"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Sunday, March 15, 2020

What it's like being a Vietnamese-American man

The Buddha

"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha

Being a man is much like being a parent -- there is no formal training, some emulation is involved, and a series of mistakes are made before a man becomes comfortable with who he is. And being a Vietnamese-American man adds another dimension to the role, albeit not as complex as you might expect. So today I will be discussing what it is like being a Vietnamese-American man based on my humble experience. Of course I have to remind you this is from only one man's life. Yours may vary. Although I think my discussion will be useful for men, it wouldn't hurt for women to read this to understand men better.

As my quote above from Gautama Buddha (The Buddha, or as he called himself, Tathagata) implies, I am not a man until I am refined. I would be a boy mentally in a man's body physically. This is relevant no matter a person's age. There are individuals in their 70s who still act like they're children. Personal refinement is analogous to playing a violin. Playing the violin well requires much deliberateness, concentration, and control, otherwise it doesn't sound sweet. Without practice, I can produce mediocre sounds from a violin but it is far from its potential. This is how I see how some males behave. They behave like how wild animals behave -- some obnoxiously even brag about it -- but they haven't yet realized what separates human beings from other animals: our extraordinary ability to think beyond our impulses in order to shape our world. Self-discipline. Self-control. I strive to master myself because I want to shape my world.

Because a man masters himself, he firmly knows his true worth internally. How he views himself doesn't depend on the praises or criticisms of others. At the same time, his focus is aimed externally such that he forgets himself. This focus is special because its foundation is love. Therefore, a man cultivates love.

Love is a word that is often expressed but I believe few people spend enough time contemplating on it to fully understand its meaning. When some people say they love someone, it is about their desire, not necessarily the desire of the source of their feeling. I call it fake love. It is a love that is selfish with little concern about how the other person feels. When that person doesn't reciprocate then this love quickly evaporates and turns into resentment, perhaps even hate. This happens because it's actually not love, hence my use of the adjective fake.

Then what is real love? Real love starts with a similar strong feeling, but the focus is on the well-being of the source of that love. Whether the feeling is reciprocated doesn't matter. The love remains. The saying "If you love someone, set them free" is right on the mark. If I truly love someone, why would I force that person to love me back and make her unhappy? Her happiness is my concern because I indeed love her. If she returns my love, good. If she doesn't, that's good too. My value as a person remains the same regardless. The same can be applied to children and other loved ones. You love them not because they make you happy. You make them happy because you love them. This is love.

One of the most beautiful words in the Vietnamese language is nhường. It means to yield. It takes great strength to yield. When I see a person decides on this path in the world, it's simply beautiful. Nhường, like Cường (my name, which means strong), can also be a man's name. In fact, my grandfather's name is Nhường. A common Vietnamese phrase is "Anh nhường em." This is a man yielding to a woman. This is an older brother yielding to his younger siblings. Nhường is an act aiming for peace. It is an act aiming for happiness. It is an act of love.

With love, a man decides to be in many interesting scenarios:

* A man doesn't seek ease or luxury. That isn't his goal. Instead he seeks to make himself more useful to others.

* A man understands hardship isn't an evil but part of life. He was born to be able to take on the problems he'll encounter.

* A man empathizes with those who are hurt or harmed. He speaks for those who should have a voice. Such concern for causing harm and putting oneself in other people's shoes makes it improbable for a man to be cruel.

* A man's words are a contract. They are like steel -- difficult to break.

* A man decides to be kind and benevolent. Unlike being tough on himself, being tough on others isn't tough at all.

* A man runs toward danger, not run away from it. He wants to determine whether the danger is real. And if it is real, then it is up to him to figure out how to mitigate that danger by himself or with other people's assistance.

* A man is unaffected by promises of reward or threats of punishment. His only concern is for the interests of those under his care.

All the scenarios above are actions of love that promotes the well-being and interests of others. The last scenario came from Sun Tzu's Art of War, written 2500 years ago. Thus, the scenarios I listed are known to many men throughout history.

In ancient Rome, there were two individuals with two completely different outlook, despite subscribing to the same philosophy. One was Seneca, who was an adviser to Nero, a corrupt Roman emperor. The other is Musonius who Roman emperors respected (like Vespasian and Titus). Seneca enriched himself through the confiscation of other people's properties, all the while expounding fine philosophical concepts. Those who knew Seneca personally made it known through their writings he was a hypocrite. In contrast, Musonius gave encouragement to others around him even in harsh environments. His work ethic, resourcefulness, and confidence literally produced fresh water where it was widely thought that Gyaros, in the island of Cyclades, was barren. He taught a slave named Epictetus, who future Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius admired, explicitly written in Meditations. Musonius promoted higher education for women in Rome, at the same level as men's, at a time when that practice wasn't universally accepted. Although none of Musonius's personal writings exists today, the writings by other people who admired him and wrote down what he taught did. How reminiscent of Socrates and Plato! Musonius's contemporaries respected him due to his example, which added undeniable substance and gravitas to his words.

Musonius was a man who exemplify the important principle of valuing the person, not the production -- the tree, not the fruit. Nowadays, too many people are drawn to the wrong things. Instead of seeing the inherent significance of a person, they covet the material wealth behind that person. Sometimes even the person gets fooled by the idea. When that wealth is diminished, he or she somehow feels diminished as well. But this is nonsense. A man knows he isn't only self-sufficient but has the capacity to produce abundance. Instead of being a frightened, petty complainer of not having enough, through his heart and hard work, he has the confidence to share what he has. He doesn't think small. He thinks big. He has all he needs. Thus, a man's fear isn't whether he can survive but whether others are happy. This is love.

The great irony is that while a man tries to forget himself, others who benefit from his existence try all the more to remember and retain him.

Let's not forget to discuss what it's like being a Vietnamese-American man. My discussion will be succinct, yet sufficient, for now. If a Vietnamese-American man is refined, he is all of what I wrote above, except with the awareness he is Vietnamese American. He looks different. Virtually everything he does reflects on all his fellow Vietnamese. He is a sample of an entire population of 2.1 million Vietnamese Americans. He can choose to display the best of what's Vietnamese or he can choose to display what's base. The temptation to see racism on matters of fairness is understandable. However, understand the error of comparing yourself with base Western characters to make your argument. I only compare myself with the finest Western examples, because that is, at least, my standard. Why would I accept anything less?

This is the responsibility that I, Cuong, believe I have as a Vietnamese-American man. It's not a heavy burden. Unlike the sacrifices of my Vietnamese grandfather and father and countless similar Vietnamese men before me, whatever I am faced with every day is a privilege. They are like Elijah, who ascended to heaven, and I am merely Elisha who took up their mantle left behind. I also inherited their heart and thus their love. What more can a Vietnamese-American man ask for? I have all I need. 💛

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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha