At the beginning of this year I wrote down a checklist of things that I wanted to accomplish in 2017, something I’m sure no one is stranger too, as the start of the new year normally brings out our most idealistic selves. For the most part, I managed to accomplish the majority of my goals, as they were things I was either working towards, was in the midst of doing, or things I knew I would inevitably get done. Of course, that was no small feat – January 2017 Monica had very high expectations of herself, so as usual when it came to my annual list, unfortunately, not all were so easily achieved.
I’ll share a few with you now:
Accept a job working abroad in a place that I actually want to go to (preferably Japan or South Korea, but I will remain open-minded, my place is somewhere out there).
Get all A’s for my last semester as an undergrad
Eat more meals alone – be okay with being uncomfortable, and if you are uncomfortable, sit up, speak up, make eye contact – fake it.
Continue working out, start weight training, be more toned.
Say yes more to the things that scare me
Be clear about my boundaries, communicate with others when I am upset or disappointed rather than shut down
These are only a handful, the list is about thirty bullet points long, and consists of some trivial things, as well as some more vague points for self-growth. Most importantly, as many people seem to forget, achieving goals also drags along a host of problems with them. Example: Accept a job working abroad, spend a decent amount of time debating whether you made the right decision, and what you are going to do with your life. Example: Continue working out, start weight training, be more toned; Begin to have a more complicated relationship with food that bounces back and forth between love and resentment. This is not to belittle the things I’ve done this year, just trying to point out that everything is connected? The circle of life? Maybe.
After scratching off quite a few of these little bullet points, I found I was left with a hoard of even more self-critical objectives concerning desperate needs for behavioural change. The worst of these offenders is the line where I scrawled: Learn to be confident. It’s such a simple thought; four words, eighteen letters, thousands of chances for disappointment.
Before I moved abroad, I promised myself that this act in itself will make me more confident. I inflated how much I truly believed in my ability to change, to move forward, to take those hesitant steps towards adulthood. I needed to learn to assert myself outside of my comfort zone.
So, has South Korea made me more confident? It’s complicated, as most things are, because the answer is honestly no, it hasn’t.
Maybe the act of moving abroad is something that takes a sort of bravery, which for me, comes in a rush of snap judgments and impulsive actions. But, having bravery in specific moments doesn’t equal confidence. This is the greatest lie I told myself this year.
Sometimes I wonder if the overall quiet and reserved stereotype women tend to act on here has seeped into my mind and become a central part of how I conduct myself when in public. If you’ve never been to Korea, you may have heard this stereotype, but until you live here, it’s hard to see how this motivates and reverberates throughout the country. Gender is performance, and I perform in two distinct ways. This split persona has always existed, and I give thanks to the numerous romantic comedies and dramas that have influenced the way I interact with the opposite gender, but since my time here, I feel as if they have become more apparent.
Coaching and comfortable Monica is someone who despite her size, can raise her voice to a volume that carries across a pitch, or a hallway if need be. She jokes, calls people “dude,” teases others and laughs obnoxiously. In essence, she is the type of person that I wish I could be no matter what the circumstance may be. Yet, in the presence of others whom I have no previous experience with, or worse, in public, there’s that other side of myself that I wish I could quietly tuck away and forget about. She lacks confidence in herself, in her actions, in the smallest movements or expressions of minimal communication. My voice becomes a higher and softer version of itself. I hide my face behind my hands when I’m embarrassed or shy, and for the most part, pray people don’t come and talk to me. The two faces I switch between most often, and I worry that the the latter is the reason I can’t move forward and trust myself. Be confident, I tell myself. Like a mantra I repeat this over and over again, hoping that maybe one time the voice will suddenly stick, maybe even be responsible for shifting and reconfiguring the part of my brain responsible for my extreme shyness.
Harbouring anxiety towards social interactions is nothing new, but like a pair of old torn up jeans, I wanted to grow out of it and eventually discard it in tightly bound in a garbage bound and toss it out in the street. But frustration towards my lack of confidence is my own nightmare in the closet, my own responsibility. Yet, I cannot help but shift some blame on my environment. For anyone who has never lived abroad in a racially homogenous country – as someone who does not look like that race – I cannot even begin to describe what it’s like to be out in public, especially on an island that has an even smaller foreigner population (Of course, let’s not forget, I’m still white passing. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a black person in Korea. People will still sometimes sit next to me on the subway; I’ve heard it’s not so easy for those with darker skin).
I think I create a lot of anxiety towards things that don’t really warrant the level of worry I throw at them. For instance, I was out shopping for Christmas gifts today, and rehearsed what I was going to ask one of the retail workers about their sweaters about four or five times in my head before I could even walk up to her. Reciting sentences and questions is something I did before I even got to Korea, but now that the language barrier is a very real thing in my life, this behaviour has gotten significantly worse. It’s no crutch or anything, but I can’t help but laugh at myself because of it. Take an already awkward young adult and push her to be somewhere where the tool she already struggles with is essentially taken away from her, and you, for lack of a better phrase, have managed to open a whole new can of worms.
Want to hear my solution to being uncomfortable in public? Buckle your seat belts kids, because in fact, it’s not a solution at all. Now that it’s winter here, I’ve developed a new love for masks. Not only because they keep my face warm and my nose from getting ridiculously red, something I’ve realised is very much a non-Asian trait, but they hide me pretty well. The mask is an excellent answer to “please don’t talk to me” that we’ve yet to bring over to the United States. For every shy person out there in the world who doesn’t like to solely adhere to the “don’t talk to me” vibe that headphones give off, I one up you to a “don’t talk to me or look at me” vibe that is headphones and a face mask. This is my holy grail South Korean product.
Confidence? How about hiding? This is horrible, I know. But, the thing is, being out in Jeju alone is very different than being out in Busan, and even more different than being out in Seoul. In Seoul, I never feel out of place as a foreigner. There aren’t tons of us, but there are enough where people don’t pay any attention to me – which is just how I like it. The solidarity of being a foreigner in Seoul is something that I still laugh about, because somehow, no matter where I am, no matter how packed it is, I always see foreigners and will always make eye contact. There’s this shared: “Oh sh*t, whaddup, I see you live here too” conversation that goes on, and then, you move on with your life and step off of the subway.
But, what do we do to project confidence, especially in a place where the idea of the loud and proud “individual” is lost among the need to blend in and be a part of the crowd. Where is the happy medium? And is there one? They say fake it until you make it, but from the beginning, this entails that one is actually pretty good at faking something they already feel uncomfortable with. Which, for the record, I’m not. My face reveals everything, so my faking confidence turns into an embarrassing red glow that mimics that of either someone with a horrible flush, or an awful sunburn. Either way, it’s not an attractive look, and when it comes on, it comes on strong.
I don’t really know where to go with this goal. It’s something worth developing perhaps. Or, perhaps looking too introspectively on it defeats the purpose of recognising the amount of self-growth I’ve already managed to achieve in the past year. Regardless, I’m a little at a loss for how I feel about myself, for my confidence is by no means a defining tool of who I am, but, it still speaks volumes to how I feel about who I am.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder if maybe confidence is not something we can truly define for ourselves, but it is a trait noticed by those who interact with us on a daily basis; our friends, family, coworkers, significant others. Are we given such compliments concerning how we carry ourselves, or is it our job to grant it to ourselves? So, should I scratch the goal off my list because it seems to be a moot point? Or, do I continue trying to prove to myself that I can eventually become the picturesque version of what “confidence” looks like to me?
For all these questions, I’ve yet to find answers.