Great Wall of China — Badaling

Discovering the Art of Empathy: How quitting my Silicon Valley tech internship to go backpacking through China help me find myself (pt.1)

Work hard, get good grades, and go to university.
This was the philosophy instilled in me by my parents — both of whom were refugees from Vietnam. They viewed America as the land of opportunity for their children — a place to build a better life. Just like many other first-generation students, I saw my success as a direct validation of my parent’s hardship.
This leaves zero room for error.

And so my recent actions have pushed my perspective into realizing that the most out of character actions are the ones most transformational.


I receive the follow texting message on a Sunday afternoon:

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS?!?!”

It was from Jackie, a friend who I had only met two months ago. The individual who was originally going to China with her unfortunately caught the stomach flu 24 hours before their flight and she was scrambling to find a replacement.

Two days prior to this message, I was saying my goodbyes to Jackie for the summer. We were both transferring universities and about to embark on new chapters of our lives. It led me to reevaluate my feelings about my job, my career aspirations, and, ultimately, myself.

By the American philosophy of success, I was a high achiever. The reality, though, was that I felt lost; by my own measurements, I was hollow and apathetic.

So at 19 years old and in the midst of a quarter life crisis, I was presented with an opportunity to take a breather. I responded to Jackie with

“OMG!! ARE YOU INVITING ME TO CHINA?! IF SO YES!!!”

There was a ticket to China with my name on it but there was only one problem — I had three weeks left in my summer internship as a software engineer at Oportun, a major finance startup (disclaimer: they are an amazing company doing empowering work).

This was a position that I had vied for and brought all the professional fulfillment I could have hoped. Still, though, I was struggling for meaning in my life.

So I quit my job.

I went into the office Monday morning and nervously explained to my bosses that I was leaving for China. They were surprisingly supportive and encouraged me to continue exploring the world.

That evening, I hopped on a flight bound for China. Along with any prospects of a return offer from my summer job, I also decided to let go of my itinerary and my expectations.

Tokyo seen through the lens of an iPhone 6s and Snapchat: Tokyo Tower | Chuo Subway Station | Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to get lost.

During my 20 hour journey to China, I had a six hour layover in the Haneda airport Tokyo, Japan. A sudden urge to leave overcame me.

My spontaneous decision to leave the airport led me to downtown Tokyo — totally unplanned. I explored Tokyo in total bliss, stumbling upon beautiful sights and food. This experience was different from the typical curated list of planned activities. I was enjoying purely enjoying life.

Next: Hong Kong

Hong Kong: View from Victoria Harbor | View from some random Starbucks | Nightview of Victoria Harbor

The serendipity of friendships

So here I was in Hong Kong with Jackie: Exploring a completely new culture and immersing myself in the unknown. At 8pm at Victoria Harbor the skyline orchestrates an awe-inspiring show. There was an intense feeling of happiness. I could not believe how much my life had changed in the past 24 hours.

With no agenda and two weeks, we decided to fly to Beijing and visit the Great Wall.

View from post #10

A childhood dream

The Great Wall is a totally out of this world experience. It has been one of my childhood dreams to visit. At the top of the post, my eyes trailed the walls all the way to the horizon of the sky. There is no other emotion comparable to the feeling of standing on this wall.

Next: Hangzhou

Hangzhou: Tea Shop on the Lake | West Lake Pagoda | Hangzhou Market

Pagoda thoughts

Hangzhou is famous for West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had visited West Lake in the evening during monsoon season. That resulted in us getting stormed out under a pagoda. Sitting under that pagoda was the most enlightening experience I have ever shared with another human being. We mediated, reflected, and talked to the sound of crickets and rain drops.

Next: Wuhan

Wuhan: Theater Building | Jackie’s Aunt Playing a Traditional Violin | Wuhan Lake

A glimpse into childhood

We had taken a bullet train to Wuhan, Jackie’s hometown during her middle school years. I had known Jackie as a robotics engineer from the Bay Area. This image was broken 5 minutes into a car ride with her uncle as he began to reminiscence on the stories of her growing up in China. It hit me:

Why did I consistently associate an individual’s character and story with a diluted version crafted by an academic pursuit? This is the question that has lead me to embark on the journey of discovering the art of empathy.

Next: Guilin

Guilin: Moon and Sun Pagoda | Me Hugging a Ball of Light | Bamboo River Lake

An epiphany

Guilin is a treasured city in China known for its beauty and elegance. It also happens to be the home of Yangshuo Impression Sanjie Liu water show. A spectacle directed by Zhang Yimou whose work includes the 2004 Beijing olympics. Watching 1,000 men and women in perfect harmony is simply breathtaking.

I soon realized for the first time in my life, I was living life just for the sake of it.

The Delight of Letting Go

Work hard, get good grades, and go to university.

This was the philosophy instilled in me by my parents — both of whom were refugees from Vietnam. They viewed America as the land of opportunity for their children — a place to build a better life. Just like many other first-generation students, I saw my success as a direct validation of my parent’s hardship.

This leaves zero room for error.

I felt trapped by the internal expectations I had set up for myself. I made decisions based on the best outcome for my career and not necessarily myself. By letting go, I have rediscovered my love for design and cultivating community. Passions that I have always naturally gravitated too, but would never identify with over mathematics or leadership titles.

Empathy is powerful, but it starts with yourself.

So I have decided, I am done identifying with achievements and titles. In the span of my life, my goals have always been solely set on winning. Carefully crafting opportunities that will receive recognition.

By escaping the motions of life to explore something new, I have developed a new perspective in which I can view the world. One that is completely different from the American narrative of success. Now with each new pursuit, I stop for a moment and reflect. Why am I doing this? Who am I affecting? What is the impact of my decision?

The values found through this process are the buried gems of an individual. I think they are only discoverable through introspection. My journey to discover these gems in others begins today. This is the human experience.

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This is a part of my ongoing journey on discovering the art of empathy. Follow me on medium if you’d like to be a part of it as well! If you have any thoughts please write to me at thidang96@gmail.com or tweet at me. :)

Thank you Donald Nguyen, Sophie Vo, Ysabelle Morales, Aryana Pazargadi, Deo Halili, Jacqueline Clow, and Chris Reps for encouraging me to write this piece.

Oportun is an amazing company with a great culture with people doing empowering work. Check them out!