By Catherine Phương-Đông Nguyen, MA.Ed.
How breaking up with hyper-connectivity and the illusion of intimacy gave me a new lease on life.
4 minute read
Years ago, while living in Vietnam, I had a moment of clarity spurred on by a night of inebriation that changed my perspective forever. After a gut-punching break-up, I chucked my smart phone over the balcony of a five-story building, and then had the best sleep of my life. The next morning, I was like Oh fuck...what did I do, but then I got up, made a strong, tall glass of Vietnamese coffee, and had the most productive day I’d had in weeks. I understand my actions may be viewed as reckless and wasteful, but frankly, I needed to break up with hyper-connectivity.
I liken the destruction of a phone to the end of a relationship because of the attachment I’d developed to this sophisticated mass of aluminum, ceramic glass, and wizardy gadgetry. According to CNN Business, Americans average about four hours a day on their phone, up from three hours in 2019.  I was obsessed with my phone, constantly texting, clicking, infinite scrolling, and sliding. It got to the point where I started to develop carpel tunnel syndrome and dreamt an iPhone chord connected my spine to a matrix-like motherboard. Yikes! But the worst part about my phone obsession was the illusion of intimacy with all my “friends” generated through social media.
There are 3.8 billion social media users worldwide.  That’s almost half the world’ population. The constant stream of free-flowing information from this $84 billion industry dumping into my brain distracted me from the reality that I only engaged with 10-15 of these folks and only actually liked about 4-5 of them. So, what was I doing for hours and hours from the time I woke to the moments before I closed my eyes? Browsing through a menagerie of people’s lives, mostly people from my past, and wondering what more I could have like all the shining projections on my screen. Comparing, reminiscing, fixating on things, moments, and people.
The night I threw my device into the ether, I was fixating on a Vietnamese guy named Duy. Duy was born and raised in a war-torn city that had been ravaged by chemical warfare. He was the youngest of four sisters and understood the transient nature of love, especially coming from foreigners from other nations. His grandfather was an American soldier who impregnated his grandmother during the Vietnam war. At the end of his tour, his grandfather left and was never heard from again.
Duy lived the left-behind reality of love undone. And yet, we two, from opposite sides of the world met in his hometown and sparks flew. When I first saw Duy, he was managing a popular expat bar in Bien Hoa called Nation. He moved through the crowd of Vietnamese and white faces with confidence towards me, and my pheromone-fueled fantasy took flight. It didn’t matter to me that we could barely understand each other or that I was leaving for America in a few months. As I got to know him, I compartmentalized the pang of guilt of how my leaving would affect him. I was disconnected from this unpleasant reality and allowed myself to be enraptured by the Asian mystique: motorbiking throughout an exotic yet familiar land, arms wrapped around a mysterious man, discovering the real pulse of the city and my own.
But the truth was that I was more in love with the idea of this man than the man himself. My obsession with the serotonin-soaked experiences had clouded my judgment, and the breakup shattered my illusions. This loss was a heavy reminder of all the friends and loved ones I’d lost that year and who I continued to yearn for and think about. Perhaps, I moved across the world to grieve these losses and achieve some kind of catharsis, but at my fingertips was a constant reminder of my past, my failures, and all my heartbreaks. I was ready to let it all go. So, I held the phone in my hand and threw it all out into the night.
The morning after was sobering. Breaking up with hyper-connectivity and the illusion of intimacy forced me to sit with myself. I realized all the distraction was beginning to negatively affect my psyche. Studies have shown a correlation between hyper-connectivity and depression, particularly among young adults.  I was tired of walking through life in a fog, so I made a decision. Rather than viewing the world through an augmented lens, I would try to be more fully present. Rather than taking pictures of moments and food, I would experience the moments and the food. Rather than plugging in my headphones, I would strike up conversations with people. Instead of rummaging through ten feeds, I would read, reflect, and write.
When I unplugged myself from distraction, the world opened its infinite beauty to me. As I rode my motobike on Võ Thị Sáu, the main road in Biên Hòa, I listened to the city’s euphonious soundscapes: the undulating chatter of people buying and selling, going and leaving, car and motorbike horns blaring at one another, and the endless sound of engines rumbling and roaring. At the market, the freshness of the plants compounded by the aroma of spices and herbs drew me in toward the center of the market, perhaps representational placement as the flavor heart of Vietnamese cuisine. Instead of snapping a picture, I chatted with the spice lady and marveled at her twinkling eyes as she laughed at my broken Vietnamese. While sitting on the corner of a dirt road getting my motorbike fixed, instead of gawking at my phone, I watched how hard the mechanic was working in the hot sun and how the grease stains on his hands reminded me of my dad’s hands after a long day of work. I watched a barber cut a close shave on a man while kids played soccer in the street and reveled in simplicity and honest work and play.
I became more deeply present and connected to myself and the people around me. You know the part in Harry Potter and Half Blood Prince when Dumbledore says: "I am not worried, Harry," his voice a little stronger despite facing his impending death, "I am with you.” That shit fucks me up. The gift of showing up no matter what is inspiring and something I took for granted. I think my students as well as (my friends and family) can feel when I’m with them or when I’m checked out thinking about bacon cheeseburgers or ex-boyfriends. My point is that the beauty in life is found in moments, and if our faces are always shoved into our phones, we’re bound to miss many beautiful ones. You don’t have to toss your smartphone in the garbage, but you can assess introspectively if hyper-connectivity is keeping you from truly living. I don’t know when or if I’ll rejoin the smart phone nation, but if I do I’ll be sure to check-in to life first.
-Catherine D. Nguyen
 Lin, L.y., Sidani, J.E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J.B., Hoffman, B.L., Giles, L.M. and Primack, B.A. (2016), ASSOCIATION BETWEEN SOCIAL MEDIA USE AND DEPRESSION AMONG U.S. YOUNG ADULTS. Depress Anxiety, 33: 323-331. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22466