Goesan, Day 4: Identity

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.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sarah
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 13:08:23

    Great post. I feel the same way. Though I love it here, I often find myself exhausted and in the shuffle. I’m an introvert, so it’s harder for me to get out and say “Hey guys, I’m Sarah and I’m awesome.” We’ll all make it, one step at a time.


  2. charlotte
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 14:01:18

    I can tell by the way you write this entry with such detailed description, it felt like it was the beginning of a novel and of course an adventure, i am totally hooked . May, i believe you can overcome any obstacle, i have seen it first hand. The road to success is an uphill battle with lots of things in the way to stop you. Your just gonna have to be an earth bender to clears obstacles out of the way, or be water and flow around it or air to move along pass it or become fire to burn through it. ( been watching too much legend of korra). Granted the road will be difficult but i know you will do fine, you have a unique ability to adapt and meet amazing people because we gravitate to Your personality. You have always have this can do personality and look where it has gotten you to Korea in this prestigious program! Who would have thought that you make it there about 6 or 7 years when you were finishing high school with a fear of uncertainty? Just know that your not alone and that there are friends that believe you will succeed because that is what we wish and that we won’t leave you alone :3. You have Dogyeong and when i get there or Maria, you get to hang out with us. I know you will do fine and you will find people who accept you as you are because after all you are turly an engima of amazing qualities to around 24/7, its how you got to keep amazing friends who entertain you with amazing adventure to go on. :3 don’t give up and do your best May.


  3. charlotte
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 14:04:29

    Yeah long post. I hope what i typed made any sense but i will most definetly follow your post with anticipation cause your writing style makes your entry like a novel of adventure :3


    • seilann
      Jul 12, 2012 @ 11:58:05

      That’s a lot of praise, Char. XD Thank you. I know that so far, things have always worked out and I know better than to believe it’s all thanks to outside forces. Reading your comment, I also just realized that you never notice how you change until long after the change occurs. I’m not going to sit around holding my breath, that’s for sure. 🙂

      Wee! I can’t wait for you to get here~! 😀


  4. Barb the French Bean
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 16:34:37

    One thing that will inevitably happen when living abroad is that you *will*, to some degree, change. That change depends on the circumstances with which you are faced (housing situation, language exchange, opportunities, tchoo tchopping, etc.) and your outlook on how you shall confront them.

    In my case, I found that living in France gave me some breathing room and that, in turn, allowed me to flourish into a person that was hiding somewhere in my being. I *was* still ME, if not a more positive and slightly more adventurous.

    You are only at the commencement of your assistantship, Everyone in your group, all 81 of you, has a few things in common at this point. You are all smart enough to have gotten the Fulbright scholarship. You are daring enough to leave everyone and everything that is dear and familiar to you for a year to discover and interact with a new culture. And you are all going to eventually have terrible cravings for burgers, fries and shakes.

    Remember that this is the *beginning.* You will have plenty of time to distinguish yourself among the group, particularly for the people who even dare to discover who you are. As a fellow introvert, my advice is to keep smiling at everyone and engage in friendly, polite and poignant conversations with them. Keep in mind that it is impossible to be everyone’s friend. The ones who are lucky enough to get to know you better will realize what they’ve been missing out on. 😉

    Bashya! ❤

    (That is so totally gonna be my word while you're over there. It's almost like the rapper Pitbull with his "Dale!" catchphrase, lol.)


  5. seilann
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 12:00:07

    “And you are all going to eventually have terrible cravings for burgers, fries and shakes.” Is it sad that out of your entire comment, this resonated the most? The food at this university sucks! XD

    But you’re right. Everything takes time, and that is something I seem to have plenty of in the long run. 🙂


  6. Trackback: Goesan, Day 24: Things I’ve done today AND Identity part 2 « Sand from a Distant Shore

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