I did something really embarrassing a few weeks ago.
No, Parents, you don’t have to stop reading – it’s not that kind of embarrassing. It’s just one of those things that I find myself doing and then think surely nobody else in the history of time has ever done this ridiculous and ludicrous thing? and start to over-analyse the situation, my personality, and my life in general.
See, I’ve never been very good at socialising. I make friends pretty easily, but it usually happens because someone else has made the first move – approached me in a crowd, contacted me online, invited me to join some group activity. I like spending one-on-one time with people. But throw in a third person and I become noticeably less talkative. Throw in a whole bunch of strangers and you’ll be lucky to discover what my voice sounds like. I don’t choose not to speak, I just lose the ability to do so. Chances are I’m sitting there desperately trying to think of something to say, and becoming more and more tongue-tied the longer it takes.
Obviously, I’ve had to go through a lot of discomfort because of this, since leaving my comfortable circle of friends and family to travel on my own. If I don’t make myself socialise, however stressful it is for me, I’ll end up sitting on my own, crying and wishing I was at home. So, I’ve done it. I’ve joined Facebook groups, I’ve gone to ex-pat meet-ups and dinners, I’ve accepted lunch and coffee invitations from total strangers, and I’ve done not too badly, all things considered.
Until the embarrassing incident.
Kara, an American teacher I’d met for lunch several weeks earlier, sent me a text message to say she was going out for a late dinner with some friends that night (Friday). Wanna come?
Not at all. I’d rather sit in my room and watch sitcoms and drink beer by myself. Going to dinner with strangers involves psyching myself up, repeating calming phrases in my head, and trying to come up with interesting things to say. It is exhausting.
Sure, thanks! I texted back. And so it was that we met in downtown Daejeon, just the two of us, only to find ourselves joined by people who seemed to suddenly appear from all directions. Honestly, there were about 20. Who all knew each other. And I’d met one of them. Once.
We went to a bar-slash-restaurant, where jugs of cocktails and bottles of soju magically appeared, along with what the Koreans deem to be pub grub – large cauldrons of spicy soup that makes your eyes stream, platters of fresh fruit, bowls of mussels, and plates of dried squid. We ate, we drank, we were merry. I had a disconcerting moment where I realised that I hadn’t spoken for 20 minutes, and that everyone at the table except me was chattering away quite happily, but then I managed to push myself into a conversation with the two people nearest to me, and all was well.
Then, when the food was gone and everyone was in the party mood, we split the bill and headed out into the packed streets towards one of the local bars frequented by foreigners. No one could believe that I hadn’t been there, but it’s kind of a bar-come-club and that’s really not my thing. Also, I tend to have more interest in going to traditional Korean venues, rather than places that are specifically designed to make me feel like I’m back at home. But anyway. I went. I chatted as we walked. I was feeling OK about things.
And then we went in, and it all went to hell. My nightmare situation. Everyone got dragged off in different directions by people screeching things like “I haven’t seen you in forEVer!!” – including me, actually, as I was greeted enthusiastically by a Korean girl I’d met once before through work. We did the small talk thing, and then she said “Have fun!” and went back to her friends. And I turned around and realised that – lo! – I had no friends. The place was packed, and I could see no one I recognised. People were just flitting easily from group to group, mingling. How do they do that?! I hovered uncertainly for a while, wondering how exactly one deals with this type of social situation. I approached a few groups of people and hovered there, too. I tried to think of an interesting conversation starter. I hovered some more. Then I made a run for the toilets and locked myself into a cubicle, where I sat staring at the door and trying to breathe deeply. Just go get a drink, and then talk to someone, I said firmly. This is ridiculous. You can travel to the other side of the world by yourself, and you can’t last five minutes in a bar without hiding in the toilets?
Suitably chastised, I crept back out. I edged towards the bar. Someone approached me, smiling as if delighted to see me, and I smiled back, only to watch her sail right past to embrace the person behind me. And then I did the embarrassing thing. (No, none of this so far was the embarrassing thing, believe it or not).
I got my phone out of my bag, and held it to my ear with a strained expression on my face, as if struggling to hear the non-existent person on the other end over the noise in the bar. Then I slowly and carefully backed out of the door, in a “just stepping outside to take this call” sort of way. I went down the stairs, on to the street… and then I stuffed the phone back into my bag and walked hastily in the direction of my neighbourhood.
Now, since then, I’ve gone to dinner and suchlike with a number of individuals. I even met up with a group I didn’t know, at a board game cafe, to spend an afternoon being an utter geek. I was certainly the quietest person there, but I had fun, and was even managing to make a few jokes and get a few laughs by the end of our time together. Focusing on the board games took away the pressure to make conversation. And the fact that I had a nice time and didn’t want to run away screaming gave me some reassurance that I’m not totally socially inadequate. Just about 95%. Maybe the bar/club scene is just not my thing, and I shouldn’t force myself to try to fit in there.
Or maybe everyone’s like this, and they just have the sense to get really drunk first? ;)