I’m so embarrassed…

After a few games of keep away, we circled up to stretch. It was a beautiful afternoon that felt more like spring than winter. We shared the turf field with two other practices, but we ten had all the space we needed. Fumbling around with balls, it was clear that I was completely out of place. I can’t play soccer. I’m a klutz with my feet. Despite my awkwardness and lack of proper gear (cleats are still in the mail), I came out because I am bound and determined to become moderately proficient in the world’s game. During the keep away drills, I spent more time chasing the ball than anyone else, and it was clear that I had no idea what I was doing. That, however, was only the beginning of my embarrassment.

Before starting, the coach asked all the new players to introduce themselves. The first few people to speak were Koreans, and they of course introduced themselves in Korean. I struggled mightily to keep up with the basic intros, but my listening skills are still below those of a Korean toddler. When it came to me, the coach asked me to say hello in English or Korean. Deciding I wanted to be brave, I tried both. The English was easy, but only the American, the German, and a couple Koreans in the group understood me. I tried my tongue at the new language I’ve been working on: “안녕하세요. 나는 제프리예요. 미국사람예요.” A brief pause, and a few sideways glances. The coach just smiled pityingly and turned to the person beside me. I immediately recognized my folly. Those who speak Korean will too.

Korean has a range of politeness levels that are used based on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. The introduction I gave used the informal version of “I,” 나. Because I was speaking to a group of people, mostly older than I, whom I did not know, this was incorrect. Instead of humbly using the formal form, 저, I came off like another arrogant American prick.

This experience, however, is one of my proudest moments. Growing up as a perfectionist, I obsessively prepare for every experience I know is on my horizon because I am terrified of failure. The idea of taking a risk and not succeeding makes me sick with anxiety, and frankly I’m not used to not being good at things. Yes, I was embarrassed yesterday, but that did not stop me from continuing with the rest of practice, during which I continued to embarrass myself as I missed passes and turned over the ball. More importantly, it has not stopped me from practicing my broken, elementary language skills. This is one of the biggest hurdles for language learners to conquer: speaking even when they’re unsure. Making mistakes is the only way to improve. This fact proved itself when the coach kindly corrected me after the introductions had finished. I may have made an embarrassing mistake, but I gained so much more. I got confirmation that I actually did say intelligible Korean words, I learned a lesson I am not likely soon to forget, and I proved to myself that I can speak Korean to Koreans. I have 51 more weeks to learn how to say more useful things and to say them properly. To me, this willingness to take risks in the face of embarrassment has been the greatest achievement in my never-ending journey of self-improvement.

Despite my progress in learning the language of my host country, I still face moments that encourage me to redouble my efforts. Sitting alone at a late lunch, I looked over the array of dishes that had just been laid out before me. Unsure of what any of them were, I started trying things. Many were quite tasty, but I honestly have no idea what was in them. The waitress brought out the bowl of mystery soup that I had ordered at random. It came in a stone bowl, and she shortly brought another stone bowl with a thick wooden lid over it. She politely explained something in Korean with a few hand gestures, and I pretended to understand. It was clear, though, that I had no idea what was going on. I did quickly figure out that the egg she brought was uncooked, and the idea was to break the egg into the soup, which was still boiling when it hit the table. What I was supposed to do with the other bowl, continued to confound me. Seeing my confusion as I lifted lids and examined the variety of bowls, pots, and cups on the table, the waitress kindly came to my aid. She removed the wooden lid that covered a bowl full of rice, scooped the rice into an empty metal bowl that she had brought earlier. She then poured steaming hot water from a teapot she had left me into the emptied stone bowl. From what I gathered by the hand gestures, the lid  was supposed to stay on the hot water, so that I could replenish my soup water when it got. As I never quite figured out how to make this transition, I ended up just eating the soup and leaving the bowl of water covered. I was slightly embarrassed at my ignorance, but her kindness alleviated that. My real embarrassment came when I was about halfway through the meal.

Standing near the register, the kind waitress leaned toward me and started to ask a question in Korean. I think she was asking if it was good. I responded with what little I knew, and she continued on. I tried to smile politely, but my face contorted into that helpless expression one makes when they simply don’t know what to do. She spoke for about twenty seconds, and I am ashamed to say that I legitimately did not understand a word she said. My great embarrassment was that I could not even acknowledge my gratitude for this woman’s help, not only for serving me but for teaching me.

This is why I want to learn foreign languages: I am a guest in this people’s home. Since I have arrived, I have received nothing but the kindest welcome (except the daily attempts by drivers to run me over). The least I can do is make an honest effort to communicate with my hosts in their language.

I am embarrassed, but I am also hopeful. I can see that I have overcome my fear of looking stupid or doing something poorly. The logic is as follows: my goal in life is to learn; I learn from my mistakes; therefore, I should strive to make mistakes. This realization will enable me to achieve my goals, but it will take continued effort to realize them. In learning how to become multilingual, how to be a better teacher, and how to behave as a truly cultured individual, I have a great challenge ahead of me. However, I believe that the conquering of this challenge will make my year in Korea one of greatest of my life.

One thought on “I’m so embarrassed…

  1. Your story brings back memories of my time in Holland where my favorite phrase was “Ik sprek als een vier jarig kind.” Don’t worry as one day you will notice you said something and thought about what to say in Korean, not English.


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