As I begin not only a new decade—but also chapter of my life—I want to reflect on the past ten years that have shaped the person I am today. These past ten years have been the darkest, happiest, and toughest of my life thus far. However good or bad, everything that I’ve been through has been trials in God’s plan to make me strive to become a better person. 

The first trial came in 2010 in an Old Navy. I was with my mom and sister; we were doing our routine Sunday afternoon shopping. I was excitedly weaving between the boys and teens sections of the store, plucking any piece of clothing that screamed “This looks so cool” in early teenage talk. I arrived at the fitting room with a stylish collection of T–shirts and jeans that towered over my head, to which the cashier gave an annoyed eye roll and led me to a stall fitted with bright lights and a monstrous mirror. I was ecstatic to try on the clothes and catwalk across the stall to the sound of cheesy retail music and land a Vogue–worthy pose in front of the mirror. 

Only, it was the exact opposite. One after another, each piece of clothing was either too tight, too long, or too loose to fit the curvature of my pudgy body. As the pile of clothes quickly decayed to a mound of wrinkled and inside–out articles, I looked at myself in the mirror with exasperation and became angry with myself. In just my underwear, I saw someone who was fat. From the chubby cheeks to the belly rolls to the thick thighs, I became disgusted with the way I looked. I believed that because I couldn’t fit into these stylish clothes, I didn’t deserve to look stylish. In the end, I walked out of Old Navy with a hideous pair of husky jeans that were two inches too long and too baggy at my calves.

As I entered middle school, my resentment towards my body only grew. In middle school, children begin to acquire a sense of who they are and where they stand in the hierarchy of social life. To express themselves, they turn to fashion and clothing. All around me, my peers were beginning to wear snapbacks and I Heart Boobies bracelets, among other signature statements of the early 2010s. I hated those things with a passion. I thought they were overrated and that I lacked the coolness factor to wear those, as they would only draw attention to a body that I took for fat and ugly. I resorted to the hand–me–downs from my cousins and cheap clothing from Kohl’s that would keep the attention away from me. 

Another trial occurred in 2013 that added towards my self–hatred and led me to a dark time in eighth grade. I was in my US history class talking to a friend when a classmate interrupted to shout, “Brian, are you gay?” I hadn’t yet explored the nature of my sexuality and was shocked—I didn’t know how to respond. Luckily, my teacher dismissed the 23 pairs of eyes staring at me and quickly returned to the lesson. For the rest of the class, I found myself reflecting on that one moment and interrogating myself on her motive. Was it because of how I talked? How I walked? How I looked? That day was the day in which I gained a greater sense of social awareness. I learned that in order to keep yourself safe, you had to adhere to the most basic sense of normalcy that embodied the middle school atmosphere. 

And that’s exactly what I did—without realizing the deteriorating effects it had on my personality and sense of self. The more I tried to assimilate, the more I hated myself. I hated myself because I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I felt, but I desperately wanted someone to listen. I threw away all the light–colored chino pants I owned and reverted back to the hideous baggy jeans and black sweaters, this time complemented with a gray beanie. I isolated myself from my peers, turning to a green iPod Shuffle for comfort in Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy. I even began distancing myself from my family in fear of another attack. I remember dinner with my family consisted only of single–word and empty replies. My mom began to notice that something was off with me and started questioning me, which only led to arguments and even more resentment. I found myself wondering how much better my family and friends would be if I simply ran away, vanishing from their lives.  

One of the most recent trials came in August 2018. My dad was pulling into the driveway with a large white van and my mom, sister, and I were finalizing the last of my belongings to be taken to Philadelphia. As we made our way to the Northeast, a sad reality was slowly creeping into my mind: in exactly a week, in a city that I had never imagined myself living in, I would be starting a completely new life with no friends or family to support me. Should I be happy that I’m starting a new life in which I can be me? Should I be concerned that leaving my mom and sister to care for themselves is a selfish move on my part? All of these thoughts ran through my head as we neared the city.

In the first months of my time at Penn, I intentionally removed myself from the Asian American community and tried to blend in with the white majority. I only spoke Vietnamese during family FaceTime calls and hesitated to integrate myself within Asian American organizations for fear of association. My cravings for Vietnamese food slowly turned into yearnings for hamburgers and mac and cheese. My busy schedule prevented me from exploring Chinatown’s rich and authentic cuisine and culture, as well. 

In isolating myself from my Vietnamese heritage, I longed for something else to fill that emptiness inside of me. I wanted someone to share the pain with, someone to share the emotional burden that I was quietly carrying with me. Suddenly, I found myself in a perpetual loop in which my longing for someone led me to whitewash myself even more, which fueled the fire that was destroying my drive to live. 

As my first semester closed and I prepared to go home for winter break, I looked at myself in the long mirror hanging on the wall of my tiny dorm closet. For the first time since coming to Penn, I didn’t know who was looking back at me. All I saw was someone who was exhausted from his passion. Someone who was too weak to face his fears. Someone who had lost his identity and replaced it with merely a mask.

I’ve always thought that however God made you, that was your fate. There was no changing who you fundamentally were—doing so would be a sin against His image. However, I realize now that I only understood part of the story. Everything that has happened to you, and everything that will happen to you, is already set in stone. 

I let my body image cloud my perception of myself. I let my insecurity land the upper hand in my social life. I let my identity become so fragile that it was shaped by the world I put myself in. 

But I didn’t let these trials haunt me—I began to realize the power of change. God can’t control the way you think; He can only control the things around you. Changing your perspective is the first step in understanding the totality of God’s plan. 

The more I looked at life in a positive light, the more I began to feel happy. Instead of shaming myself for my body, I started becoming more active and eating healthier. Rather than dilute my personality, I learned to embrace my uniqueness. I chose not to mold myself to fit others’ expectations, but to allow my individuality to attract others who like me for who I genuinely am. 

2019 was the year that I learned how to care for myself. I’m still recovering from the trauma of the past decade, but the friends and experiences that I have made along the way are quickly overshadowing the pain that I felt when I was alone. Here’s to the new people and conversations waiting in the next chapter—the decade of self–love and self–fulfillment.