I wanted to write you this letter on gratitude— and thanking you for everything, and some life updates (moving out of Berkeley, moving to Vietnam for 2 years, and some other random ideas in my mind):
So I’m on a Southwest flight right now, flying from Oakland to Orange County. Cindy and I just finished packing up all of our stuff from our apartment, and look forward for the next 3 months in SoCal before flying out to Vietnam (for around 2 years— technically 16 months).
Moving out of our apartment in Berkeley
Moving out was an interesting experience. I finally had the chance to look through all of my stuff, and this was a great chance for me to re-live some old memories (via old books, cards, and college papers), while looking forward to the future.
One of the big problems I had was figuring out what to keep and what to get rid of. One of the best tips I got from the recent bestseller: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” was to hold an object in your hands and asking yourself, “Does this spark joy in my life?”
A lot of stuff we own for no reason, except that we have it. I also fall to the “sunk cost fallacy”— that because I spent money on something, I have a hard time getting rid of it (either throwing it away, donating it, or selling it for less than I purchased it for).
But man, getting rid of stuff is hard. I still feel (irrationally) attached to a lot of my things. For example, if I had a good friend give me a present from 5 years ago, I know it has fulfilled its purpose (my friend showing me their love and appreciation). So it isn’t the physical present which is important, but the spirit in which the present was given to me.
So what I did was when I picked up something that was a sentimental gift I look at the object and say, “Thank you for bringing me so much joy in my life, but now I am going to set you free. Goodbye, and thank you for everything.”
As an American, I certainly live in a disposable society. Everything we buy, eat, and consume is easily disposable. But what I learned growing up Asian-American is that we shouldn’t throw things away— we should be grateful for the things we have.
However the problem of being an Asian-American (as well as an American) is that I tend to hoard stuff. I still have a ton of books (photo books and ‘normal’ books) that I have a hard time getting rid of— even though I know I will never re-read it. I was lucky that I was able to give away a lot of my books to good friends, and also donate the rest of it. I know that a book is useless if it just stays in a cardboard box on a shelf (and remains un-read or un-used). So in knowing that I could give my books and things a “second life” gave me a lot more happiness.
I think one of the things that confused me about “minimalism” is that I thought it meant having no stuff. Now I realize minimalism is more about having a few meaningful things— things that genuinely bring joy in your life, empower you, and make you happy.
For example, I love all of my digital tools (laptop, tablet, smartphone, digital camera). These tools (while often a distraction) still empower me— to create things to help empower others (blog posts, photos, videos, e-books). I think the unhealthy relationship I have with electronic gadgets is when I become too obsessed with the gadgets themselves— the symbolic value they carry.
For example, I am a total Apple fanboy (even though I don’t own an iPhone). I greatly admire Steve Jobs, Jony Ive, the design team, what Apple has done to help to simplify our lives through making clean, minimalist, and beautiful technological experiences. I still remember my old and clunky PC’s— how ugly, slow, heavy, cumbersome, and inefficient they were. Now I am grateful I have powerful, sleek, and user-friendly devices to help me be the best writer, blogger, and photographer I possibly can become.
But I still get suckered into the Apple and gadget marketing hype. I unreasonably believe that the new iPhone or new iPad will help bring me “productivity” gains and bring me “happiness” by just having a device that weighs .2 ounces less, or is 25% faster, or whatever.
I’ve also done a lot of experimenting in terms of what devices I truly “need” in life. I’ve gone days without certain devices (like an iPad/Kindle) to see if I was okay without it. Even last winter, I experimented not using my smartphone for weeks on end (not even turning it on).
I think at the end of the day, the only devices I really “need” include my laptop and digital camera. Even a smartphone now is convenient— but not a real necessity (I honestly feel it is more of a distraction than an “empowering” device). The smartphone is fantastic for communication and messaging, but otherwise a distraction which gets me to always waste time on blogs that just bombard my eyelids with ads.
Gratitude to friends
I am so grateful for all of my friends, family, and close ones. When moving out of our apartment of Berkeley, we had a handful of close friends come over, help us pack our things, clean our place, and we ended with a fun BBQ (my mom marinated some amazing Korean BBQ meat, oh man… I still am savoring the perfectly medium-rare steak cooked over the charcoal pit, thanks Justin for cooking it).
I thought to myself, “Man, how horrible it must be to not have any friends to help you move in and out of your apartment.” Furthermore, how horrible it is to just not have any friends in general.
I know there are so many people out there (especially Americans) who live alone, without many friends, and are isolated from society. And honestly, I don’t think technology does a (good enough) job in connecting us. I think social media, online communities, and online video games helps somewhat to connect humans to be more social, but overall I find these mediums to be more alienating than empowering.
Even though we have Virtual Reality, smartphones, and the ubiquitous internet— there is nothing that beats face-to-face interaction. Even Skype and Facetime/video messaging apps do a somewhat good job— but can you truly replicate an experience laughing with your friends, having a beer, and a lovely meal next to one another? I guess there is still a good reason why businessmen fly millions of miles a year to do business deals face-to-face (rather than over webcam).
Gratitude for blogging
I have been thinking a lot about social media— and honestly, I don’t know how empowering social media is nowadays. Social media has empowered a lot new generations of “content creators” — but at the same time, it has bred a lot of dissatisfaction in the “rat race” of social media likes/followers/comments, etc. Furthermore, I think we don’t know how to sit and enjoy our own company, or give 100% of our attention to our friends when having a coffee with them (have you ever had a friend that was “talking” to you while sending someone else a text message? How alienating does that feel?)
The interesting thing is that I don’t consider a blog “social media.” I consider it my own publishing platform— almost like having a magazine or a newspaper. And ultimately, I see it as a personal journal (in the public) where I can share my personal thoughts, reflections, and feelings with you— my dear reader and friend.
I was talking with Cindy’s friend the other day—and how she wanted to start a blog on vegetarian Hmong food. I gave her all these ideas and suggestions (start a YouTube channel, blog everyday, blog as if you were just having a conversation with a friend). In having this conversation, I just felt so much gratitude to have this blog, and this opportunity to communicate to you.
The problem with most social media platforms is that you are a slave to the platform. For example, while Instagram is great for posting photos— you can’t see the photos really any bigger than a smartphone or a tablet. That gives you less control over the viewing experience. Not only that, but if a social media platform changes their algorithm (like Instagram did recently, by showing you ‘most relevant’ photos, instead of ‘all photos’) you are screwed.
So friend, if you’ve ever wanted to start a blog— please do so! I recommend also self-hosting it yourself (I recommend bluehost.com) and doing the “1-click WordPress Install” (it installs the wordpress.org framework, which can give you the power to customize your blog anyway you would like.
If you don’t want to spend money, I recommend just using wordpress.com — except they put ads on your blog, and you have a lot less control over customization of your site, and other tweaks/plugins.
And know if you start a blog, know it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just make it human, personal— just make it an extension of you.
Going a year without a car
I also wanted to write some reflections on life in Berkeley— going a year without having a car.
Honestly, I’ve always thought I “needed” a car in the Bay Area. But honestly, by not having a car for a year, Cindy and I have had more fun, have been more adventurous, and more empowered, while being less stressed (don’t have to worry about parking, speeding tickets, traffic), and spending less money (insurance, gas, maintenance). By not having a car, we have just taken public transportation (bus, subway) as well as Uber. And all-in-all we are still saving a ton of money.
Why has going without a car brought us so much joy and happiness? Well first of all, Cindy and I can have conversations while on the bus— whereas when I’m driving I’m only 50% concentrated on the conversation. Furthermore, you can actually do stuff when you’re taking public transit (read a book, daydream, or answer emails).
There is so much hype about the future of self-driving cars. But the future is already here (it is called public transport— and it is way cheaper). I sit on the bus, read a book, look up, and smile at the bus driver— this is the closest thing I will have to a “self-driving car.”
Furthermore, the nice thing is I’ve been able to take photos while on the bus or public transportation. Either candid shots of other passengers, photos of Cindy, or just photos looking out of the window. So if you find yourself having a hard time making photos, perhaps see if you can integrate public transit more into your daily life.
One thing I also didn’t anticipate is how riding public transportation helps me feel more connected to the community. I love talking and saying hello to the bus driver, looking at the other passengers and wondering what they are up to, and to be surrounded by other human beings. It feels so much more reassuring than just being stuck in a bubble of a car— being stuck in traffic, and hating life.
In the Bay Area, traffic is also getting so horrible. With more tech jobs popping up, an average commute from SF to the South Bay is almost 2 hours (only one way). Can you imagine being stuck in traffic 4 hours a day? That is almost half a working day.
I know that not all of you will be able to take public transit, but my suggestion is to perhaps drive less whenever possible— and take Uber or Lyft. It will be so much less stress in your life, and will give you more time for meaningful things (conversation, taking photos, meditating/thinking).
Life in SoCal
I’m not sure what kind of lifestyle I’ll have when I stay with Cindy’s family in Orange County— but it will probably involve eating lots of good food, spending time with friends and family, and lots of coffee and yoga.
While I do look forward to “relaxing” in sunny southern California, above all I want to be more productive in terms of writing and creating “content.” I want to start making some more YouTube videos, and writing other e-books which will hopefully be helpful to you.
So we’re going to move to Vietnam after about 3 months in SoCal for the summer, and then we are spending around 6-8 months in Hanoi, then probably another 6 months in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Then we might move to France (Marseille) for another 3-6 months.
The reason we’re moving over is for Cindy’s Ph.D. research in History (Vietnamese/French Colonial History). And once again, I do not want to become an ex-pat degenerate while in Vietnam. I hope to spend less time with expats and more time with locals— learning more Vietnamese, eating local, and also spending that time to make photos, blogging, and (maybe) print-publishing.
If you’ve never been to Vietnam— I highly encourage you to go. It is seriously one of the most underrated places to travel to in the world (really affordable, all modern western conveniences in the big cities, friendly folks, and phenomenal food). Apparently Vietnamese food is Anthony Bourdain’s favorite food.
The part I am slightly terrified about is that I have never lived anywhere abroad for over 2 months. While Cindy and I travel a lot, we have never lived internationally anywhere for such a long period of time. I know that when we move (again), I will have to bring as few things as possible (only essentials)— and as long as I have coffee, wifi, and your support, I can do anything.
A fun recollection: my entire “Saigon Diary” series from 2014 below:
- Saigon Diary #1: First Day in Vietnam
- Saigon Diary #2: Learning Vietnamese
- Saigon Diary #3: Motorbikes, Vietnamese Coffee
- Saigon Diary #4: Leading Lines, Golden Triangle
- Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese
- Saigon Diary #6: Trip to Pulau Bidong
- Saigon Diary #7: Trip to Hanoi, Now in Seoul
Digital vs analog
I’ve been flip-flopping from digital to analog all the time (writing notes digitally on Evernote or in a Moleskine, shooting film vs digital) and man— the whole process is exhausting.
It think at the end of the day, I prefer the convenience of digital— and how I control all the “means of production.” Furthermore, I know that most of you shoot digitally— so why do I need to be a hipster and shoot film, when it is inaccessible to the masses?
I have been enjoying so much shooting on the Ricoh GRII, post-processing photos in Lightroom (making new free presets), and posting more images. I feel it helps me flow more creatively— I don’t feel so back-logged when I’m shooting film. I also love that having new images, I’m able to update blog posts more often with new images.
I look at all the new digital cameras, and the only interesting new digital camera is probably the Fujifilm X70 (and of course, my beloved Ricoh GRII). Who cares about megapixels anymore? The ultimate camera is something small, compact, and can fit in your front pocket (so you never miss a moment). As of 2016, no more bad digital cameras exist— so I would encourage you to opt for something small, inexpensive, and compact.
Always keep learning
I also want to start applying myself more seriously to studying— perhaps learning some basic coding, computer science theory, while studying Aristotle.
I find the only way to stay inspired and passionate is to keep learning. Whenever I study and learn new things, it powers my mind to produce new blog posts, and I do believe “creativity” is just stitching together 2 ideas, and making a new concept. Kind of how James Altucher refers to it as “idea sex.”
One day at a time
I have no idea what life has in hold for me in the future, so I think the best us for us to just take life one day at a time.
Thank you always for the continued support, love, and encouragement. The fact that you are spending your valuable time reading this means the world to me. Will keep you updated friend.
Monday, May 16, 2016 @ Garden Grove