My life as a freshman in college sucked. I must have been the only Asian college student on the planet that was failing his classes, couldn’t understand why gender relations were so terrible (a.k.a. Paul still couldn’t find a girlfriend), and looming over all of my collegiate misfortune were my parents questioning if I should have ever left home at all. That’s the worst feeling, right? Figures of authority telling you what you should or shouldn’t have done. So what went wrong? I was headed in the right direction by going to a big time university and finally building a future for myself. Only once I got there, I was quickly humbled to a realization that perhaps I didn’t belong.
One of the wisest things I did that year was seek some guidance from the university’s Vietnamese priest – the ONLY Vietnamese priest on campus and possibly the only Asian priest on campus. Anyways, being at middle-of-nowhere university surrounded by an 80% white campus population, I figured maybe he could relate to some of the things I was going through (except maybe finding a girlfriend part – you know, on account of him being a priest and all).
I had taken a big leap when deciding to go to school out of state. In fact, I had pulled out all the stops to convince my parents to let me go to school out of state – so much that I choose to apply to Notre Dame because I felt it gave me the best chances of my mother approving. I don’t even think I was as worried about getting in as I was worried whether or not my parents would let me go to a private school that they couldn’t afford.
My mother is a devout Vietnamese Catholic. She raised my sisters and I so that we could grow up and have better opportunities, go to school, and get the best education. She’s very protective and always valued safety and security. She also LOVED football. So it was a no brainer for me to look for prestigious academic universities that I could attend that had a nationally celebrated college football history AND happened to be in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by Catholic Priests. Nowhere Else But Notre Dame.
When I was accepted, Notre Dame sent my family a number of brochures and pamphlets. It was my mother who first learned about Father Martin Lam of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He is an art professor – an incredibly wise man whose past as a Vietnamese boat refugee, life of faith, and unique perspectives are captured in his artwork. My mother pointed out to me that there was a Vietnamese priest at Notre Dame and that she felt a lot more at ease knowing that I would be around good spiritual guidance. She was right.
I walked up to Riley Hall toward the end of my Fall Semester. Cha Lam (as we would call him in Vietnamese) was having office hours. I had spoken with him once or twice during the year before. A lot was going on in my mind – whether or not I’d make the grades to stay in school, distressed about not being able to accomplish what I had set out to do, but most importantly I wanted to understand what coping mechanisms did I need at that moment to deal with times of adversity.
I don’t remember much of his office – other than it being naturally lit by the mid afternoon sun. Most of Notre Dame’s classrooms have his great old-school feel to them. Cha Lam asked me how I was doing and after a minute or two of the usual, ‘studying for classes’, I got right into my frustrations with being top 2% of my high school to being bottom 2% of my college and misunderstandings with girls who all felt like I was trying to date them just because I was talking to them. (A lot of ND girls went to private all-girls school and not normal public school like I did). I got a little bit into the homesickness and trying to understand my role as a minority. At one point I felt I was going to change the world and be a role-model for my cousins going to college after me. But at that moment, all I could feel was failure.
Finally after venting, I asked Cha Lam how he got through it all. How was he able to be at Notre Dame knowing he was the only Vietnamese Priest? Did he ever feel homesick or culture shock?
He proceeded to tell me to imagine obstacles in life as being a fence. We are all in one way shape or form fenced in and restrained to a certain life – whether it’s our upbringing, tragic events like war, or what cards are being dealt to us. I have always been understanding of my parents generation – escaping Vietnam and being asked to build new lives here in America. Cha Lam provided examples such as dealing with the past and challenges of being a minority and acknowledged that sure, living in your comfort zone and fenced off world is fine and dandy. He could have moved to California and be where the other Vietnamese priests went in densely Vietnamese populations. That would have been the easy choice. I too, could make the easier choice and run away from my academic troubles and back into the comfort zone of being at home.
But Cha Lam offered me this bit of advice: that the best place to be is right up against that fence.
That bit of advice has since changed my entire worldview. You see, being inside the walls of your fenced in life, you will only be able to learn and experience so much. And it’s not any greater jumping the fences and leaving your past, support system, and what you’ve already learned behind. By being right up against the fences of your life, you have the potential to push those boundaries and keep the world around you moving.
You can expand your mind, expand your abilities, and most importantly decide whether or not you can be a part of this larger world. Once you accept that times of adversity are opportunities, it becomes a whole lot easier to accept that sometimes there’s no place you’d rather be than where you are right now facing the odds and making yourself a better future.
I later found out that Cha Lam traveled to other nearby towns each month to hold mass for smaller populations of Vietnamese Catholics. Some days, he said, if he was too busy or had work – those people would miss out on celebrating Vietnamese mass entirely until he could come up to see them again. I realized then that we all have a choice on whether or not to accept that living in adversity is too difficult for any one person to manage. We can choose that it’s too much and recognize in a healthy manner that it’s too much. Or we can choose that it’s never enough. That out there, there is some cause bigger than any one of us that needs our attention.
I learned how to deal with adversity that day and three years later graduated from the #1 Undergraduate Business School in America. (Just don’t ask me about my GPA…!)