Before my flight to Korea, I Skyped one of my friends who used to live and study in China. As he too had been a foreigner in Asia, he told me, “you’re going to have an amazing time, but be prepared to embarrass yourself and feel like an absolute idiot.” He laughed and added, “that’s what I want to hear the next time we talk, all of the stupid things you’ve done.” So, this blog post it dedicated to my friend Brodie, who was correct in predicting that I would have many embarrassing moments in Korea.
Some small embarrassing moments:
-I am the absolute worst with chopsticks. Despite training before my trip, about half of what I attempt to pick up always ends up falling back onto my plate. My biggest foe is noodle soup. Here, we have an already slippery and hard to pick up food bathing in oily meat water. I splash myself. I splash the person sitting next to me. I have to wipe my face (yes, my face, not my mouth) after every bite. And it takes me about twice as long to finish my meal as everyone else. The other week I was eating Korean barbeque with some friends and I tried to pick up an egg from the soup we were sharing in the middle of the table. The egg slipped from my hold and rolled under the stove that our soup was simmering on. We all tried unsuccessfully to get it out before we had to ring for a waiter to come over. I smiled sheepishly and pinched my chopsticks at him in explanation.
-I keep forgetting that when it rains in Korea, you’re supposed to leave your umbrella out in front of stores before you go in. This way your umbrella won’t drip all over the place and knock over the merchandise. Yet, for some reason, this never seems to be something I remember and I’ve gotten chased out of stores by angry shopkeepers more times than I care to admit. If you know me, you know that I absolutely hate getting into trouble, so this is mildly traumatizing each time.
-I went to a PC Bang to buy my Badger Football season tickets. PC Bangs are basically man caves filled with computers, fancy swivel chairs, and every type of snack you could ever crave. They also happen to have some of the highest speed internet in the world; perfect for buying tickets quickly. The problem is that they are not catered to english speakers, so every two minutes I would have to go to the front desk and ask, “hey, what does this say?” They would tell me what it said. “Ok, thank you.” And a few minutes later I’d go back, “hey, it’s me again. How do I add more time to my computer? How to I check my remaining time? What’s your wifi password? Can I buy some chips?” I felt so bad for the poor guy running the desk.
-I was ghosted by an 89 year old nun. No, not haunted by her ghost. I mean, she was supposed to text me and she never did. My great aunt from the U.S. gave me her number; the nun is the twin sister of my great aunt’s friend who just passed away in New York. The nun is American but has been living in Korea since the 1950s (Korea was still authoritarian then). I was very interested to hear her life story so I called her and asked if she’d like to meet up for tea. She told me that she’d text me with a time, but she never got back to me. Perhaps she didn’t want to see me, perhaps she fell down the stairs… I should probably give her another call to see if she’s okay.
-Here, it is common for girls to wear very short dresses, skirts, and shorts paired with very conservative tops. My more western wardrobe happens to be the opposite; I love to wear pants with v-necks or shirts that leave my shoulders exposed. At home, these outfits would be nothing even close to risky. The young people don’t mind what I wear, but when I’m riding the subway I get some very direct, stirn stares from the older Koreans. They keep staring from the moment I step onto the subway until the moment I step off. This uncomfortable situation has inspired me to make the cardigan my new best friend, even on the hottest of days.
-I accidently accepted a bracelet from a Korean monk with one hand. This is one of the most disrespectful things you can do in Korea because it is extremely important to respect your elders. I’m usually really good at remembering to do it, to the point where now I’ll accidentally accept things from my friends with two hands, but I completely spaced. He sternly pulled the bracelet away and said, “two hands. Two hands.” I turned beet red, put out my hands, and he gave the bracelet to me. I don’t think that he was too offended because I was a foreigner, but I was kicking myself for not remembering to take it with two hands.
Some big embarrassing moments:
-It took me three weeks to figure out what my roommate’s name was. When we introduced ourselves the first day I didn’t hear clearly what it was. I stalked her on social media and the messaging app we use in Korea to try to figure it out, but her name was always written in Korean or Japanese. We didn’t talk a whole lot the first couple weeks, as we came back to our room each day exhausted and wanting to relax. When we did talk, we didn’t use each other’s names because there was no need to differentiate who we were talking to. Then, one day in the kitchen I ran into a girl who smiled and said, “oh, you’re Nana’s roomate, right?” Oh, no. Was Nana my roommate? “Nana?” I asked. We were both quiet for a moment. I swallowed then took a bet, “yeah!” The girl smiled but her eyes looked quizzicle. Later, I brought my phone to one of my Korean friends who confirmed that my roommate’s name was Nana. I should have figured that out weeks before.
-I went to my scariest professor to ask for career advice. I assumed she would be the most honest with me and offer the most constructive advice. Unfortunately, the day I had scheduled our meeting for there was a school shooting in Colorado. The school was next to my brothers’ school, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, there’s me, already emotionally fragile. I told my professor that I enjoyed her East Asian Politics class and asked what type of careers students pursue who also enjoy the subject. She dodged the question and asked me what I want to do with my life. I told her that I’m trying to figure it out, and that I just know I want to help people and think that working in international relations might be meaningful. She told me that I sounded like a Miss America contestant and that I’m going about everything backwards. Throughout our conversation, my voice got more and more tight and I ended up overflowing with tears. She gave me a tissue box, trying to comfort me by saying that people cry in her office all the time. I was so embarrassed that I could barely make eye contact with her the next couple of lectures I attended. That being said, she did make a good point that you can’t expect to save the world by yourself. She just didn’t sugar coat it like an American would.
-I went on a weekend trip to Taiwan a few weeks ago with some friends. I was really looking forward to climbing a hill in Taipei called Elephant Mountain. I had been virtually running this trail on a treadmill back home for years. The area is very tropical, and the top of the hill rewards you with a stunning view of the city. What I wasn’t expecting was 102 degree weather and heavy humidity. Halfway up the hill, I started breathing really heavily and feeling nauseous. I didn’t want to give up, though. When else would I get the opportunity to do this again? Besides, dozens of children and elders were climbing the stairs no problem. I started feeling really crappy near the top. I began hyperventilating and panicked even more when my fingers started seizing. My poor friend just stood there, not knowing what to do. People passed us, glancing curiously over. Just when I started picturing a helicopter having to come lift my seizing body off the mountain, I threw up into a bush beside the trail and felt better. Not my most elegant moment. I tried to play it cool and we hiked back down the mountain to get some refreshing bubble tea.
The reason I am sharing these stories is not to scare people away from studying abroad. Embarrassing moments will happen no matter where you are in the world. The difference is that when they happen in a different country, they often lead to a great insight or change of perspective on the world and how others live. Growing up, my family and I used to go around the dinner table sharing our embarrassing moments from our day. We would laugh at each other’s mistakes and it made it so that we began to see the humor in our mishaps. Viewing these bad events as humorous in retrospect gave us strength, and made us more brave about pursuing future endeavors. Writing these stories for this post, I was able to find them funny and more entertaining than many of the good things that have happened to me. No one is perfect, and humor is one of the best tools we have to come to terms with this.
So there you go, Brodie. I hope you enjoy.