I never could have imagined I would spend my 2013 New Year's as the keynote speaker for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam People's Committee. Yet sitting there, chugging rice wine with middle-aged Korean executives from Samsung and high-ranking Vietnamese officials, I felt oddly significant.
I am back here in the United States now. It has taken some time to sit and reflect on my past year's journey. Sometimes it's hard to believe it was real, other times I struggle to get back to my present reality.
Twenty-two now seems so young but it was only four years ago. At 26, I'm older and wiser. I enjoy getting into bed before 11 p.m. I write down recipes, I use eye cream. What's changed? Me, of course, other people, our world. At 22, I moved from college to New York; at 25, from New York to Vietnam. And now at 26 I'm here in Los Angeles, a return to the city of my roots.
The past year radically contributed to the changes I feel. I return to a United States abase with domestic abuse affairs within the NFL and volatile events in Ferguson, Missouri. I am painted with an updated framework for reviewing my singular year away from America. Where am I? At 26, I am undergoing my second fall from innocence.
I alluded to my first fall from innocence in an earlier piece. This second fall from innocence occurs as an adult. I see that despite hard work, someone else can get the raise. Despite an education, skin color or gender might be a disadvantage. The world is still historically bent and institutionally constructed. So, this is the second fall from innocence: change is not as easy as it was, because today I am both older and younger. As I attempt to marry wisdom with experience, it seems as though the stakes are getting higher.
How do I confidently enter age 26 when the world seems to require so much and yet so little of me? Change happens every second, but right now it is more palpable. Upon returning home, my only living grandmother has moved to an assisted living home; there are new baby cousins; there are a number of friends getting married, quitting jobs, and heading off to graduate school.
My year away in Vietnam taught me to deliberately construct and deconstruct the world around me -- to write profusely more in the margins of my book of life. That is, to question, observe, and embrace the impermanence of life. In Vietnam, I was a living specimen of America, and for the first time in my life, my nationality was placed before my race. While the two certainly blended and intersected, it was this subtle change in perceived identity that required me to deconstruct my own notions of history, nationality, race, class, and gender.
I had to find the courage to learn and discuss things I was fearful of or completely ignorant about. My year away was an open challenge to discourse with people I had never known on topics I had never been asked to understand. On any given day in Northern industrial Vietnam, I was considered to be an expert on topics ranging from disability rights to gun control to democracy in the U.S.
Living in a socialist country for a year also allowed me to awaken a deep democratic energy within myself. In his prophetic book Democracy Matters, famed academic and activist Dr. Cornel West, issues this warning. In a post-modern world that seems to value efficiency over involvement and escapism over fidelity, Dr. West begs the youth to re-engage with the world around them. He warns of nihilism, or extreme skepticism that results in no beliefs at all and urges a critique or resistance to any injustice, small or large, one might sense:
The Socratic commitment to questioning requires a relentless self-examination and critique of institutions of authority, motivated by an endless quest for intellectual integrity and moral consistency. It is manifest in a fearless speech -- parrhesia -- that unsettles, unnerves, and unhouses people from their uncritical sleepwalking.
My survival in Vietnam rested on the fine balance of learning when to cooperate and when to aggressively question. To borrow a phrase from the late Japanese-American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, I learned to decolonize my mind. In order to thrive, I had to find the strengths in my differences. This required re-learning history, unpacking biases, and admitting my own weaknesses to others. It was a big change for me.
Back here in Los Angeles, reflecting on all that I have learned at age 26, I am re-learning that the only consistency in life is change. Time is life's greatest secret, slowly revealing itself like a quiet sunset. It's time to engage here in this country by applying the lessons I learned in other parts of the world. And mostly, to continue to embrace change.