But this fear has developed into something useful that I never expected to gain during my time here: empathy.
Before I really began learning languages, I thought of it as something of a switch. Either you speak the language, or you don't. Now I realize the reality is totally different from that. Learning a language is more like boiling water. It's a very slow process at first. Though you heat the pot, it looks like nothing is happening. Then tiny bubbles begin to rise to the surface, followed by bigger bubbles. And then you turn around to grab the box of macaroni and cheese, and then BAM! it's suddenly a rapidly boiling pot of water. Learning a language in a new country is the same. It's a slow process that takes patience. And while you're struggling through the patience, you often feel like an idiot and maybe a little afraid to go to the grocery store.
Somewhere along this road of perpetual embarrassment, I realized that America was largely made up of people who went through these same situations. And I realized how very unsympathetic I've been. I never said anything out loud, but there were certain people I always questioned. "Why don't they participate more?" "Why aren't they friendly?" "Why do they always look so confused?"
But now that I've lived this life, I know. I empathize. I wish I could participate! But I can never say the words in my heart. I try to be friendly, but after using up all the small talk I know, I'm afraid of being awkward. And I generally live my life in a state of confusion in Korea. So it's no surprise if it constantly shows on my face.
I suppose I could study Korean a little bit harder and get myself out these situations. But another thing I've discovered about myself is that I'm rather lazy. But also, I'm grateful for these little struggles because it's taught me about the life of the immigrant (and the emigrant). Maybe once I get back to America, I'll finally start sitting in the back of the room just to be with the person that's too afraid to sit in the front.
Jacob Riis, Children saluting the flag in school, c. 1890 (via Smithsonianmag.com)