“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.


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 : )

On rejections and (potential) romances.


(Via sunnyydoodles.tumblr.com; outdated since Stanford charged $90 in 2012. Random photo online for illustration purpose, because I waived the $80 application fee)

This morning, my phone shuffled to a song that invariably reminded me of a college that I really wanted to but didn’t get in. I don’t know why I haven’t deleted it from my favorite playlist yet, but usually I will skip whenever the playlist comes to the song.

That makes sense right? I won’t be reminded of my failure. I notice that I make excuses “oh it’s really hard to get in. Oh it’s out of my control. Oh it’s pure luck” so that I won’t consider not getting in as a failure. Whether these are indeed excuses to avoid the blame on me or these are facts, I still keep these thoughts because they make me  feel better without harming anyone else. If I think like this, chances are I’m not a failure.

But how about pain? Even when I don’t consider rejections as failures, they are still painful somehow. Thus, I should still be justified in skipping the song, for it reminds me of all the wonderful things that I could have had if only… Ah, here comes pain’s close friend, regret. “I wish I spent more time on my essays instead of slacking around”. That sort of thought can actually ease my mind, for it tricks me into thinking that I know how to “get in”. Well, obviously not. No one knows. Now that’s the real comforting thought. That is a fact even. The serenity prayer suddenly comes to my mind “God, grant me serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (I’m not a Christian, but I’ve heard this before).

The difference this morning is that I was brushing my teeth. Perhaps I was too lazy (or busy? <- catch myself making excuse right here) to change song. The familiar melody played on, and a very strange thing happened.

I still liked it so much. I liked the melody, the voices, the script. I still sang to each word of the lyrics in my head just like I did last year in the exam hall. What on earth is wrong with the lovely song? What has transformed love into hate, if it ever happened? I realized how my mind worked: I associated something irrelevant like a song to a decision made by a bunch of people who cared about anything but that song. The latter repulsed me, and so the former was affected. Irrational as it was, it worked pretty well in soothing me.

Then, what has transformed hate into love again? Clarity of mind, which comes from time and adaptation. It needs time, for time dilutes memories and thus allows me more room to think. It needs adaptation, for the more I try to think clearly, the easier it gets. I think the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is slightly misleading. Adversity doesn’t make me grow; the process of recovery from it does.

As a creature who loves to overthink, I inevitably imagine this scenario and I’d like to invite you to do so, just for the fun of it. It maybe even more fun if you are in a romantic relationship when all the passion is driving you crazyyy (I’m not and so I’m super curious to hear your thoughts). Imagine you just break up with your partner after for some reasons. Depending on your personality and genetic disposition, you can tell yourself that it is not your fault and wonder why you fell in love with such an a**hole in the first place. Or you can take all the blame and feel absolutely  terrible.

Regardless of your reaction, you will still have to move on in the face of the unpleasant experience. Will you throw away all the photos and gifts or delete the favorite songs that the two used to listen together – anything that can remind you of the memories? Will you try to shift the blame away to soothe yourself? I’m tempted to say yes now; I know resisting my natural reaction is tough. Yet, after the weird realization this morning with the college song, I hope I will remember to remind myself then that some pains and regrets are perfectly okay. Attachments make me vulnerable, but on hindsight I’m willing to trade some vulnerabilities for humanness and the potential to bounce back stronger 🙂

Really curious to hear what you think of this thought experiment.