Culture Shock

When I turned 16, I decided to go study abroad in the United States. Little did I know how unprepared I was for what awaited me in America.

Pre-America: Middle School

Where I came from, my classmates were similar to me in many ways. Culturally and racially we were all the same (Vietnam is dominated by an ethnic group called the Kinh). But it was true even socioeconomically. My classmates’ parents were people from all walks of life: doctors, businessmen, teachers and blue collar workers; rich folks and poor folks. But living in what was still very much a poverty-stricken communist country, the socioeconomic gaps among us weren’t unbridgeable. The kids could all relate and hang out regardless of our backgrounds (I suppose this might be one rare positive side effect of communism?). I don’t know how much of this is still true. Vietnam has adopted free markets in significant ways since then. GDP is rising fast, and so is inequality.

With a good amount of scolding from my mother, I somehow managed to get in the specialized math track in middle school (chuyên toán). The class was one among many similar training centers across the country. It was part of a Soviet-inspired education system whose goal was to grind out the “best and brightest” using a cut-throat, Spartan-like approach. Competition was intense. From as early as elementary school, kids were groomed for regional, national & international competitions- mostly in Math, Physics and Computer Science. It was a stupid system that is more about “saving face” and winning some inconsequential gold medals than about fostering independent thinking and intellectual curiosity. The specialized track education environment is meritocratic in some sense: the rule being anybody can move up (or down) the ladder given your ability. What is bad about it is that it segregates and demoralizes the kids so early on in their development (just because you’re bad at math doesn’t mean you’re not talented in something else), using them as cannon fodder for what amounts to regional / national pride, not real progress. AFAIK, the Chinese still uses a similar system to produce their Olympic athletes, but I will save that topic for another day.

Despite all this, it added another dimension to my childhood. Me and my classmates shared a dedication to Math. And it helped that I fell in love with Math myself in 7th grade (Soccer being the other passion), so I didn’t feel like I was doing things against my will, which was true up until that point. Math was our religion, it bonded us. I’m still regularly keeping in touch with a lot of my middle school friends. Taken all together with other factors, we had many things in common. Our upbringings were different microscopically, but not that different if you zoom out on the entire spectrum of kids’ backgrounds.

First Shock: High School

In contrast, the public high school I went to in America was a totally different universe from the one I was raised in. It was a public school in the heart of Washington DC. Many of the students came from poor families. Many received federal help of some kind. The majority of the students were blacks. There were a decent number of Hispanics and Asians. There weren’t a lot of white kids. I learned that to get into college, a student is expected to complete a certain number of “extracurricular” activities, which I understood to be the institutionalized way of doing kids’ things like playing sports and exploring the world (science projects, community services, etc). Math was treated like an afterthought, something to be scared of, rather than to be embraced. I barely spoke a word of English. At lunch, the kids from various backgrounds mostly stuck together in their own groups. (I also learned recently that Warren Buffett happened to go to my high school in the 40’s, and also was a social outcast- but the demographics and social context back then was very different.)

I was a fairly easy going kid in Vietnam. Friendships happened naturally, without me making a conscious effort. So I assumed that I was a somewhat likable kid. I was in for a rude awakening when I found out that my preferred “laid-back” way of life was no longer enough to get me by. For the first time in my life, making any friends beyond the small Vietnamese group seemed like Mission Impossible. It was hard.

Second Shock: College

I somehow managed to focus on my studies and learned enough English to get through high school. (Don’t ask me about my high school prom experience, I didn’t have any.) But if I thought high school was hard, college wasn’t any easier. On a scholarship, I went to a private university deep in the southern Bible Belt. The majority of the students were white. Many came from affluent backgrounds. Some were extremely affluent.

I still remember vividly the day I walked back from class to my freshman dorm room. On the way I passed through what seemed to be a fraternity rush event. There were a hundred students or so standing on a nice green lawn next to a Greek house. In front of the house there was a sign that says it was an “all white party”. The students there all dressed immaculately in white, in tuxedos, in beautiful dresses. It was literally like a scene out of an old aristocrat society in the 17th century. The image stuck in my mind until this day. At that moment I was too awe-struck to process what was going on. I just felt so out of place. I didn’t have a suit, barely had enough money to get by, let alone owning an expensive white tuxedo! But as I got older I realized I was lucky to get exposure to a wide range of social classes from an early age. As a result, I had more time to reconcile my different worldviews. I basically moved from one extreme (communist, semi-meritocratic environment) to another extreme (borderline poverty in a capitalist country), and to another extreme (privileged & affluent white society, aka the ruling class, also in a capitalist country) in the span of ~10 years. There were examples everywhere of the Ovarian Lottery that Warren Buffett often talked about. To this day I hold a deep suspicion of both ostentatious appearance and presumed authority. And I attribute that attitude in no small part to the experiences I went through.

To make matters worse, in society’s terms, I also ended up losing interest in the higher education system itself. My university, despite being known as one of the better institutions in the South, felt unsatisfying- save for a few professors that I really looked up to. Most of the curriculum I thought was either too narrow in scope or uninspiring. At least half of my undergraduate classes seemed like a total waste of time- I never understood why college takes an arbitrary 4 years. It seems such a long time dedicated to something at the peak of your youth. My opinion of college might have been somewhat tainted by the mental state I was in at the time- but in retrospect I don’t think my disappointment was only due to that. Now I know formal education in general sucks, period. I ended up skipping on several classes, at one point came close to losing most of my scholarship, which almost caused my parents heart attacks.

Adapting

Lady Luck smiled on me again, and I managed to survive college and got a job out in California. After graduation and some heavy soul-searching, I decided that I would make a conscious effort to step outside of my comfort zone as much as I can. I took Mark Twain’s words literally:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.

And so I did many stupid and embarrassing things (some of which I would like to keep to myself). California is where I truly feel like I get to know America. In one episode, I would go to bars regularly for one year straight, many times by myself, just to see what the bars and drinking culture were all about. In another episode, I would take up flying lessons- though I never got to the part where you fly solo (it was an expensive hobby). I roomed with over 10 strangers in the span of 5 years. A few of them were pretty “out there”, a few turned out to be some of the best friends I’ve ever made. I also came close to death, laying in an ER room for half a day. That experience made me realize how fragile our existence is. Living is a true gift. It was also in California that I got to see for myself what people meant by the “American dream”, both the good and the bad.

Epilogue

Fast forward to present day. I’ve been able to expand my comfort zone significantly since I first arrived in America, but there is a lot of room for improvements. In the back of my mind, I still consider myself somewhat of an outsider.

Interestingly, I’m also gradually feeling like an outsider looking back at my own country- though I’m still very much attached to it. I’m trapped in a limbo place in between. But I actually like it that way. I often tell my parents now that I think the future is where one does not need to feel a strong national or cultural identity, but where we can be all global citizens, each individual with his/her own unique thoughts and character. It’s probably America in its ideal state - the vision of its founding fathers, where we look past our differences in race, culture & religion. In the words of MLK, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” (Looking at the current state of things, I’m not so sure which way we are going. We might perish as fools.)

In summary, studying overseas for me has been a long and challenging journey- and I’m still struggling to adapt at times. Risks of depression and feeling lost are very real. Looking back at the past 15 years or so, there were times I probably experienced mild depression. I was fairly lucky with my circumstances, and my genetic makeup fortunately didn’t make matters worse (medically), but I realize it could have been worse. I’m sympathetic to future international students who will have to brace that thousand-mile travel to come to a country so foreign that it shakes the very core of your being. But at the end of the day, if you can get past that obstacle, you will come out a much better person.

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