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Hien's Journey: 2023 Vietnam–U.S. Virtual Exchange

Alone behind shut doors, I feel nothing could penetrate my thoughts, my world. The world seems to shrink down to the size of a cluttered room, or to be more exact, the small, jam-packed, compartment that I am always carrying on the top of my body. Airpods on, I zoned in on my YouTube playlist of how to be less socially anxious videos, while tucked in my own narrowed and suffocating bubble of "myself" that I think is comfortable and liberating, too scared and hopeless to step out of that zone. "Just being." Or more precisely, just existing. Suddenly, the ringtone of an incoming email bothered me. "Learn2Link (L2L) Opportunity?" To become a participant? A feeling of unease slowly emerged within me...

A Vietnamese high-school student holding balloons
Hien embracing his light-hearted and contagious sense of humor in Hue

Who am I?

I am my fears.

I have been afraid to tell my own stories, of how I thought differently from my peers and how those thoughts shaped my own personal world, which no one could or should seek to understand. I feared that if I told my own stories, no one would be able to understand every nook and cranny of them, and therefore, they would judge me. Even the thought that my story could bother someone or offend them scared me from speaking up. I was afraid to take action towards what I really wanted, for fear that they would judge me for making mistakes and looking dumb. I feared the pain that I would have to go through, so I refrained myself from making any choices at all, living in the comfort bubble of my own world, uninterrupted by outside noises.

I am my own presumptions and prejudices.

From my own comfort bubble, I started viewing other human beings and their worlds as "alien,” thinking, “we are so different that we could never be friends.” I grouped people into my preset stereotypes, based on how they looked and the few words they said. Without hearing their own stories, I instantly pigeonholed them: "He sounds too athletic and too cool to ever talk to me," and "She sounds so super nerdy talking about her passions that I might get a headache from talking to her.” This mindset also later applied to interactions with people from other cultures. Before the program, I was excited to meet the exchange partners from the U.S. But I kept letting my first impression of them dictate how I later interacted and expressed my curiosity in their stories.

I am my ego.

I kept telling myself the same old stories: “I am always just that overthinking guy that has his own unique problems, hides himself from others, and never tells his own stories; and I can never change that.” Thinking in this way made me feel kinda good, bathing in that emotional high of entitlement, "I'm so messed up—people please look at me," and superiority. And those stories I kept telling myself clouded the exciting possibilities of making a meaningful connection with a friend down the road, on an unexpected turn, where we could see each other heart-to-heart. I thought of myself too often to be humble and curious about others.

Vietnamese and American high-school students sharing a video call together
Hien connects with L2L youth participants and facilitators during our 2023 Virtual Exchange

Why did I link?

Those thought patterns prevented me from being genuinely open-minded; empathetic; and confident in the face of my own fears, my own challenges, in connecting with people, and in the quest of being something of impact to the surrounding community.

But seeing L2L with its awakening values—to educate young people through building community projects, which is crucial in this day and age of disconnectedness and lost hope, where youngsters, in the face of a rapidly changing world, their communities, and their values, seem to be too overwhelmed and dwarfed by the edgy forces of society to realize their potential impact— inspired me to search for my own voice within and bring it to the world of my own will and in my own way, as a force for good. I saw the opportunity to discover myself having conversations with some of my deep-rooted thought patterns and mindsets—fear, presumptions, ego—saw a chance to challenge them with curiosity and the yearning for genuine, respectful, and empathetic connection with other human beings; and to shed my own comfort bubble; explore my strengths and values, and how I could contribute to the betterment of others through respectful collaboration.

I had always sought to change my surroundings and the people around me to deconstruct that mindset I had been holding tightly for so long. “Just go to another country, meet as many people as possible, do as many life-changing things as possible,” I told myself. I thought it had to be something radical and eye-opening and life-altering to shake me to the core and shed my beliefs. A whole new community. A new environment. A new set of people. That's what I wanted. But L2L has proved that connecting and finding oneself doesn't have to be all of that: it just needs to be a group of people meeting each other for the first time, sharing and hearing about each other's personal and community problems with respect; empathizing with the problems that each individual and their community is going through; and raising small, but meaningful action.

My curiosity to learn more about myself and how I view different people and different cultures has led me to the right place. In L2L, everyone agrees that we practice Empathy to the emotions of the others in response to personal and community problems; Collaboration in terms of executing our goals and sharing information; and Respect for Diversity in cultures, individuals, and our world views—enabled through essential skills, such as Deep listening, Mindful speech, and Self-reflection. And getting everybody to agree on and actually incorporate these codes of conduct and core values into our meetings, casual conversations, and our daily initiatives creates such a cordial and enriching environment for growth, understanding, and curiosity

A Vietnamese and American high-school student sharing a video call together
Hien and his exchange partner, John, during L2L's 2023 Vietnam–U.S. Virtual Exchange

What did I learn?

I learned that we are really, really limited in our understanding of the world. What is dangerous is not the limit of our understanding, but really the limit of the few accounts we keep telling ourselves about a people or a culture, feeding our stereotypes. To put it more accurately, it is the habit of doing so, the unwillingness to know more than just those few superficial accounts. If I kept telling myself the same account of, "U.S. dudes are so cool, they have a lot of friends, and they would never bother to talk to me," I would never, like ever, talk to a well-built, seems-to-be-cool-all-the-time guy like John. And I would have never gotten to know how his prior challenges of overcoming other people's expectations and his heroic recovery from some of his childhood trauma, with the help of a therapist, could transform him into the guy he is today, with peace in mind and an interest in psychology (I'm so glad that I had something in common with him :>).

And I held a lot of the same old accounts for Riley and Landon, and it never failed to make me challenge and change my beliefs when their actions, words, or emotions derailed from what I thought of them originally, in a good way. It struck me that the reality of an alien culture that I had never exposed myself to was so much different from my pre-existing prejudices; and through the lens of each unique human being, the sum of its parts was even more colorful and diverse. In fact, the whole reality is like an intricate mosaic made from millions of minuscule pieces of different shapes and sizes; and we, as a part of it, have our own imagination of what it looks like, but by no means is it fully complete and true. Bearing this in mind makes me feel humble in my knowledge and understanding, and as we are exchanging our version of the mosaic in our mind, it never fails to make me feel so small. My problems no longer seem so personal and unique. For a brief moment during those conversations, I smiled, knowing, “I'm seeing and being a part of something as big as the universe itself, and so beautiful—the appreciation and celebration of differences, despite differences, led by sheer empathy and curiosity.”

And I'm reminded of the significance of acting as an ambassador to a foreign friend—not someone who wears the ribbon of their country's name and knows everything about their country as I imagined, but simply as someone who's willing to communicate their own understanding; their own limited knowledge; their raw and sometimes flawed emotions regarding their community (their family, their friends, their neighborhood, their city, their country) in an open and honest way, with a curious and open mind.

Vietnamese and American high-school students sharing a video call together
Hien during the final meeting of our 2023 Vietnam–U.S. Virtual Exchange

I loved the "Take Five” sessions during our lab meetings, especially with our U.S. partners, the most. They were the only moments of the week when my mind could actually take a breath and subside for just a brief moment, allowing space for my breath and calmness to flow in with easy, fleeting thoughts of my emotional highs and lows of the past week. Then, we got to share our experiences, emotions, and reactions with others, feeling assured that whatever we were talking about was being listened to with curious minds and taken lightly with no judgment or expectations—only with a soul that was willing to connect. In those vulnerable moments, I felt as though we were sitting side-by-side, listening to what seemed like the story of a stranger, yet still patting each other's back with hearts full of empathy and the simple desire to connect to another human. Those moments, though quite scarce in our everyday life, remind us how, despite all the cultural differences and the language barriers and countless dissimilarities in our personal lives, we, with our hearts and stories naked, are plainly and strikingly similar, in that we're all human with our own basic emotions. During those moments, our geographical barriers were too powerless to stop a human connecting with another human.

In the end, I learned that we are all different but also the same. We have different cultures, but we also share common problems and aspirations. We have different personalities, but we also have similar emotions and needs. We have different stories, but we also have the same humanity. These realizations made me less fearful, less judgmental, and less egotistical. They made me more curious, more respectful, and more humble.

I also learned that I can make a meaningful impact on my surroundings by being myself and by caring for others. I realized that I have something valuable to offer to the world: my voice, my actions, my talents. I also realized that I have something valuable to receive from the people of the world: their wisdom, their kindness, their inspiration. By connecting with others, I also connected with myself.

Those striking realizations will be the seeds for the blossoms of community deeds—us bringing our own unique stories and strengths, coming together as a whole to solve our common problems. Empathy helps to connect us through the commonality of emotions. Respect for Diversity helps to make us feel humble and small in appreciation and celebration of our differences. Collaboration will help us, though individually small, to be more impactful in the joint force of others. And I am glad that I have discovered my own unique voice, my own way of doing for good—telling my stories through writing. Sharing my personal stories with others and listening to the stories of others will remind me of how beautifully different we are from each other (and that I should be humble and curious and respectful of these differences), how beautifully similar we also are to each other, and that my being and stories can do something good for others too.

A Vietnamese high-school student standing in front of a traditional building
Hien in his hometown of Hue, Vietnam

How have I grown?

I have grown a lot during the exchange program. I have become more aware of who I am; why I chose to link with others; what I have experienced; and what I have learned. Of course, this does not mean that my fears, presumptions, and ego are completely gone. They are still there, but they are less powerful than before. They are challenged by a second voice inside me that reminds me to be curious, to be open-minded, to be empathetic. And I am always seeking to be so true through my own writings.

I am so deeply grateful for this opportunity. It was a life-changing journey that enriched my mind and my heart. It was a journey of discovery: of a new part of the world and a new part of myself.

...After agonizing for days, I said “f*ck it” to my uneasiness and my overthinking, closed my eyes, and took the plunge. Email sent. One foot outside of my comfort bubble, I smiled.

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