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.

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“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.