I think the second most well-known song in Vietnam, behind our national anthem, is ABBA’s “Happy New Year.” People play it in every home, at every bar and on every TV channel on New Year’s Eve. Teachers teach it in school and its chorus could be sung by most Vietnamese people, whether they speak English fluently or not. Just hearing the phrase “no more champagne” puts me in a festive mood, because those first three words signify the beginning of something so fresh and promising. It is an iconic musical masterpiece, well, until I came to the U.S. in 2013 and… none of my American friends played that song on New Year’s Eve, some even unaware of its existence!
It was a moment of culture shock for me. I was expecting to face a lot of culture shock with such a big move, but not this one. A rebel to the notion of “fitting in,” I gathered with some Vietnamese friends in a rented New York apartment that New Year’s Eve and sang my heart out to that ABBA song. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the lyrics until that night, when one particular line struck me: “May we all have a vision now and then of a world where every neighbor is a friend.” Isn’t the fact that I was there, in New York City, 8000 miles away from home, a solid proof that that 1980 “vision” had come true in some form? The fact that I was able to move from a largely agricultural, “third-world” country to one believed by many as the destination of dreams and the greatest country in the world is still quite unbelievable. That transition, geographically, culturally and ideologically, was the biggest highlight of my decade.
The realization about how underplayed “Happy New Year” is in America stands for something much bigger. For more than half of the decade, I’ve been living in between two very different cultures. Like an ever-swinging pendulum, I float around and shift between an individualistic, politically-active, diversity-appreciating society in the West and the family-oriented, heavily-censored, homogeneity-praising society in the East. This “dual identity” has given me unique, eye-opening experiences on how to live, how to love, how to socialize, and how to thrive. I came out of them with hard-earned lessons that became invaluable assets for the future. This New Year, with festive ABBA music playing in the background, I’m sharing 10 things I’ve learned from the 2010s that will travel with me into the new decade.
1. Fitting in is overrated.
I spent more than half of the last decade trying to understand what “fitting in” means. When I moved from Vietnam to the U.S. in 2013, everybody talked about it but there has never been an instruction manual. I took it as I should try to do everything in a more American way. I listened carefully to how my friends talked and tried to pronounce words with as little of an accent as possible. I tried switching to the Fahrenheit scale when looking up the weather and reminded myself that 60 means warm in the winter, even though 15 degree Celsius means freezing where I come from. I tried saying things like “What’s up?” without internally forming the answer I found most logical, “The sky!” I stopped using an umbrella when it was too sunny outside, which is honestly the #1 purpose of an umbrella in Vietnam. I refrained from using the passive voice in my writing because every single American person says it’s not welcome, although to me that sounds absurd. After a while, I started feeling like a robot. What I hate most in life, as a creative type, is the feeling that I’m copying someone and that I’m putting on a constant performance. I started to feel less of myself and needed to stop. If America is the country priding itself on accepting diverse ways of life, it should walk the walk. I switched back to Celsius because knowing whether it’s cold or hot is my personal business. I use an umbrella when I want now because I need to protect my skin from the sun, and people can judge but I stopped caring. You will find many instances of the passive voice in this article as well as my subsequent writings because I do believe that sometimes, the executor of an action is not as important as the people affected, the victims, the consequences or the objects of the world. And… I’m doing absolutely fine. I am surrounded by people who accept the way I live. I have been able to find those who share it. Most importantly, I don’t feel like a fish out of water anymore. I think nobody should let go of who they are and try to copy other people just to “fit in.” There’s not one way to be “normal,” and normal is boring anyway.
2. Never let go of the power to make a decision.
Before freshman year started, Vassar had this roommate-matching system where you could chat anonymously with other incoming freshmen and decide to room with someone you found compatible. I had a great conversation with J., who shared so many of my interests and lifestyle, and at the end of the matching period he asked me, “Do you want to become roommates?” Guess what? I said, “No.” My reasoning was that my spontaneous self wanted the universe to surprise me, even though I knew that he would be the perfect roommate. Moving to America was so exciting that I just wanted things to unfold by itself. I didn’t want to ruin that addictive feeling of anticipation by making such an absolute decision. There’s something electrifying about opening a present and you don’t know what’s inside of it. Oh, how naive I was! Vassar decided to room me with someone whose lifestyle was exactly the opposite to mine. Their preference to leave the windows open on the coldest nights of winter got me constantly sick, so I had to move. My second roommate put tape on the floor to divide the space equally, about which I had a thousand questions. Even though everyone else on my floor was super nice, I couldn’t get along with them at all. Something just didn’t click. Ironically, I found myself being closer with people in J.’s circle. I never got to hang out as much with J. as I wished to, though. I have been wondering for years if my college experience would have been better if I had been his roommate, and believe that it would. The lack of connection I felt with the people I was expected to have great connections with led to this feeling of isolation that I don’t think any international students should experience when they first move here. Consequentially, that affected my comfort level when socializing and making friends, which deepened a sense of Otherness. Whenever I reflect on this experience, I always tell myself, if you ever have the power to make a decision, make that decision. Nobody else, even the magical forces of the universe, understands who you are and what you need more than you do. If you know taking a certain action could surely make your life better, don’t let anyone else snatch it. You have to be the one who does.
3. Do what you love. Do something that can keep you awake even without caffeine.
One thing about growing up in Vietnam is that our parents always impose upon us their prejudice for certain careers and against others. When I was three, my Dad pointed to the TV during a concert broadcast and said to me, “Please don’t ever become an artist.” His reasoning throughout the years has always been making art is not a “real” profession, it doesn’t really benefit life, and artists are poor, unless you are Oprah Winfrey. His opinion became even more vocal at the beginning of this decade, when I entered high school and had to start thinking about whether I should do what I like in the future, or do what my parents think is best for me. An emotional person to my core, I chose the former. I started writing for a newspaper and was paid $43 a month, which was huge for a Vietnamese high-schooler back then. I kept this writing gig as a secret for years. It was not until the night I flew to the U.S. for college that I told them the truth and handed them all the money I’d saved. They were flabbergasted, but I could also see a tinge of pride, and knew I made a good choice. Throughout the last decade, I’ve continued choosing to do what I love instead of something conventionally lucrative. My parents wanted me to study Economics, as if not enough Asians were studying that already, but I chose Media and Film instead. They were not pleased when I said I wanted to take Drawing and Dance classes, but I took them anyway. This is what I realized: when I love doing something, I could pour all of my passion and energy into it. I would go above and beyond to perfect a piece of writing, to finish shooting a film, to master a musical composition. If this is not the recipe for high-quality work, I don’t know what is. I could have become a financial analyst at some bank, but if I hate what I do 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, how am I going to reach my full potential and perform my best on the job? I didn’t need one drop of caffeine to stay awake throughout the three-day shoot for my thesis film, and that’s the electrifying feeling I would trade anything for, in the next decade as well.
4. Don’t be with someone who’s intimidated by your intelligence.
After college, I moved to New York City, which had been my dream since I could remember. Free from the brutal all nighters, occasional negligence in self-care and endless cycles of exams, I was ready for serious dating. From an outsider’s perspective, New York is a gay heaven. Queer people are everywhere and queer spaces are easy to access. All of this is true, but I soon learned that it is not the recipe for happiness. I am not just a gay man. I am an Asian, non-American gay man, and one thing a lot of gay New Yorkers seem to expect from Asian gay men is that we are naive, obedient, and stupid. Believe me, those traits turn a lot of people on. Mispronouncing words, using incorrect grammar, always saying “yes” and never questioning anything are some people’s definition of “attractive.” Maybe that stems from the stereotype that Asians are submissive and the feeling of superiority is sexy to some. That is absolutely fine in the realm of sex, but, in my opinion, rather unhealthy in day-to-day life. I’m a writer, so I’m prone to using words that convey precisely what I want to describe, which sometimes leads to me uttering a term that’s more likely to exist on standardized tests than casual conversations. That habit has been made fun of with the hint that I was pretentious. The fact that I have written a book also seems much less amusing than whether I’m good at cleaning houses, if I am “smooth” enough, or how I pronounce “curtain” “kern.” “Oh my god that is so cute, can you say ‘curtain’ again? Hey Kev, listen to how he says ‘curtain.’ So adorable.” *Cues the two men’s laugh* After two and a half years in this city, I’m done with that. I’m done with trying to dumb myself down to sustain a relationship. I’m done with trying to simplify the way I talk to make myself a “manageable” lover. I’m done with those who cannot fathom the coexistence of being an Asian gay man and being smart. I won’t compromise on my intelligence. Not anymore.
5. Don’t fall in love with the potential of a person.
Tale as old as time. Boy meets boy. Boy sees how amazing of a person he could be. Boy falls in love with boy. Boy realizes he will never be that amazing person. Boy breaks up with boy and wonders what went wrong. It is a trap that many fall for and not surprisingly I wasn’t an exception. When we fall in love with someone, it’s easy to believe what we want to believe in. That’s what most people do, and one of the most dangerous things to believe in is that someone will one day become a greater person because we’ve seen signs of that vision. I have learned the hard way that a vision is just a vision and the future tense is a treacherous slope to walk on. I have met people who have a great heart and could have been the most tender lovers in the world, but that heart was drenched every night in alcohol and then the violence crept its way out. Constantly telling myself that one day the excessive drinking would stop was just a denial that I was with the wrong guy. ABBA says it wisely, “Man is a fool […] never knowing he’s astray, keeps on going anyway.” When we fall in love with the potential of a person, we’re basically falling in love with an image that we create of them. That is unfair to both them and us, since everyone deserves to be loved because of who they are, flaws and all, not a perfect version that never exists.
6. Forgive yourself when you make a bad decision, because at that moment in time, you had all the right reasons in the world to make it.
“Regret” is the word that always floats around in retrospective conversations, especially now since it’s the end of a decade. Everyone has a different perspective on the topic. I’m not one of those who “never regret anything” because it would be a glossy lie. What I strive to do is not being too hard on myself over a regretful decision. In retrospect, I might have been so misinformed or impetuous when making that decision, but that realization only came about after I’ve gathered enough wisdom from that moment till now to assess it. I didn’t have this wisdom back then. I always have to remind myself that the version of myself at the time had all the right reasons to make the best decision he could have made. Would I have gone back to 2013 and said “Yes” to J.’s roommate proposal? Absolutely, but my present self has no right to delegitimize the excitement back then that led to the decision I made. I had a good rationale at that moment in time, and when I grew wiser I realized it wasn’t worth it. Should I keep hating myself for being part of the growth process everyone has to go through? No. I choose to forgive instead.
7. Set yourself, not anyone else, as the anchor point for your emotions.
Part of my job at Viacom is editing videos in Adobe Premiere, and one function you could perform in that software is setting the “anchor point” for your image. This isn’t necessarily the geometric center of the image, but will be the point around which any effects applied on the video will work. It’s the one point that remains intact while the editor morphs the rest of the image to their will when they, for example, rotate the video or scale it up. The idea of being able to set the anchor point manually has affected greatly how I view emotions. When someone does us wrong, it’s a natural reaction to be upset at them. Why did she cancel plans last-minute? Why did he cheat on me? Why did they make fun of my accent? A million questions “why” put weight on our heart and its heaviness could haunt us for days. Lately I’ve learned to come back to myself after questions like these pop up and refuse to let them make my mind roam. If I dwell on negative emotions caused by someone else’s sh*ttiness, that would be hurting myself again. I choose to remind myself of what I have instead of what I don’t. I choose to pour my energy into the things that I love. I choose to hang out with people who make time for me, instead of friends who have drifted away. People could be your best friend one second and the next unable to find an availability on their calendar because their boyfriend has to be a constant priority. That is totally fine, as long as you stop prioritizing them. They have made their choice, and it’s time you make yours. Setting yourself as the anchor point of your emotions is taking control of them, writing your own narrative, steering yourself into a healthier direction, and at the end of the day, being responsible for your own happiness. It is knowing that you are happy not because you got lucky, but you made it happen. Nothing lasts forever, but you are the only one in life who will accompany yourself to the closest to forever you can be.
8. To be able to experience insurmountable happiness, you need to have the courage to face insurmountable pain.
At the start of the decade, I was 14. I believed that a lot of things in life are free. If the subsequent ten years have shown me anything, it was how naive that belief was. The ups and downs of life this past decade, along with probably spending the last seven years in a capitalist society, have taught me that there is a price for everything. If you take, you give later. If you gain something, you lose another. At the end of the day, life always returns to a point of balance. I think this applies to happiness as well. I’ve noticed that there are two different approaches to dating. Some people are risk-averse and thus content with a mild, “just enough” amount of happiness. Some people want burning passion so bad and thus risk experiencing heartbreaks that feel like they could kill. I often analogize the former to a simmering pot of slow-cooked chicken, which could stay on low heat for hours and the chicken would just get more tender, and the latter to a pan of sautéed beef, which needs only a few minutes over high heat and will burn badly if you cook too long. Sautéed beef is my go-to. There’s nothing more exciting than being head over heels about someone, than finding something that takes your breath away, than experiencing a rush of adrenaline that makes you feel like anything is possible. That’s the kind of passion I want to have, and I don’t settle for less than that. Obviously that means I’ve had a fair share of heartbreaks that had destroyed me for days. There were places in New York I used to think I would never revisit because the memory was too palpable. There were times when someone who drinks as little as me voluntarily went to a bar and knocked shots of alcohol down my throat. There were nights I called my friends over because I knew the first thing I’d do in the morning is cry. It’s all part of being human, or at least the kind of romantic human I am. In retrospect, perhaps insurmountable pain is just the receipt for insurmountable happiness. It reaffirms that my feelings were real, and I did everything that I could to go after what I wanted most instead of settling. I’m getting stronger and stronger every day but I know that the next decade will witness more heartbreaks. I just hope that I have the courage to face them, and embrace them, because one day they might be all worth it.
9. Don’t over-apologize.
At the beginning of 2010, I was in my last semester of middle school. The teachers asked me to host a school-wide concert, after they had another person audition but ended up turning him down. His group of friends started talking about how unfair the decision was and how I didn’t deserve the spot. Whispers in the hallway led to hostile stares from strangers and vicious rumors that simply weren’t true. Since I didn’t even audition for the job, I felt bad that someone who wanted it was rejected because of me. I asked some classmates for his contact on Yahoo! Messenger and reached out. “Sorry,” I said, “that I took this opportunity away from you.” Growing up, my parents always taught me that humility is the highest virtue. I should keep my head down even if I achieve something. I should apologize first even if a mishap turns out not to be my fault. I should feel responsible if a bad thing happens as a distant effect of my action, even if that’s not the direct cause. (My grandfather once got robbed while taking me to school, and the whole family blamed it on me for having to be taken to school.) This internalized guilt was why I felt terrible and apologized to this guy in the first place. Later that year, during my valedictorian speech, his whole group of friends, including him, was boo-ing me. At that moment I thought, “These people are NOT going to ruin my moment.” I worked hard to be here. I didn’t deserve to be boo-ed just because the school refused that guy the hosting gig a few months back, which was also NOT my fault. And then I realized I didn’t have to apologize at all. Saying “I’m sorry” when you’re not actually responsible for something is compromising on your self-worth. If you didn’t cause a problem, you shouldn’t let the feeling of guilt damage your mental health. If you receive an opportunity, it’s because you earned it, not because you stole it from someone else. I’ve learned how to take pride in my own achievement and better understood what I’m worth. That’s the energy I’m bringing into 2020.
10. Everybody has their own timeline.
The 2010s was the coming-of-age decade for many people in my generation. We went through a crucial transition from our teen years to adulthood. As teenagers, a lot of us shared the same path, but we started paving our own ways as we grew older. One of my best friends who’s also 24 is expecting her first baby in a few hours. Another is working in the tech industry and earning a six-figure salary. Many people seem to have had their lives figured out, and sometimes it’s so tempting to compare ours to theirs. There were moments in the 2010s when I kept wondering why my life was constant chaos. I got attacked by a centipede while writing my college application. I received online death threats after a political Facebook post traveled far beyond my circle of friends. I got rejected by every lawyer in New York City when desperately looking for someone to take on my case. I had my heart broken numerous times when happiness seemed just an inch away. With time, I learned that perhaps my life is chaos because that’s where I could thrive best. Maybe that’s what my spontaneous, emotional, adrenaline-junkie self needs. Other people might have it easier because they don’t seek the same thing that I do. I prefer taking risks to playing it safe. I prefer going on adventures to settling for stability. Because we’re all different people with different personalities and different priorities, everybody has their own timeline. You might be happily married in your 20s, and I might find my one true love in my 40s, and that’s fine. Then all the heartbreaks, sleepless nights and ugly cries will be worth it. The key is to believe in the process and be patient. Focus less on the gap between you and other people, more on that between the person you are and the person you aspire to be.
Before the end of the decade, my best friends and I asked one another, “If we have to sum up our decade in one word, what would it be?” My word was fearless. At the beginning of the decade, I feared so many things. I feared not getting into high school. I feared talking to strangers. I feared people’s opinion. I feared the fact that I might be gay. I feared being rejected by every college in America. I feared losing people that I cared about so much. But… I got into high school. I became friends with everyone in my class. I have 22,845 followers on Facebook just from sharing my opinion on things and not caring what people say. I am gay, yeah. I got into a great college. I have lost a great true love but still have so much love to give. Uncertainty is scary, but uncertainty also brings opportunities. The final verse of “Happy New Year” goes like this: “It’s the end of a decade. In another ten years’ time, who can say what we’ll find, what lies waiting down the line?” I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me in the next decade.