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I often think of my home country, Vietnam, as a coin factory. At this factory, day in and day out, coins march in assembly lines out of metal strips in perfect conformity. I am just such a coin, minted in 1993, rimmed, polished, annealed, and finally stamped. But I am a defective coin: I am different from the rest. How? As a child, I questioned prevalent Vietnamese customs and beliefs, thereby distancing myself from these cherished traditions and my compatriots who upheld them. I felt out of place.
As a prime example, I challenged the Vietnamese “superstition” regarding “Tao Quan” — the Kitchen God. My parents constantly reminded me that on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month, just before Lunar New Year, the Kitchen God flies to Heaven on a holy carp to report the past year’s activities in every household to “Ngoc Hoang” — the Jade Emperor. Based on Tao Quan’s report, the Jade Emperor in Heaven would either reward the household with good health, fortune, and abundant wealth or punish it severely. And so, in my youth, my mother often told me to behave lest the Jade Emperor penalize me for my wrongdoings.
Nevertheless, I saw no evidence that supported such beliefs. As a curious kid with aspirations to become a scientist one day, I persistently posed questions about the subject. However, I was always disappointed by the superstitious responses that my grandfather, my mother, and my teachers provided. Consequently, I turned to the modest collection of books that my parents could afford to provide me. These readings, under cover of which I could indulge safely in my long-established passion for science, sated my desire for explanations for why people around me practiced their traditions.
In particular, when I came across a book titled Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, I realized how wrong I was to be biased. I was an insider who critically analyzed customs without considering their role as a structural element of society. As I took a step back and viewed traditions from both an emic and an etic perspective, I saw the big picture more clearly. I saw the two sides of traditional practices. Empirically and sociologically, they may have lacked a scientific foundation; nevertheless, they have an indispensable function in my society. Vietnamese customs may seem illogical to Western science, but from an appreciative anthropological viewpoint, these traditions serve as a spiritual means through which my country’s people express themselves. I finally came to realize that when my family gathered around in a cozy, incense-filled little room to write down all of our mistakes during the past year. We were seeking mutual forgiveness, thus looking to start the New Year on a clean slate.
That was when I became aware that there are always two sides to everything: heads and tails, rationality and irrationality, my strong bias for scientific evidence and my parents’ unquestioning belief in tradition. This undeniable fact will forever remain a constant. However, I have learned that our world is continuously changing at an unparalleled rate; the one-sided “either/or” thinking that worked in the past now no longer suffices. Instead, I know I must learn to reconcile both sides of the coin. Only in this way can I understand everything in the larger sphere of human knowledge, rather than through one narrow lens.
When I reconciled both sides of my own coin, allowing myself to remain loyal to science and the principle of sufficient reason while still enjoying traditional customs with my friends and family, I let the two seeming contradictories harmonize into a new mindset — one that, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, can “hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And with this new mindset, I now seek to combine and not divide. I seek to pursue interdisciplinary studies, not disciplinary education. These are my enticements, and they will suffice to help me through every walk of life, to partake and thrive in any community that encourages conversing across cultures and disciplines. Every coin has a story. I hope that mine will tell both sides of it.
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