by Dina Iglikova
Armine's Voyage of Self-Discovery in Vietnam

Armine Sargsyan’s (CELA'15 Armenia) path has been defined by a spiritual inquiry – a longing to uncover her authentic self. This manifested in pursuing theology and then dramatically relocating to Vietnam to detach from the familiar. A pivotal Vipassana retreat provided techniques to observe her thoughts and reactions with non-judgment. Immersion in CELA furthered her self-discovery. By continually questioning assumptions and shedding limiting beliefs, Armine found liberation from external expectations. Her story conveys that when we maintain a willingness to mine our innermost depths, our future is never fully defined by the past. Armine’s unwavering quest for self-knowledge led her to a profound transformation.
"We are conditioned by life experiences to accept certain notions as truth. But to progress, we must transcend them. Our future is in no way defined solely by our past.".
Armine Sargsyan
Armine, I know only two things about you. You are from Armenia and are currently living and working in Vietnam. Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

I'm based in Halong City, Vietnam. It is not far from the capital. Two hours away from the capital, to be precise. I moved to Vietnam in 2018 and began teaching English. I taught for one and a half years before COVID-19 struck. When lockdowns started, I embarked on educating myself. I vividly remember enrolling in myriad online courses on all subjects - it was a period of intense self-study. This enrichment equipped me with the knowledge to go into even more disciplines. Starting with psychology, through public relations and social media, and everything in between. Amid this multitude of lessons, I began envisioning how I hoped to progress. The activities and career that would bring me fulfillment.

The impetus for coming to Vietnam was my desire for a complete change in my life. I sought to embark on something radically different from my work back home. And to be frank, when I reminisce on that first year in Vietnam, living in a tiny Vietnamese town in a local Vietnamese home - a quintessential provincial house - whenever those memories resurface, I recall how thoroughly I cherished that time. It was a catharsis because it signified a detachment from the familiarity of my past and what had been expected. It was undeniably a transformative period for me on a personal level. I was residing in the proverbial middle of nowhere, doing things I had never imagined I would. It was profoundly refreshing.

What prompted your relocation to Vietnam?

As a child, I resided in Vietnam with my family for three years - ages four to seven. My father was among an assemblage of specialists from across the Soviet Union invited to Vietnam to contribute to constructing a hydropower plant. This plant remains one of the largest in Vietnam, and they take immense pride in it, having been built by Soviet experts, including my father. So, my entire family was welcomed to Vietnam for my father's role in this monumental project. Consequently, my earliest memories and formative life experiences profoundly intertwine with Vietnam. I harbor tremendously fond recollections of Vietnam, imbued with the warmth of childhood. I had long pondered returning, not merely as a tourist, but more meaningfully. While I never embarked on meticulous research into exiting Armenia, it felt fated when the prospect of relocating to Vietnam arose. An unanticipated professional role emerged, and I decided to leap into the unknown. The allure of the country, coupled with my yearning for change, cemented the decision. I packed my belongings, explored Southeast Asia, and settled in Vietnam.

Could you recount a particularly challenging moment in Vietnam?

An early mishap stands out; upon arriving for my first job placement in a remote town as a transportation, I was simply informed motorbikes were indispensable in Vietnam. Though lacking experience, I embraced the necessity with optimism. But my maiden attempt riding a motorbike culminated in an accident and injury - a broken shoulder. So I was, newly arrived in the country, navigating this unexpected hurdle. Thankfully, my local colleagues compassionately supported my recovery. In retrospect, the entire incident proved a fortuitous unfolding. I abandoned motorbikes and turned to walking or bicycling.

Could you elaborate on your life in Armenia before departing?

My career centered around public relations and marketing across various companies and projects. Most recently, before Vietnam, I was employed with a public relations firm. I have always gravitated toward activities like marketing, PR, and event management - creativity and communications have been my milieu.

Regarding my education, I completed two master's degrees. Somewhat incongruously, my first was in theology. Fresh out of secondary school, I pursued theology, more out of spiritual inclination than religious zeal. I invested six years delving extensively into theological concepts and emerged well-versed in biblical and religious philosophies spanning Christianity and beyond. While enriching, I became too immersed in academia and esoteric topics, thus disconnected from pragmatic reality. Upon graduating, I never harnessed that knowledge directly in any role. I realized I needed a compatible education to propel me professionally; therefore, I completed my second master’s in cultural communication management, concentrating on marketing and communications.

What was your mental and physical health state upon departing Armenia?

Physically, thanks be, I was sound. Mentally, while functional, in my depths lurked an amorphous discontent - a sense that some unnamed yet critical element was lacking. At the time, I could not articulate what precisely was absent. I was immersed in constant thought and reflection, yet I felt increasingly distant from my authentic self. The freedom I sought involved excavating those obscured layers of my being.

Freedom from what?

Freedom from everything external that engenders illusion or expectation. By surrendering to the unfamiliar, I severed attachments and discovered liberation in simply being, not doing. Currently, having established a stable lifestyle here, I cannot claim to exist in the same tabula rasa state as when I first arrived in Vietnam. But the memories of that profound detachment continue to inspire me to seek truth over comfort. While life is now more predictable, complacency will never supply the meaning I seek.

Do you feel that familial or societal pressures in Armenia were part of the impetus to leave - to escape those engrained cultural expectations? And what do you think in Vietnam?

Yes, in Armenia, certain expectations exist surrounding women and traditional roles. However, I trained myself to tune out those pressures and not deplete the energy around them. Of course, the pressures exist globally.

While not overt, Vietnam has even more deeply ingrained assumptions. Even strangers can bluntly inquire about your age and marital status. So the pressure is inescapable. But more important is how I allow those judgments to penetrate my psyche - or not.

Did you expect the new locale to provide you with some fulfillment?

Honestly, I had no concrete expectations. I just vividly remember craving that change. I harbored no presuppositions about what the new setting would proffer. Interestingly, I had no trepidation about embracing the unknown - migrating into uncertainty. That adventurous spirit was likely what I hungered for.
"Aside from the routine of meditating from 4:30 AM to 9:00 PM, there were three hour-long sitting sessions during which you could not budge. The rest of the time, you could move, stand, walk around, and then resume meditating. But the hour-long sittings intended that you remain still, typically in lotus pose. And you truly feel your bones aching after an hour of no movement! I thought this was hellish".
Armine Sargsyan
You mentioned your theology degree shaped you. Could you expound on that?

More accurately, it impacted and informed me rather than distinctly shaping my personality. The rigor and depth of analyzing biblical and religious philosophies were mentally stimulating. I am grateful for the knowledge, as it lends valuable perspectives in grasping the complexities of humanity and our world historically. But in terms of subject matter, I needed to be more engrossed in abstract theory and bereft of practical application. However, illuminating the human quest for purpose and meaning helped contextualize life and human nature. So, while not directly applicable to my career, that analytical orientation was beneficial.

You said you wanted to change everything completely. Why is that? What precipitated that?

Well, most people experience periods of re-evaluating their present, past, and future. Perhaps unconsciously, I felt compelled to alter my physical surroundings to gain new perspectives. That may have been the impetus. But when I reminisce on that time, ostensibly everything seemed fine - functioning well. Yet at the same time, not entirely.

You said you wanted to study yourself. How did you accomplish that?

I completed a Vipassana meditation retreat in Jaipur, India. The initial step was surrendering to the unfamiliar and observing my reactions to the novel situations I encountered - how I conducted myself. Certain events transpire, and you pay close attention to how you respond. Plus, when you find yourself alone in the middle of nowhere, that catalyzes transformation. Because you can no longer rely on others to care for you, as you could in familiar territory amongst family, friends, and even strangers, that is very much the case in Armenia - even strangers demonstrate care. So, shifting from that protected environment to one where you alone are responsible for your well-being engenders a mental shift. Suddenly, you are situated in a place where, while not hostile, you must fend for yourself. A mindset transition transpires out of necessity.

Did you, thanks to Vipassana, learn to observe thoughts better non-judgmentally?

Well, that Vipassana retreat represented my maiden experience with the practice. As the teacher mentioned, more than ten days is required. Returning to ordinary life, I gained more insight than the retreat itself. What transpires during Vipassana is you are imparted tools. They educate you in techniques. So, in response to your question - yes and no. Yes, because I learned the techniques. However, tools are futile if not actively implemented. To yield meaningful, lasting results, you must apply them diligently. At a minimum, one hour of meditation daily. This I have struggled with upon re-entering the pace of everyday life. While meditating in India in complete silence was profoundly impactful, the only real hardship was sitting motionless for an hour. Aside from the routine of meditating from 4:30 AM to 9:00 PM, there were three hour-long sitting sessions during which you could not budge. The rest of the time, you could move, stand, walk around, and then resume meditating. But the hour-long sittings intended that you remain still, typically in lotus pose. And you truly feel your bones aching after an hour of no movement! I thought this was hellish. I'll return home and meditate comfortably for even more extended periods. Alas, none of that came to fruition. So, in summary, yes, I acquired the techniques and perceived their value. However, I have not manifested the discipline to integrate them into daily life.

As someone living away from your homeland, how do you now define home? How has Vietnam reshaped this concept for you?

As my parents reside in Armenia, my instinctive association with home is where they live. But more broadly, I'd define it as wherever you feel whole, complete, at peace inside. Home transcends a physical locale.

As fondly as I regard my native country, and as passionately as I feel about it, home is not one singular place. Just as I can call Armenia home, Vietnam has become a second home. I've always sensed that - even before moving here, I referred to it as my second homeland. Home is where you feel wholly yourself and find inner contentment.

But you said you moved to Vietnam partly because you felt unfulfilled in Armenia. How did you attain fulfillment? What was the impetus?

Excellent observation. I was attempting to articulate it in comprehensible terms. You encapsulated it well. I departed Armenia in search of something - driven by an intangible longing. And once I unlocked that mystery within...Armenia will always be home. It was a journey of self-discovery. I sought my true self and yearned for a deeper understanding of my essence.

Okay, what did you discover about yourself through this process?

Well, numerous things. Firstly, I am capable of far more than I conceive. My perceived limitations are but illusions. I discovered I could expand well beyond the frontiers I had delineated.

How did you arrive at that revelation?

By questioning my assumptions and incredibly restrictive beliefs about myself. We are conditioned by life experiences to accept certain notions as truth. But to progress, we must transcend them. Our future is in no way defined solely by our past.

How do you overcome those engrained patterns of thought?

Well, this is why I meditated. The moment you grasp that the ideas swirling in your mind, provoking certain emotions that inform actions, may not represent truths. We are boundless. I want to convey that our past does not wholly dictate our future. Moreso, do not allow your thoughts to be self-limiting or self-sabotaging. Be aware of thoughts that do not serve your highest self. You must learn to release those mental constructs.

Do you intend to remain in Vietnam long-term, or are you open to other possibilities? What are your plans?

In the short term, I foresee myself residing in Vietnam, as I have established a relatively comfortable life here amid familiarity. The only changes on the horizon pertain to halting teaching to concentrate exclusively on marketing efforts or exploring other entrepreneurial ventures and partnerships. But Vietnam remains home for now.

You expressed that various inspirations have guided you on this intercultural passage. What lessons would you impart to others considering a similar journey?

My singular counsel would be: to embrace openness to new experiences. Venturing far from the familiar requires relinquishing preconceived ideas and being receptive to novelty. Yes, even transitioning to an unforeseen profession like teaching - never envisaged, yet profoundly enriching. Entry into unfamiliar terrain, when undertaken with an open spirit, cannot help but transform you.

How have you evolved personally and professionally during these five years abroad?

I'm certain that CELA, Global CEO Academy, and Vipassana were instrumental experiences. But there were other catalysts as well. I have developed tremendously on both personal and professional levels because I am highly intentional about growth and evolution. Progress in all spheres motivates me continuously. So, whatever milestone I reach, I need more. There is always room for improvement. This mindset propels me.
You taught English, a foreign language for both you and Vietnamese students. What universalities and differences have you gleaned about human communication and connection through this intercultural exchange?

It is intriguing to see the difficulties English poses for them and to discern patterns illuminating aspects of the Vietnamese language. Whatever Vietnamese I have acquired - admittedly minimal as I struggled to pick it up - coupled with the errors they make in English provide insights into how their mother tongue-shaped their mindset. Frequently, they attempt to translate directly from Vietnamese into English, which exposes how they conceptualize ideas and speech patterns intrinsic to their native language. For instance, a prime example is using the word "play." When trying to say, "I spent time with my friends" or "I hung out with my friends," they will instead say, "I played." Even older students who were not playing. But in Vietnamese, that one word conveys spending time or socializing with others. This illustrates a profound cultural-linguistic phenomenon. Their mistakes shed light on these nuances.

What commonalities between Armenians and Vietnamese have allowed you to build connections in your new home?

The most conspicuous similarity is hospitality. Both cultures revere guests. When invited into a Vietnamese or Armenian home, you are treated with utmost care and respect as an honored guest. They strive to make you feel welcome and pampered, preparing elaborate meals with traditional dishes. From this standpoint, they align. Armenians also highly value guests and are very warm hosts. We cherish gatherings for feasts with loved ones. Another parallel is extended solid family ties. And, of course, the immense love for children - sacrificing anything for their future and education.

Interestingly, I have never felt like a foreigner here. Despite the novel environment, I adapted smoothly. That may be attributable to childhood memories creating a sense of familiarity. However, I am naturally open to new cultures and experiences, which facilitates connecting. And I deeply respect traditions here- I try to comprehend the local perspectives and norms. Vietnamese are remarkably kind, calm people - aggression from strangers is rare. They are inclined to help and support. This welcoming nature engenders comfort in one's new home.
You mentioned not feeling lonely. Does that imply you feel fulfilled as is? Or is there something missing?

I live a joyful existence presently. My focus has been honing my career. I have been intensely busy with diverse projects and acquisitions. While I could scale back and coast, I envision grander aspirations.

What business ambitions are you cultivating?

Marketing remains my concentration, but I am exploring potential partnerships and business concepts with my family. The ideas are in embryonic stages, requiring extensive development. However, after this protracted professional journey, I am adequately equipped for enterprising endeavors on my terms.

How might the CELA community support your undertakings?

Foremost, the network provides invaluable connections with exceptional humans - a wellspring of wisdom and support to tap into. The very act of immersion in this high-caliber environment is transformative. As the maxim goes, we become the company we keep. The collective inspiration and encouragement intrinsic to CELA is a gift.

Anything else you wish the CELA community to know about you?

I cherish and value every member of this community. I am honored to be among this ilk of changemakers. My sole aspiration is that we continue uplifting each other, as I know it is innate to the culture of CELA.