The One Word That Helped Me Survive 2020
2020 really felt like that bad breakup with the guy you thought was your soulmate who turned out to have a fourth home on Long Island and run it as a brothel for billionaires. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit… probably just millionaires, but you know what I mean. It was that bad. You rang in the year thinking “this is it,” just to end it with “fuck off, I’ll never want to see you again.” We’ve all been through these kinds of relationships before. They’re painful. We wish they were as forgettable as Armie Hammer’s performance in any movies he’s in. They’re a 2.5-star Yelp review at best (because at least the bread was decent). If the live action remake of Cats were a year, it would be this one (meaning: Taylor Swift couldn’t even save it). Nevertheless, I’ll say something cliche I’ll probably regret later, but I feel grateful for this year. I really do. It was one hell of a year, but it taught me some good lessons that changed me for the better.
I’ve always been a perfectionist. Blame my Mom. Before I make a decision, I think three steps ahead to make sure everything I do is right. Being human is being flawed, I know, but I still strive to make as few mistakes as I can, because regret cuts deep like a butcher knife and I cry even at the smallest sight of a paper cut. As a result, my friends sometimes say I’m an overthinker. After thinking over and over and over and over again about that comment, I told them I’m not. Pff! Overthinking is for people who listen to Taylor Swift and compare their life to a Taylor Swift song. Clearly I do no such thing, so when they bring up that idea I just, you know, shake it off.
You don’t need total control of your future, nor could you ever have it.
Well… I guess I do overthink a bit, and if 2020 has taught me one thing, that is not to play the tape too far ahead. Seriously, I think we all learned this the hard way. Even the most meticulous plan might not come to fruition. Sometimes, it is enough to just focus on the immediate future, instead of trying to plot and scheme every step of the way (unless you’re the culprit in The Undoing, in which case you should have gotten rid of that hammer, you idiot). You don’t need total control of your future, nor could you ever have it, however appeasing that idea seems. Life will throw surprises at you no matter what, so why not just focus on your next move and whatever comes from it, we’ll decide our subsequent act then?
That epiphany came to me one Sunday in May. I was in my room, stuck in a mental labyrinth of anxiety now that my big summer plans fell through. I couldn’t make social plans that I would eventually cancel. I couldn’t even go home, pleasurably inhale the polluted air of Hanoi and tell my Mom for the hundredth time it’s not a good idea to bathe in expired milk just because she has guilt about wasting it. (She lived through a war where resources were scarce so I get it, but still). The most exciting commute I took was from my bedroom to the kitchen, which was underwhelming without the thrill of racing against a subway car. (That might explain my penchant for men who play hard-to-get. I should talk to my therapist about this.) The only man I saw was Andrew Cuomo. We had a date every day around noon. He talked about his family a lot, which was always a bonus. I had exhausted every Alison Roman recipe I could find on the Internet, and even took a side in her overblown feud with Chrissy Teigen (hot take: Alison wasn’t wrong). I was bored, and borderline depressed, and before I got to the level of dialing random numbers just to entertain myself, it struck me.
There is this one word I didn’t say enough because I overthink too much. After overthinking you rarely choose the risky route, and this word means risky. It means plunging ahead without fully knowing the consequences, just like whatever state of mind Elon Musk was in when he named his baby in Wingdings font. It means choosing to act over staying still, even though that could involve leaving your comfort zone, or your comforter, whichever spreads a shorter radius. Basically, it means accepting motion. Initiation. Change. For the first time ever, I learned to say this word with the utmost ease. That word is:
Simple as that. This positive word helped me get through a negative year, in a big way. Think about it. It’s always easier to say no to something. Saying no to a relationship proposal means standing less chance of a heartbreak. Saying no to an unidentified number could save you from a scam call. Saying no to a favor means you’re free from returning one in the future. “No” is always the safer route. No mental stress, no liability, no can of worms opened. “Yes” carries more risk and could plant the seeds for future regrets, which is not a gardening practice I’m keen on. But in a year as unusual as 2020, I decided to do something equally unusual to conquer it. I’d say “Yes” and deal with whatever follows later.
That Sunday in May, I had a little bit of a breakdown. Honestly, who didn’t in May? My best friend Trang threw me this insane idea that if I could get myself to Connecticut in four hours, she and her husband could drive me from there to Boston where they live (with our other friend Son, who enjoys being a third wheel more than I do) and I could stay with them for a few days. If you know me, I take forever to plan my travels because I have this need to make every minute on a trip perfect. I took 8 days to plan out my 3-day vacation in Bangkok. (That itinerary was down to the hour. I was very proud of it.). I took four months to plan my two-week Europe trip after I got back from Thailand. So to ask me to decide whether I want to go to Boston, in the middle of a crisis, for an indefinite amount of time, you must be joking.
I couldn’t even believe myself on the phone when I said “Yes.” I mean, 2020 was already a joke at that point, so I guess I just played along. I needed a dose of adrenaline badly, and preferably not the kind of adrenaline you get from accidentally sharing your screen on a work Zoom call. Guess what, it turned out to be the best spontaneous decision I’ve made in ages. (I’m 25, so there haven’t been that many ages, but it was a figure of speech that makes me sound wise so I used it anyway.) After frantically packing for 25 minutes, not forgetting to shove a package of salad in my suitcase because a boy needs his fiber, I got myself an Uber to Connecticut, which was the safest choice at the time and, sadly, cost more than any Uber rides I’d taken in the past (please never remind me of this purchase again). Watching Manhattan become smaller and smaller in the rear view, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I left a huge part of my life behind, but for the first time in a long time, I listened to my gut and didn’t overthink. I did what I felt like doing at the moment and didn’t carefully calculate every move. And gosh, it felt so liberating, like how that iconic tunnel scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower makes you feel. I prefer Emma Watson in Harry Potter way more than that movie, but we’re getting off topic.
For a hot second, I didn’t even need a lover. I was sunkissed and that was enough.
I ended up staying in Boston for a few months, something I didn’t expect but worked out for the best. I wasn’t a huge fan of doing laundry that often given that I packed for a one-week vacation only, but other than that, I found so much peace and happiness. I started to see the benefits of saying “Yes” without overthinking. One afternoon, my friend Son asked me if I wanted to go for a bike ride. The sensible answer would be no, because one, it was too sunny and I’m basically a vampire and two, I had only biked two other times in my life, the last of which was in 2016 in Kensington Gardens. (My time in London was a little weird because they call Asians Orientals, but I was indebted to the city for pushing me to learn biking.) The point is, I said “Yes” to Son, got on a Boston BlueBike and relearned how to move around on that vehicle. In under half an hour, I was already biking around the park, feeling the wind in my hair like the star protagonist of a coming-of-age movie. The Oscars would probably snub it like they did Boyhood, but at least it could win a BAFTA or something. Going down the hill on that bike, all my worries went away. For a hot second, I didn’t even need a lover. I was sunkissed and that was enough.
Of course I fell off the bike. What do you think you’re reading, a fairy tale? There was blood everywhere, on both of my hands, my wrists, and worst of all, my knees. I could barely walk to a nearby Trader Joe’s to ask for alcohol wipes. The woman gave me two, which was unusually generous given it was May. Looking at the wound, I could see whatever it is below the skin on my knees, and that was more horrifying than any Hitchcock thriller you could throw at me. Son came to the rescue, took me home and washed the wound with alcohol. I screamed so loud as if somebody had stolen all the money in my bank account, and then instead of donating it to the Gates Foundation, spent it on OnlyFans. The wash was painful AF, but I made it through. After two weeks of rest and when the wounds seemed less gnarly (the exact adjective George used to describe it), I went back on the bike and have been biking ever since. It became my main means of transportation around New York. (Believe it or not, I still haven’t been on the subway since March.) It became a form of physical exercise. Biking brought me so much joy, health and a sense of freedom. Saying “Yes” did that.
No wonder many great writers became alcoholics.
I said “Yes” to many other new things this year. I was horrified at the idea of staying overnight in a forest, but I said “Yes” to camping and saw the most beautiful sky ever. (A grasshopper did hop on my face when I was eating, but the whole murder hornet thing prepared me for that.) After some reshuffling at work, I was assigned a new project that was different from the kind of shows I was familiar with. I said “Yes,” dove in and the experience of trying something new was rewarding. Before, I mainly made promos for a show about a woman who lies about her age; now, I also know how to tease a carefully orchestrated murder in Montana. The show did encourage me to make fewer enemies because I don’t want to get killed at a young age, or at least live long enough to see a gay US President. I said “Yes” to rock climbing after having doubts about it, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I said “Yes” to writing an article for Vietnam Airlines’ in-flight magazine, even though I didn’t have time at first. Now I can be proud that the five brave souls who traveled by plane in August read my writing. Most surprisingly, I also said “Yes” to drinking. You didn’t hear it wrong. My friend Hoa said a few weeks ago after I showed up to our biweekly dinner fully wasted, “Sieu getting drunk is the most 2020 thing ever.” It’s comical. I used to avoid drinking because I overthought its consequences. Maybe I wouldn’t look cute with the Asian flush. Maybe I’d get a bad hangover and couldn’t work in the morning. Maybe I’d get too drunk and started mixing English with Vietnamese when speaking. That combination is messier than a gin and tonic (not a huge fan here.) Anyhow, I decided to try drinking for the first time and just go with the flow, literally. At first, it wasn’t that bad, and then it felt amazing. I found myself entering a new realm of consciousness that only alcohol could unlock. Ideas flow incessantly. Thoughts pile up. A good glass of wine is now all I need when I do my writing. No wonder many great writers became alcoholics. Ernest Hemingway, I’m looking at you.
I swear I’m not drunk while writing this piece. Or am I? I don’t know. The point is, I started to appreciate the fun of not planning too far ahead. There is beauty in trying out a new hobby anyway even if you think you suck at it, just to find out maybe you… still suck at it but at least have fun. There is courage in jumping headfirst into a committed journey with someone you truly care for, although that might not be the ideal image of a future society threw at you when you grew up. As long as it feels right in your gut, do it. Nobody could plan too far ahead anymore, as changes are happening every moment. That’s something 2020 taught us all. It’s enough to be in the present and breathe in the air this exact moment brings. The most important thing is what you will do and how you will feel now, in your next hour, your next day, your next week. Beyond that, we could sketch out an action plan when the time comes. Just ask yourself: What excites you? What inspires you? What do you feel like doing? Will it put a smile on your face and give you this incredible sense of levity in your gut?
And then do whatever that makes you say: “Yes.”