Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Empathy

I dread grocery shopping. I shouldn't. No longer being the starving college student that I was for many years has afforded me a much larger grocery budget. But still, I dread grocery shopping. I dread grocery shopping for the one simple reason that I'm not Korean. I fear that people will say something to me I won't understand and I'll look stupid. I'm afraid the employees will follow me around, as they often do in the bigger chain stores. I'm afraid that because I can't speak the language very well that I'll end up buying the completely wrong item (for example, fabric softener when I meant to buy detergent, which did happen before and makes this a non-hypothetical fear). I have a lot of irrational fears about the grocery store. Things I never thought to fear about the grocery store in America.

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.
So this is my life now. In the situations where I am the only foreigner, namely church, I sit in the back where once I might have sat in the front. I act as a spectator where once I might have participated. I feel incredibly stupid where once I felt intelligent. I speak to only when approached, where once I might have been the one doing the approaching.

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