Every year I pick a word or phrase as a “theme of the year” that captures my experiences and helps guide me forward. 2016 was Integration. 2017 will be “Glocal”. It is a combined word, from “global” and “local”.

Glocal (adj): reflecting or characterized by both local and global considerations.

Having lived in three countries now, I have always been the drifting traveler, never truly feeling home to anywhere, even in Hanoi, the city where I grew up. I knew the importance of being multi-cultural; in fact, one of the values of my high school was to be a “global citizen”.

Coming to Tufts, I didn’t try to fit in as much as I tried to find something that fits, and if it didn’t exist then I would carve something out for myself. As an international student, I found it hard to care about the same thing as my “local” peers because our contexts are so different. Care is a funny thing: it is generally good to care more, but I cannot force it.

Only until recently when I realize I’m local to where I live and love. Reflecting on my college experience, I came in four years ago feeling excited for Tufts could offer me. After that initial freshman high fades away, I went through a period of disenchantment. Now I’m excited for what I could do with it. I know when I care enough about something, I’m committed to make it better. I’ve come full circle and also am also spiraling outward, caring more. I find myself “local” here, and I’m proud of that.

Expanding cycle of care

The same pattern also applies to human relationships. We started out with infatuation, putting the “other” on pedestal, fantasizing about some promising future they hold for us. As time go on, we see the other more fully, accepting the good and the bad. Then we make the commitment to be better with each other and with ourselves so that the relationship can grow.

It made sense that last year’s theme for me was “Integration” — I was working to integrate all different parts of me, to tie together things and people and to resolve the paradoxes that I experienced. The difference between “local” and “global” is one of them.

A personal shift

The biggest personal shift of my young adult life is perhaps from “making the right choice” to “making the choice right”. For me, the former is global, abstracted, universal; the latter is local, nuanced, contextual. It is a subtle yet immensely powerful shift, something that my past self will yell at me: “Wait, what do you mean by not making the right choice?”

Here is how I will reply:

“No, you still make the right choice. You still learn about all the theories that generations before you have developed and distilled. You still use whatever tools to help you make the right decisions.

But for all our mind and might, whatever theory we have with is still an abstraction of the vast reality that we are in. The map is not the territory. When we walk, we make the path.”

I tend to look into the wisdom and theories of others on how to live my life, and I am learning that while they could be really useful, at some points I just have to act that which I know but cannot explain. The question is how can we act with both intuition and reason, with courage and humility?

In the short run, model and prediction can help us to make the right choice, but in the longer run, especially in our current world where anything can happen, the better approach is to get a range of experiences as varied as possible and synthesize the principles underlying them.

Big and small

It is tempting to feel too small in a vast world, to grow a thick lens of cynicism that nothing I do will matter. That is a recipe for powerlessness and frustration. On the other end, it is equally tempting to believe that I have to do something big and important that fits with my “level”. That unrealistic ambition too does not work. I still sometimes vacillate between both extremes, from feeling too powerless to being too confident. And I’ve got a lot better.

Such insight came to me one night when I listened to a talk by Peter Senge where he said “global” means “everywhere” which includes “right here”. I cannot discount what is happening right close to me because “something more terrible is happening somewhere else further away”. Big and small, far and close are concepts that we use to grasp with the world. They are useful, but they cannot be mistaken for what is real.

It is tempting to feel too small in a vast world, to grow a thick lens of cynicism that nothing I do will matter.

The theme “glocal” crystallized the day after the Election, where the whole campus felt like The Great Mourning. I asked myself “What have I been complicit in?” and came to the conclusion that I could do so much more. There is a lot to be done in the world right now to make sure we are in the creative rather than destroying mode, and right here and now.

I’m already here. I already have everything to do whatever needs to be done at this moment, and the next moment will unfold itself. With that understanding came an immense sense of freedom and purpose. I know I will step forward, humbly and willingly. Will I ever do enough? Perhaps not, and I will do it anyway, while minding the three Outs: Burnt-Out (losing energy and motivation), Bummed-Out (not getting recognized for all the good work we do) and Freaked-Out (for messing up).

What may the theme look like in detail?

The first “glocal” idea is that I will graduate in a few months, so I will be one foot in and one foot out of a familiar environment. I’m also ready to move on, to become part of something beyond Tufts. At the same time, there is so much more I can and will contribute to this “local” place. I’m not done here yet.

On campus, I see a great need for people to come together, to listen, support and challenge each other. For example, the recent call to look critically into Greek life and into what it has done and not done well has sparked so much talks and not enough understanding.

I don’t want to be a bystander; I care about the issues in Tufts because it matters to the people I care about. Moreover, I see it as a local manifestation of a global phenomenon: polarization. All the divisiveness, “we” vs “they” and finger pointing stem from a lack of understanding and courage to listen to “the other”. It is hard to listen when we are hurt, so I hope that as a relatively unaffected person, I can offer some space for healing and thinking more productively.

Here are some personal guidelines for 2017:

  • Treat every situation case by case (local) while drawing out common patterns (global).
  • Strive for sensible structure (local) while also being flexible (global)
  • Zoom in and learn a lot from a little thing (local) and to zoom out to learn little from a lot of things (global)
  • Learning from actual experience (local) and also second hand knowledge (global)
  • Lastly, get the “small” (local) things right, then the “big” (global) thing will take care of itself.

One of the mantra that I am trying to practice more is “the way you do anything is the way you do everything”. It is hard to strive all the time for this quality of attention, but I know it will help me in the long run. As Mother Teresa has once said, “There is no great thing; there is only things done with great love.”

I have a hunch that for 2017 I will continue to engage more with the world, love deeper, be more surprised. It will be an interplay of déjà vu (already seen somewhere else) and vu deja (seeing familiar thing as if it is the first time), just like what I saw in my visioning quest earlier this year.

“The door of my future opened. There were light and a tranquil silence. I saw a circle of people, sitting on the floor of an unknown place. Their eyes smiled at me, eagerly waiting. As I stepped past the door into this future, closer to this circle, I suddenly realized we knew each other! I didn’t see any particular faces or names, but that feeling of familiarity was unmistakable."

2017 will be a wonderfully glocal year.

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Khuyen Bui writes to make connections among worlds: his inner world, the worlds of others and the world of ideas. He is currently a senior in Tufts University, trying to make more joyful things happen. Find more of his writing and thoughts here.

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