; I just don’t want to be stupid with myself. So I choose to see it as an opportunity for growth.

It helps to be realistic too: I cannot expect to reap all the reward without paying the price. Our life experiences ebb and flow like waves. Without trough there can be no crest; without discomfort there can be no growth. On the other extreme, I also do not want to repeat the mistakes someone else has made. That is real stupidity. But getting advice helps but only so much. No one learns to cook just by  reading cookbooks.

It still sucks harddd when someone else tells me I am wrong, or he is displeased with me, but it’s a lot less now. How is that possible? I am not that courageous; I am still very afraid of discomfort. What helps me is that over time I become more and more committed to my own growth. Because growth feels (mostly) good! More importantly, at the end of the day, the only person who can go with me through all the joys and hardships, who celebrate my pleasure and grieve my pain, is myself. With that commitment comes the understanding that discomfort is an indispensable part of the journey. It presents a golden window of opportunity, a state of vulnerability that allows me to change, for better or for worse. If I want to dress on a new shirt, I need to take off my current one and be naked for a while right?

And how much I learn depends less on what is going on outside and more on what is happening inside my head. If you have ever tried teaching anything, you will find that it is very hard to teach if the student does not want to learn. When I put my mind into anything, I learn. Others can dismiss this trivial story of leaving-the-room-in-a-mess, but I can’t. Such opportunity is so rare, so good that I cannot waste.

I’ve been telling myself that I am becoming more aware and resilient. That is a nice positive thought, and I want it to be substantial. Now I had a glimpse of my progress, I am much more confident to throw myself in more challenging situations now. I will probably crumble, which should be fun.

Ngõ tự do – Freedom Corner


Freedom Corner. Very near my house, about 500m away only. No doubt this was my childhood ._.

“Ngo Tu Do”, or “Freedom Corner” in English is where countless generations of students from the nearby National Economics University have spent most of their college years to become anyone they want to be: professional dancers, strategic commanders or even dragon knights. Along the 3 meter wide alley is a chain of so many game shops that the shop owners would rather use the addresses to name them: Game 54, Play Station 49 etc… One can easily see the vibrancy of the college campus by taking in the exact opposite scene at the Freedom Corner; sadly, many students prefer to ‘live’ here, making it a 24/7 crowded place. It’s indeed less about freedom and more about being cornered.

I once saw a friend with the game nickname ChickenPro88 carrying a full 25-liter drinking bottle on shoulders, climbing up 5 staircases of the school block to deliver it and get 5000 VND, which equaled 2 hours of gaming. Like the majority of the students here, he was a recent migrant to Hanoi, coming from a poor farmer family in Nghe An Province. His path was hardly uncommon: trudging through the grueling preparation for the college entrance exam, he brought to Hanoi his whole family’s pride and hope for a future free of the farmer’s worries, just to experience an anticlimax. “Sometimes thinking about my family back home makes me feel guilty, but seriously school is boring and the degree pointless. No connection means no job.” He shared bitterly.

Had I stayed in Hanoi, I would be no different from ChickenPro88. I saw through my tears of pain and shame the wooden canes broken in half when my mom punished me for coming home late from the game shop. I had told myself countless times to quit to no avail, and I even believed my mom’s words, “Gaming has gone into your blood”, before I left to Singapore. Strangely, I quit gaming by less of a sudden declaration but more of a gradual exposure to more fascinating things in life: working for a project with a committed team, reading a good book or simply exchanging thoughts with friends.

My experience in SEALNet Project Singapore 2011 has humbled me and also given me hope. From the initial inferior feeling towards the passionate international college students who went through all the hassle to go to Singapore, I became empowered by these friends who cared enough to pursue something larger than themselves. My mentors helped me to discover and internalize a lifelong spirit of inquiry, a desire for self-improvement and a mission to enrich others. I don’t need to be a virtual dragon knight to feel strong. Focusing on developing sincere relationships and keeping an open mind will me give real strength to not only stay firm in life but also to reinforce my vision of a better society with more confident, critical and compassionate people.

After four years studying in Singapore, a visit to the Freedom Corner bothered me. Any college students here who have triumphed over the rigorous college entrance exam or have seen their parents reducing meal portions to save up for their college are clearly motivated and have potential. The world has to know about this underutilized human resource. Likeminded friends from more developed countries may take interest in refining these hidden gems by providing them mentorship or educational exchange opportunities. If one person like me can have such impact, it won’t be far long for students in Vietnam to all experience the transformative power of a real education. An exposure to fascinating possibilities of life and a focus on value-building will certainly strengthen students like ChickenPro88 enough to finally break away from the Freedom Corner.
Ngõ Tự do là nơi vô số thế hệ học sinh, phần nhiều từ trường ĐH Kinh tế quốc dân ngay cạnh, dành phần lớn đời học sinh để tự do trở thành bất kì ai họ muốn, từ những vũ công chuyên nghiệp tới những vị tướng tài ba hay thậm chí là kĩ sĩ rồng. Dọc theo cái ngõ rộng ngót ngét 3 mét ấy là một dãy hàng điện tử, nhiều đến mức chủ cửa hàng toàn lấy số nhà để gọi: Game 54, Play Station 49 v.v.  Muốn biết đời sống sinh viên trong trường phong phú ra sao, bạn chỉ cần nhìn ngược vào độ náo nhiệt ở Ngõ Tự Do. Tiếc thay, nhiều bạn chọn “cắm cọc” ở đây, biến nơi này thành nơi đông vui 24/7. Chẳng biết ai đặt cái tên “tự do’’ đầy oái oăm này?

Có lần tôi nhìn thấy một anh bạn với cái tên ChickenPro mồ hôi mồ kê nhễ nhại bê cái bình nước 18 lít trên vai, trèo năm tầng cầu thang chót vót trong kí túc xá để được trả công 5 nghìn, quy ra là 2 tiếng điện tử (hồi đấy thôi). Như phần lớn sinh viên ở đây, anh bạn tôi mới lên Hà Nội từ một gia đình nhà nông chẳng khá giả gì ở quê. Cả chặng đường đấy không có gì xa lạ: học (hay cày) bửa mặt ra để thi cho đỗ đại học, anh ấy mang đến thủ đô niềm tự hào của cả một dòng họ và mơ ước về một tương lai không khấp khỏi lo lắng về chuyện nắng mưa sâu bệnh. Tất cả để rồi cụt hứng như bây giờ. “Thỉnh thoảng nghĩ về gia đình anh cũng thấy tội lỗi lắm, nhưng thực sự đi học chán chết, học được cái bằng xong cũng chẳng để làm gì”, anh bạn tôi nói chua chát.

Nhìn người rồi mới nghĩ lại mình: nếu tôi đã ở nhà chắc có lẽ cũng chẳng khác gì ChickenPro. Qua những giọt nước mắt của đòn đau và sự xấu hổ, tôi nhìn thấy cái que roi gỗ gãy làm đôi khi mẹ đánh tôi vì đi chơi điện tử về muộn. Tôi đã từng tự nhủ vô số lần là mày nghỉ điện tử đi Khuyến ạ nhưng chẳng có tác dụng. Thậm chí tôi còn lo trước khi tôi đi Singapore học rằng mẹ nói đúng, “điện tử nó ngấm vào máu mày rồi”.

Kể cũng lạ, tôi nghỉ chơi điện tử không chỉ vì một câu tuyên bố hùng hồn mà còn vì nhiều trải nghiệm với những điều hay ho khác trên đời: làm một dự án nào đấy với một nhóm bạn tận tụy, đọc một cuốn sách hay hoặc đơn giản chỉ là nói chuyện và chia sẻ với bạn bè. Có những trải nghiệm đã thay đổi tôi rất nhiều, làm tôi khiêm tốn hơn và cũng cho tôi thêm niềm tin. Lần đầu gặp gỡ một nhóm bạn quốc tế phải trải qua nhiều rắc rối để đến Singapore làm tình nguyện tôi hơi tự ti lắm, nhưng rồi tôi thấy mình được động viên hơn rất nhiều bởi những người bạn trẻ tuổi, những người muốn sống tốt hơn cho mình và cộng đồng. Có những người thầy dẵn dắt giúp tôi nhận ra  cái mơ ước được học hỏi cả đời, cái khát khao tiến bộ và hơn hết thảy là một sứ mạng để giúp đỡ mọi người kém may mắn hơn. Tôi chẳng cần kị sĩ rồng lên level để tôi tăng sức mạnh ảo, vì tôi tin tôi có sức mạnh thật.

Sau mấy năm học ở nước ngoài, giờ mỗi lần đi qua Ngõ Tự do tôi lại thấy chạnh lòng. Bất kì sinh viên nào ở đây, những người đã vượt qua kì thi đại học khốc liệt hay đã từng thấy bố mẹ mình thắt lưng buộc bụng cho con đi học rõ ràng đều có ý chí và năng lực. Mọi người, thậm chí cả thế giới, phải biết về những hòn ngọc chưa mài này mà tận dụng, mà giúp bằng cách dìu dắt, định hướng các bạn tốt hơn hay qua những cơ hội giao lưu trao đổi học sinh. Nếu một thằng “điện tử ăn vào máu” như tôi may mắn hơn nên được như bây giờ thì thử hỏi sẽ tốt biết bao những bạn khác được trải nghiệm một nền giáo dục thật sự! Được đối mặt với những cơ hội hay ho khác trong cuộc sống và tập trung phát triển những giá trị và tiềm năng của chính mình chắc chắn sẽ giúp những người như anh bạn ChickenPro của tôi thoát khỏi cái nhà tù mang tên Ngõ Tự Do ấy.