On hospitality & intercultural friendship

A short trip to Bangkok left some interesting tidbits, memories and reflection.Visiting Bangkok was a last minute decision, especially with the recent bombing incident. For some reasons I still decided to go, and I’m fulfilled with the short trip.

On the second day I got to stay with a friend I haven’t met for 2 years from SEALNet Youth Leadership Summit 2013. I remember him as the super smart Physics student and avid manga fan. I love visiting friends in their families – seeing their house, sharing a meal or going out together – because I could understand my friends in their own environments (plus I seem to have a knack for connecting with parents. A message for all my friends: let me visit you in your house – it will be good for all of us!)

The house was simple. Nothing fancy. The family has a lot of stuff, similar to mine. What first caught my attention was the front wall full of pictures of significant milestones and memories of the family. Many were the children’s achievements, as the two brothers are among the most academically talented people I’ve known. I knew behind such proud moments were lots of struggles and sacrifice from both parents and the boys.

I slept on a sleeping bag, sharing the only air-conditioned room with my friend. His mother woke up early to prepare a huge breakfast, even more than a normal dinner. We talked a lot about their lives, about the history and politics of Thailand and of South East Asia at large. I was impressed by their knowledge and more importantly how much they cared about learning and understanding history and culture. Both parents visited more places in Vietnam than I did, which is a shame. They grew up in turbulent times of Thailand and of the region; the mother was even arrested once for identifying with the Communist party.

His mother shared with me that Vietnam had always been an inspiration for the other countries in ASEAN for our struggles and victories against the French and American. Even though the wars left Vietnam devastated, at least we achieved independence, freedom and stability. Of course the stories are never that simple, and all of us knew that every country has its own problems. Nevertheless, it was nice to hear these thoughts from the perspective of our neighboring Thai friend. Yes, we all have problems, but if we could be a little bit more open to share and listen to each other’s stories, to understand and accept of each other’s past mistakes then there would be fewer harsh judgments and regrettable reactions. Changes at the large level among countries have to start from the individual level between two people.

The solution sounds easy in theory; the question is how well do we do that in practice? I think that is one thing SEALNet has done well – creating an opportunity for genuine friendships from different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and generations. From such friendships come the attitude of openness, understanding and a willingness to learn from one another.

I’ve heard the complaint from adults, especially the grandparents, that the young generations live too comfortably, never learn the value of hard work and forget about the country’s history. I agree partly, but we have to see from the youngster’s perspective. Why and how can I care for something so distant that I don’t experience? How can we expect students to care if most of these so-called “history lessons” were boring propaganda which students had to memorize in class for the sake of getting a good grade?

Since I got to know my Thai, Malaysian or Cambodian friends, I started to care more about their countries, and then when they asked me about Vietnam I felt that I needed to know more about it. We care first about what is closest to our hearts. Maybe it’s the TV drama we all watch or the app youth in each country uses to chat – Viber in Vietnam vs Whatsapp in Malaysia. It may sound silly and trivial, but any kind of personal connection is better than nothing.

Speaking of fostering understanding to overcome inaccurate judgments, let’s talk about a few recurrent  phenomena I’ve observed.

  1. Cynicism: It is easy to get cynical. Worse yet, some cynicism goes so deep that it is simply sad. Could you imagine this thought by a guest visiting someone’s house? “The host family is so nice to me because they want to appear nice in front of guests. Who knows, they may be fighting each other when I’m not there.” Cynics are frustrated idealists. From my experience, they think too much in their head without seeing reality; they cling on to their rosy picture of human nature and inevitably get disappointed or even hurt. Who doesn’t want to appear nice in front of others? Which family doesn’t fight once in a while?Some people, myself included, have been told that we are too trustful, and that we would be taken advantage of. We have to learn to protect ourselves and place our trust on the right people. Good advice with good intention; however as a young, inexperienced and idealistic guy, I’d rather be cheated a few times than lose hope in people. It doesn’t mean I will trust everybody. It’s quite the contrary; I have to be extra careful as I’m going to enter the real world. Yet, the default mindset is still to trust first and then reconsider when things happen instead of not trusting first. I also have to start building and keeping my reputation for my own good, because I’ve made some mistakes over the summer which caused a few people to lose trust in me.
  2. Superiority: it is also easy to feel superior to others, especially those with different backgrounds. “I am a top student. I had a scholarship to study in America. I studied with world-class professors. I speak and write decent English. “They” have none of this, so I can do this work much better than them.” Of course none of us admits that sense of superiority in public because we are decent human beings who don’t judge others on the basis of their backgrounds, yes? But how many of us can swear we don’t have such thought at the back of our minds sometimes? I do, and I’m always humbled whenever I have the chance to work with others not from my usual group of friends. It is the lesson I have to remind myself again and again: People are people. I have to see them for who they are. I can also choose to believe in who they can become.

Throughout the short time stay with my friend, I thought of my mentor’s words about what we try very hard to do at SEALNet: to get people who are different from each other work together so that we can “create conditions for people who are different to find what is common between them.” There are always a lot of stories to share, but for now I hope that people involved in SEALNet in one way or another have realized something important: genuine connection is so good that once we have a taste of it, we raise the bar for our other relationships 😀

Last thought: there is something refreshing and charming around dedicated and unpretentious people. No drama, no fanfare, no trying too hard to get attention or approval. Just nice, warm, caring people. The short visit also helped me put thing in perspective: while I can be worrying about my own future – what kind of work, who will I meet, where I will be – I am reminded again of my priority: no matter what I do, surround myself with people who are bold, caring and willing to learn.

A short stay with a lovely family. Thai food is darn good!

A short stay with a lovely family. Thai food is darn good!


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.


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 : )