As a young professional in a prestigious program set in one of the most social yet conservative countries in Asia (try saying that through a mouthful of rice!), there is a lot of pressure put on you to look, act, and effectively be everything you are expected/socially obligated to be.
Which is something I’ve never been good at… being.
I’m shy. I spent most of my life with my head down, my shoulders shrugged, and my lips glued together. I couldn’t initiate conversations with classmates. I could barely approach teachers with questions, even one on one. I never made a friend with anyone who didn’t break the silence first.
When I got to college, I was still antisocial to a painful degree. It took years of club involvement (and presidency), multiple trips to Japan, and the presence of some really super people in my life to change it. But it did change. The fact that I survived grad school, tutoring in the language lab, and finally teaching at the ELI is proof.
What I’ve been discovering these past four days in Korea, however, is that I still have a “socialization limit” that’s quite a bit below what other people seem to have. With each day, I find myself more worn out and less appreciative of the humongous family I’m living with 24/7. Today, I realized there is a bit more to this than just “I’m an introvert.” It would actually be more accurate to say that “I’m not the person the rest of the group sees.”
In forcing myself to be more sociable, I’ve been hiding the majority of my true identity in favor of a more general, blander version. I’m not me; I’m that girl from Miami and a graduate of FIU with a degree in Linguistics and no, I don’t speak any Korean, just like 90% of the ETAs. I occasionally have an opinion on something, but more often than not I can’t expand on it before someone else is expanding on theirs, or changing the topic, or talking to someone else entirely. Even those I’ve been hanging out with semi-regularly didn’t know I had my Master’s, and very few people know that I write novels. Only one person knows that I knit. No one knows my favorite color, my birthday, or my age — just like I don’t know theirs.
In a group of 81 people all trying to get to know each other at once, who are all equally different and nice and interesting, it’s hard to be anything more than your name, hometown, and field of study at first. You want someone to be interested in you, but you don’t want to brag, because we all have some claim to awesomeness. At the same time, you want to be polite and learn more about the other person, but it’s hard to keep people straight when you get 20 introductions in about as many minutes.
On a side note, even personal style is out the window until you can figure out a way around the dress code. I’ve never thought of myself as a conspicuous dresser — I don’t like cleavage or crop tops or mini skirts. And yet even at orientation I have to choose my outfits very carefully. For the first time today I wore a V-neck shirt without a tank top underneath. The first comment I received on it? “Wow, are we trying to seduce somebody today?” (She meant it jokingly, but obviously there was still a grain of truth. What a “conservative” American considers normal is not decent to Koreans.) Needless to say, my personal style is going to be colored by this way of thinking quite a bit for the next year, so I’d better get used to it.
Back to the sociability issue, though, it really can feel like everything that makes me me has been compressed into a pea-sized capsule and then entombed in stone. Rather than showing my true face, I just show the one that will offend people least, surprise them least, and ultimately interest them least.
It makes me wonder when I’ll meet someone who can bring my guard down; when I’ll know my fellow ETAs well enough to let them see something beyond the bland, unintentional facade.
But little by little, I do see certain bonds growing. Just like in college, I’m changing, and becoming a wiser and stronger person — and this time, it’s not taking six years. It’s happening much more quickly. Will I be able to find myself again by the end of the next six weeks? It’s pretty feasible. However, it’s not a situation where I can just say “screw it” and do whatever I want; inhibition is relatively easy to overcome, though the consequences might not be. But the reality is that inhibition is not the issue here. It’s not that I have urges to break out of the mold and do something crazy, because that’s never been who I am. It’s that the person I am just isn’t here right now.
All I can do is wait for her to come back with her new changes.