CAMBRIDGE, U.K. — My friend says that “studying abroad is learning how to shame yourself.” I would like to amend that statement by saying, firstly, that I never needed to learn how to shame myself. I was born with a natural talent for self-embarrassment, and secondly, that studying abroad is not so much learning how to shame yourself as it is learning to be okay with shaming yourself.
Before I went abroad, I resolved to do everything perfectly. I watched “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” religiously to understand British culture. I knew all the — admittedly outdated and posh — slang. “Wind you up” means to make fun of you, to irritate you. Calling someone “fit” means they are attractive. Friends are called “mates” instead of, well, just the word “friends.” Armed with this knowledge, I thought I was prepared for all aspects of British life.
But the second I set foot on foreign soil, I messed up. I was called “disrespectful” and lectured profusely by the immigration officer in an experience I don’t need to recount again. And while I thought that would be the worst of it, that was only the beginning.
In these past three months, I have told a barista my name instead of my drink order because I couldn’t understand his accent. I have sat in the back of the boat while rowing, not doing anything, because I didn’t know what “taking a tap” was. I have stared blankly at a porter when he told me to take out my diary, because I thought he was referring to my personal journal instead of a weekly planner. The more I tried to do things right, the more I embarrassed myself.
And this was because, when I first came here, I didn’t understand that no matter how much we read and learn about another culture, actually experiencing it is a completely different matter. We can never anticipate all the nuances and unspoken social rules that come with years of living a certain way. Because of this, we will inevitably encounter uncomfortable misunderstandings.
Rather than trying to avoid them or dwelling on them, we should embrace the awkwardness. In fact, embarrassing ourselves can be a good thing.
Part of the reason we hate embarrassment is because it puts us at the mercy of others. In doing something stupid, we have made ourselves vulnerable to judgment. We are all, to some extent, vain creatures who care about perfection, and embarrassment breaks our veneer.
But that is all the more reason to embarrass ourselves. Embarrassment humbles us. It reminds us that we are all human beings, deeply flawed and unable to do everything right. We can breathe easier in knowing that we cannot achieve perfection, and we do not have to.
Moreover, we accept that life is out of our control. American culture nowadays teaches us that we can have everything our way, that we can submit the universe to our will with just a flick of the finger, if only we put our mind to it. On the contrary, there are some things in life that we cannot change, and embarrassing ourselves is one of the milder ways of reminding us of this.
Finally, embarrassment teaches us the meaning of compassion. We never understand compassion more than when we are given it. When we embarrass ourselves, we rely on other people not to mock us, to treat us kindly and to understand that they could easily have gone through what we are undergoing. In turn, we pay it forward. The next time we see someone who is suffering, we are a little gentler because of the memory of those who were good to us.
If nothing else, embarrassment leaves us freer to do whatever we want. We don’t have to worry about the worst thing that can happen, because it has already happened. We can just be ourselves.
My friend always says that I’m like a new person when I’m abroad — and that I’m much more confident. The truth is that people don’t come back from studying abroad confident because of some mystical experience, as if they’ve been drinking something in the foreign water. People come back from studying abroad confident because, in contacting new experiences constantly, they encounter so much embarrassment that if they didn’t learn to grow some self-esteem, they’d be forever hanging their heads in shame.
We have to realize that embarrassment is nothing to be afraid of. We will never enjoy our time abroad or even at home if we do not learn to embrace embarrassment. In the end, it’s just a slightly more painful way of breaking in some new shoes.
AMY CHAN is a College junior from Augusta, Ga., studying Classics and English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Chances Are” usually appears every other Thursday.
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