Don Hamill and I met in Bangkok in 2015. We had arrived there on the same day and, sharing the same dorm room, headed out to roam the infamous streets around Khaosan Road with the rest of our roommates that night. When Don left the next day, I was mesmerized by what turned out to be one of my favorite conversations in Asia and grateful for he had given me two other things I will always remember: a new journal and “sonder”.
I talked with Don about his life in Seattle, personal growth and practicing sonder, how he stays focused when learning Mandarin, and his future as an international journalist.
Daria: How are you today?
Don: Delightful. Sitting outside on a brisk, but sunny morning. Seattle is the London of the United States: it rarely gets sunlight, so it’s a welcome change of pace.
Daria: You didn’t always live there, did you?
Don: I didn’t. I grew up about 40 minutes outside of NYC. It’s a vastly different culture here than what I grew up with.
Of conflicts (or a lack thereof), and growth
Daria: That’s a big move! What’s your favorite part about living in Seattle?
Don: Well, oddly, my favorite part is my least favorite. I thoroughly enjoy the progressive attitude here in respect to political and economic ideologies. Unfortunately, seeing as how the city is homogeneous with like-minded individuals (or so it feels), you get the feeling of living in an echo chamber. While I love and align with most progressive schools of thought, I feel adamantly about a lack of conflicting views stifling growth in individuals.
Daria: What personal growth are you working on then, or what would you like to work on?
Don: Opening myself to more cultural norms within the US and outside of it. I struggle sometimes to assimilate opposing frameworks into my own to see how they can mutually benefit each other. I grew up in an environment of conservatism, but have renounced from a young age. Which, while I’m happy to know I’ve been someone who’s steadfast in their beliefs, is also a weak point of mine that I never took the opportunity to think critically about. There’s a splintering taking place here and I don’t want to be a party to it. To surmise it, I want to learn and grow at bridging gaps between conflicting people.
Daria: “Sonder” comes back to my mind when you say that. It’s helped me so much in that it’s given me a name for these very broad emotions I feel about others, their life choices and experiences. What does the word mean to you?
Don: Humanizing everyone. So often we feel this need, or want to categorize someone or something to simplify and justify our emotions. Meanwhile, that is just a circumnavigation of the real problem that is we struggle, as people, to see people as they are when there’s no obvious commonality. Sonder is owning what it is to be a humanitarian in a more globalized world, acknowledging that, no matter what you think or feel about anything, it won’t change what it is objectively.
“While I’ve been stagnating physically, I’ve been mentally expanding”
Daria: We met in Bangkok in 2015. Have you traveled more since then?
Don: Only around North America, but yes. I’ve taken in large parts of West coast now, which has so much to offer. I’ve not been afforded the opportunity to leave the country as school and work are dictating my schedule more than I’d like, but soon enough I’ll be able to leave the US for a decade or so.
Daria: Is that a dream so far or do you already have a plan in mind?
Don: I have a plan. While I’ve been stagnating physically, I’ve been mentally expanding. I was able to speak some French when I met you, which has now become conversational. Coupled with that, I’ve learned conversational Spanish too. I’m practicing Mandarin daily, but it’s been a very slow process. I’m learning these languages as I aspire to become an international journalist. As soon as I graduate I’ve the intention of joining a friend in Beijing or Shanghai for 2 years to report and learn more about the culture there first-hand.
“My inspiration has always been to expand my worldview in the remarkably finite time I’m given. There’s always so much to learn and I’m humbled by it every day”
Daria: Isn’t Mandarin one of the hardest languages in the world? Who or what inspires you to follow this dream?
Don: It is, but if you commit to something wholly the progress keeps you motivated. My inspiration has always been to expand my worldview in the remarkably finite time I’m given. There’s always so much to learn and I’m humbled by it every day. I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge, which my mother instilled in me by reading to me from a young age. The instant communication of someone’s thoughts who has been dead for 100s of years has mesmerized it. I suppose the insurmountable amount of knowledge has pushed me and will continue to push me to procure as much knowledge as I can. Learning brings me joy unlike that of anything else I’ve experienced, so for that reason I’ll never let it go.
I started studying the cultures that use the languages too. That helped me maintain interest by cultivating a desire to read and indulge in the culture from the perspective of its native tongue.
Goal setting: how to approach challenges and follow dreams
Daria: We all face different obstacles on our path to fulfilling our dreams. How do you approach (and overcome) these challenges or doubts?
Don: By reminding myself to take baby steps. A lot of endeavors seem like they’re impossible, but I feel that’s often a failure in goal setting. I had a problem trying to pick up Chinese for a long time, but after setting small, attainable goals that still make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, you feel like it’s a winnable battle. Whereas at first, I said I wanted to memorize 1000 characters and felt as though I was drowning in information with little to no retention. With that, it’s also so, so important to have people around you that support you and make you grow. There’s a saying that you are partly the 5 people you spend the most time with and that has resonated with me. It’s important to cut out toxicity whenever possible and to try keep good people in your life.
I’m lucky enough to have a large family that I can confide in, so when friends haven’t sufficed they’ve always come through for me.
“How much better it is when you find a way to make something positive out of any hand you’re dealt”
Daria: Youth – or being young in general – has been an important part of this interview series as it seems like most of us are in some kind of transition between one phase of life and another. How would you describe this period of your life?
Don: Turbulent. I grew up in a house with an alcoholic father that was, without giving away too much, a bad person. My mother passed away when I was 17, which put me in a bad place mentally for a while. With that poor environment, it demonstrated how important it is to live and thrive in a place that is healthy for your well-being. I moved out when I was 18 and have been living on my own since. It’s helped me by seeing the worst in people first, so I can always try to find the best in them now. While this phase is a struggle, I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything I want is achievable, so long as I stay the path I’ve laid before me.
Daria: I truly love your view on life, Don, maybe because I can relate a lot and know that it sometimes isn’t easy to try and find a way to end a story on a good note. I wish I could express just how much I appreciate you for that.
Don: You’re right, it’s not. I’ve not always managed it, but after seeing how much better it is when you find a way to make something positive out of any hand you’re dealt, it’s made me do whatever I can to ensure it happening.