In my two weeks of travel in Vietnam I couldn’t help but take mental notes of some things that were strikingly different about Asian approach to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. On the surface the differences may be obvious and much has already been written (and little read by yours truly) about the Orient and the Occident and the intrinsic disparities between the two. I couldn’t hope to add any insight to that body of work.
What I wanted instead is to arrive at some essential generalization about the two worlds (intentionally subjective), and then map this generalization to, say, the way we can approach our work environment or the way we can approach software design. Sounds pretty crazy, I know, but I explicitly wanted to avoid political or social angles. So I started by imagining choices in achieving happiness and well-being (the ultimate metrics of individual success) could map to choices other domains where matters as well.
One thing that immediately struck me in Vietnam was the difference between the notion of peace as we tend to think of it in the West and the notion of peace as I saw it applied in Asia.
Asian peace is somehow more personal. This is reflected in the incessant pursuit of inner harmony. Meditation, Nirvana, Enlightenment and all things having to do with inner harmony play a central role, or appear that way to a weary traveler. External harmony or seeking peace by dealing the physical world around us is what the West is all about.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of peace is the opposite of war, and that in my view is entirely different perspective on harmony both on personal and global scale.
Both senses of the word concentrate nicely capture what I think of as distinctly Asian sensibility – focus and bringing out the essence of things. Altogether, I feel, and felt this a lot in Vietnam, that Asia is a lot better at drawing out the flavor of things. Whether this is literally the flavor of food, or the flavor of what really matters in life, the fundamentals.
I realize this is a tenuous argument, but the West seems a lot more peripatetic in its search for truth. The West’s mantra is exploration by coming in contact with various ideas and places. It’s the coming together of difference experiences, views, and values (often conflicting) that gives rise to our understanding of the world. This process of search is invariably directed outward and into the unknown.
In contrast, Asian search seems to be more attuned to the nuances in the known things. A Western mind would probably deem such a search as conservative and counterproductive, perhaps even something that undermines the very notion of progress.
Joy to the World
There are some stunningly colorful temples in Vietnam. Such levity in places of worship is jarring to someone used to seeing the overwhelming gravity of European churches. And yet there is something in the way color prompts the onlooker to feel happiness even before entering the building.
The novelty of a sense of pleasure derived from simple, and different, things is refreshing. The sounds, the sights, the smells all flow together to give happiness an effortless tone. It’s not that the West is devoid of simple pleasures or their simple expression, it’s that they seem on the whole more reserved. Comforted by their familiarity we tend to suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to alternatives.
In short, Asia tunes to a whole new dimension of unadulterated, simple joy that is public and immediate. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.
To Put it All in Perspective
What you see above is a gross approximation and generalization which some may say I should be pay dearly for. But it’s the East as it appeared to me. You would be fully justified in calling me out on it, and telling me that my ramblings are worthless or unjustified, but that’s not the intent of my essay. The intent is to take familiar concepts of happiness, the search for the truth, and the sense of belonging in the world and seeing other ways for going about it.
This blog has not been a place where I discuss my “feelings” feelings, so perhaps it’s time to finally bring it home.
What I am trying to get at is that there are multiple ways to achieve success in our personal and professional lives. There is a choice of reaching out and changing something in our work environment, in the people that we surround ourselves with, and changing something in ourselves. This choice has not really come to fore before I took this trip.
The same choices can be seen in our collective approach to exploration. It can take an external and/or internal route. We can either strive for external consistency by reconciling what we see around us, or we can search for internal harmony by seeking the essence of things that are already close. The first choice is akin to intellectual colonialism, an expanding the scope, the second is of reducing the scope to a minimum while looking at the heart of any one thing.
Likewise, when we build software (at last one of bona fide subjects) we can build systems around their connections with the outside world, or we can build self-contained systems that are solutions in themselves. Or we can build combinations of these. We can start from the interface, or we can start from the guts, it’s all a matter of perspective we adopt.
Finally, there isn’t one way to be happy. I know it’s evident in the different approaches the East and the West take. Both seem perfectly legitimate to me, and both bear plenty of fruit. No matter how much the familiar eclipses the unknown, the fact that there may be another way, even for seemingly well-known tasks, is a wonderful, eye-opening lesson to take home with you.