"Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all." Pericles

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Religion and politics: a Vietnamese-American perspective

There are two things you shouldn't talk about with other people if you want friends: religion and politics. Well, I'm going to discuss both today.

Growing up a Buddhist, I understood early on the importance of rituals, which involved long hours in hot stuffy rooms filled with incense, mantras, and honoring the dead. The dead were all around us in 1970s Vietnam. The only thing that provided sense and order to the living were the rituals. We didn't have much except happiness because we had each other.

In January 1790, the first US President, George Washington, wrote, "The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by creating a reasonable compact, in civil Society."

Let's analyze Washington's wisdom in greater detail:
  1. America is an experiment.
  2. America might very well be the last of its kind.
  3. America promotes human happiness.
  4. America wants a reasonable contract with its people.
The "America" that I'm referring to above is the American government. If we're lucky, there is little difference between the people and their government. But other times, there is a huge difference between the people and their government. Unfortunately you can name any given government around the world to which this applies.

The year 1790 was at the beginning of Washington's presidency that lasted eight years. He retired for many reasons, some personal, but mostly because he didn't want to die while serving, which would set a dangerous precedent of making the US Presidency a lifetime position. Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, solidified the tradition by refusing to run for a third term. They both seemed to understand that power is a corrupting force, especially over time. Mortals cannot withstand its siren song. History is filled with such examples and it's folly to believe that current world leaders aren't susceptible to it.

Here is George Washington in his Farewell Address in late 1796:

"Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest."

Typically American, Washington was concerned about the "many" errors he made unintentionally, because he didn't consciously make any mistakes intentionally if not for his "incompetent abilities," delightfully exposing his integrity and humility. I also sense a feeling of self-consciousness and inadequacy. He then turns to God asking for assistance on minimizing the negative effects of his errors, in addition to a biblical reference regarding his own mortality.

When a non-Vietnamese person thinks about Vietnam, he or she thinks about war. I know something about war. I've studied it all my life. War is the result of frail and arrogant old men trying to dupe other people's children to kill and die to help fix their political failures. In Vietnam's case, millions perished. When fools fail at diplomacy, they go into war. Only the strategically skilled and magnanimous prevent wars, but where is the glory in battles that never happen? So ruthless thugs take over thinking they can do better, and that, my friends, summarizes the last war in Vietnam.

Not everyone in history thought national conflicts necessitate war, violence, and death. About 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general said, "One who is skilled in warfare principles subdues the enemy without doing battle ... Winning battles such that the whole world cries, 'Excellent!' is not the highest excellence."

It's extremely upsetting to me when I see the weak being taken advantaged of by the greedy and corrupt. The last price to pay is death. Yet I can't help but wonder whether death is in fact the prize, because pain and suffering are conditions of the living, even for those who abuse others for some small advantage. It would seem only the dead have honor. How miserable and petty would a person have to be to take what little others have? Of course their gains are ultimately ephemeral, temporary, fleeting. They, too, will meet their fate.

Sun Tzu understood what true national leadership meant when he said, "The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure."

When a Vietnamese person thinks about Vietnam, he or she inevitably thinks about the Vietnamese people, namely the rich personal relationships with other Vietnamese in his or her life. The memories are vivid and indelible, no matter how long ago they were. These memories are especially enduring for the Vietnamese diasporas, having to leave one homeland to settle in another homeland. This drastic and scary change isn't for every Vietnamese. That's why Vietnamese Americans are unique among many. That's why America, a land composed of mostly immigrants, is unique among other nations in the world.

As displayed in George Washington's Farewell Address, America is obsessed with its doubts, self-improvement, and future. In one hand, we Americans (Vietnamese Americans very much included) have both the gumption and ingenuity to face impossible problems and truly believe we can overcome them. On the other hand, we continually call into question our own intelligence and competency. We always worry about whether we are good enough.

In contrast to the world's general view that Americans are arrogant, we are open to hearing out criticisms, and often those critics are ourselves. However, the freedom to air out our gripes indicates, ironically, true strength and confidence in ability. It's ok to think we aren't doing enough. Because we indeed need to get better. Manna doesn't last forever. We can't assume the "great experiment" will last without constant human (and divine) intervention. We need to continually ask ourselves what are we going to accomplish today, by the end of this week, this month, this quarter. But don't talk to us about next quarter. That's too far away. The future starts today. ❤

Sunday, November 17, 2019

What it's like being an Asian-American parent

There's a joke on the internet about the typical Asian dad: "You got B?? You not Bsian. You Asian!"

Asian parents are famous (infamous?) for being strict and demanding on their children to excel academically. My associates seem to believe this is especially true of Asian-American parents, because the need to survive in America is top on their minds.

There is a term for this type of parenting: tiger parenting. It originated from Yale Law professor Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, published in 2011. For the sake of discussion, Prof. Chua is ethnically Chinese. Her husband is Jed Rubenfeld, who is also a Yale Law professor. Their daughters, Lulu and Sophia, were on a regiment of violin and piano lessons lasting six hours each day. It also included requirements such as no grades below an A, no play dates, no social life outside of school.

When the news articles first came out about Chua's parenting method, many people were aghast. Some claimed the two girls were being abused. Fast forward to today. Lulu and Sophia have since graduated from Harvard University. Now adults, they said growing up was tough but they had a happy childhood. Both are pursuing a career in law, much in alignment with their parents.

So it would seem Amy Chua's Asian-style, tiger-parenting method seems solid. It is here where I would like to add my perspective on being an Asian-American parent, for I am one myself.

To start, I don't completely agree with Prof. Chua that "Chinese parents raise successful kids," because the word "success" is so varied depending on who you talk with that it's practically a meaningless word. The only constant in the world is change. The world's leaders are often not doctors or lawyers, and most of them didn't graduate from Harvard. Furthermore, China's population has the same bell curve as any other nation in the world. I'm sorry to say but Asian parents aren't all that special. No one country or nationality has a secret to better education.

My own parenting method isn't much of a secret either. First and foremost, I teach by example. You want your children to read books? Read books yourself. You want to decrease the chances of your children smoking? Don't smoke. You want them to be kind? Show kindness to others. Surely there will be times when they will stray from your example, but from my experience, being a constant model is the simplest and most effective way to teach children.

Education-wise, my method isn't necessarily to push my children to have straight A's in rote learning. Rather, I cast a large net to help them find what they are good at and support them in their interests. Their interests (not me) will eventually push them beyond what they are taught and beyond the textbooks. Receiving a firm foundation of knowledge is a necessity, but fully understanding key principles and learning how to think, to arm them with the ability to discover new solutions to new problems, is the real value in a good formal education. Anybody can copy and memorize if they are forced. But not anybody can create if they are forced. In the real world, what's most valuable is the creation.

I've seen too many times Asian-American parents pushing their kids into something they're not interested in to impress other parents and it's almost always a complete disaster. Without constant supervision, the children would rebel and lie about what they are doing and not doing. Then many years down the line, the relationship becomes so strained that the child, who is now an adult, decides to break away and finally follow in his or her dream. What a waste of time and tears!

Frankly, I won't be around to see my children's full body of work. But since I'm around now, I want to prepare them to respond with aplomb to unexpected and unknown problems they will face in life, many of them emotional and psychological, not simply academic and economic. Asian-American parents must not forget that ultimately all they want for their children is their happiness. How unfortunate that some will make the common mistake of focusing on the means to happiness that often lead to much unhappiness. ❤

Saturday, November 16, 2019

What it's like being a Vietnamese American

Hi, my name is Cuong, an American writer born in Saigon, Vietnam. Cuong in Vietnamese is Cường, derived from the Chinese 強 or qiáng, which means strong, capable, better. The name Cuong was given to me at birth; it's a popular male Vietnamese name. This blog, Cuong.com, is where I will discuss a number of topics in the future.

For the first post of Cuong.com, I would like to discuss what it's like being a Vietnamese American. Please note the following is simply from my experience. One man's experience. You might disagree and that's ok.

The first and obvious part about being Vietnamese American is looking the part. The US Census Bureau estimates there are over 2.1 million Vietnamese Americans. Unlike most Asian Americans, Vietnamese Americans are fairly recent Americans. Almost all arrived in the US no earlier than 1975, the year Saigon fell. I know a Vietnamese lady who came to America in 1968 but she's a rare case. Therefore, Vietnamese Americans are relatively "fresh off the boat." Being new immigrants fits the common narrative that no matter how many generations your Asian family has been here, some people are going to assume you're still a foreigner because you look different.

Looking the part of an Asian man is something I embrace fully. I own it and I flaunt it. I have the advantage of breaking the ice with just about anybody I encounter. Instead of being an extra wheel in a team, I'm a unique and thus critical part of the team.

This leads me to the second part of being Vietnamese American: fitting in America. For me it's been easy. Except for a few instances of blatant racism, my experience has been positive overall. When we first arrived in America as refugees, everyone -- I do indeed mean everyone -- treated us so kindly and with open arms. I want and expect this to be the same for all refugees in America now. We can't allow ignorant haters to drown out the countless wonderful Americans I know. There were times when I was given the benefit of the doubt just because I looked Asian. Some call it Asian privilege. But since I pride myself on being a man of integrity, frequently to a fault, it's a virtuous cycle.

The third part of being Vietnamese American is the nuance. Racism can be present anywhere and within anyone. Some people are better at hiding it than others. It's not always what it seems. For example, never assume a Republican is a racist or a Democrat isn't a racist. You can't be intellectually lazy, lest you make bad decisions. See people as individuals, not as a monolith. It's the same old human frailty since recorded history. A further nuance is the hate that people sometimes experience might not be racism at all but a clash of interests. As a Vietnamese American, I believe it's important to understand the difference. Finding a shared goal with others does wonders.

For young Vietnamese Americans, my suggestion is to not overthink it. The occasional confusion isn't so much about being Vietnamese American but about maturing and being young. When I was young, I was often confused and self-conscious. But time enabled me to discover where I fit in, be comfortable with who I am, realize that being different is a good thing, and let love dictate my thoughts and actions.

As mentioned, I will discuss more in the future. Until then, take care of yourself and take care of others. ❤