“Será que puedo botar más comida…”
“Como, Chris??” my friend exclaimed with her voice climbing octaves in disbelief, cutting me off as I tried to ask for seconds of the food she and her family had cooked up with much love and craft for me to try.
I had succeeded not in asking for more food in my best intentions but rather in asking to throw out—botar—my food. In any culture, this would be a touchy misunderstanding. In Peru, where food reigns supreme as the ultimate point of familial and cultural pride, I had committed a mortal sin just a couple of weeks into my time in Lima.
My penance was literally dished out onto my plate. I was forced to prove I had enjoyed the food so much I wanted to eat more and not waste it. I felt all of the Irish blood in my body rise to my cheeks in an uncontrollable flush of embarrassment. Yet, I was beginning to realize that that mistake had not cost me the hospitality of my friend or her family. Nor were they upset after the initial shock I had caused them. In fact, they understood even better than me that these mistakes are simply a part of learning a new language and culture that need to be taken with good humor and consideration.
The Funny Foreigner
People transplanted from one cultural (and especially linguistic) context to another are frequently amusing to observe and interact with.
However, for most individuals, cluelessly walking oneself into embarrassing situations as an obvious outsider or unexpectedly becoming the center of a joke that everyone else gets are reason for frustration, shame, and fear more than laughter. One of the biggest obstacles to feeling comfortable and fulfilled for people living in another country is the fear of looking or sounding silly or even just calling unwanted attention to oneself. Most of the time, however, the shame or worry stem from an imagined judgement from people that witness our cultural slip-ups. However these are more likely to go unnoticed or ignored than not.
Still, particularly for more introverted individuals like myself or those of us with high hopes to fit in and be taken seriously, this fear can limit how much of a culture we experience during our time abroad. Where applicable, it can affect how much progress we make with our language skills. To reap the most from an immersion program (in a language or just a new culture), we have to teach ourselves to overcome this barrier. Little linguistic mix-ups or contrasting cultural customs are quite often a reason to chuckle, and will be for an exchange student after they learn from the incident.
4 Tips to Exploit Your Embarrassment
I.) Say yes:
Here is the classic that is more a reminder than my advice. Say yes to invitations, opportunities, and ideas that sit outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of participating or engaging. If you’re afraid you might not be able to dance as well as the others, accept your friend’s invitation to learn how to dance salsa. To be bold and shameless, embrace your shame and be willing to laugh it off and learn.
II.) Learn to freestyle:
No, I’m not (necessarily) talking about rapping. Be impulsive and push yourself to ignore your inclination to shy away from speaking up in a foreign language. Say what comes to mind and don’t overthink it. Learning to speak a language is not like learning an academic discipline; it’s more like learning to play and improvise on a musical instrument. It’s about improving your spontaneous timing and recall as much as anything. The less you manage to hesitate, the more quickly speaking the language will become a subconscious effort; even if you still don’t speak perfectly.
People will inevitably laugh at things you say and do abroad, whether when you want them to or not. Don’t be afraid to laugh along but ask, “What’s so funny?” These embarrassing moments are good opportunities to learn (especially because they’re often hard to forget!).
IV.) Unleash your inner actor/actress:
Get into character when speaking another language! You’re living among people to learn how to speak like them. Act like you’re one of them—fake it ‘til you make it! Don’t be worried about sounding obnoxious imitating their accent or even body language. Looking and sounding out of place are part of the process of learning and adapting; they do say that imitation is the best form of flattery. If you’re on your game, someone might even mistake you for a local.
So, instead of fearing judgement by strangers or being made fun of by your friends, try to see the reason to laugh at your mistakes as you navigate this new place and the different habits that go with it. If you could watch and listen to yourself throughout these necessarily awkward new experiences, you’d find reason to laugh, too. The sooner you accept this, the quicker you can channel the embarrassment towards learning something new. In the end, hopefully becoming one short step closer to assimilating abroad.
Chris Harden is an International Affairs student at George Washington University and studied abroad with IFSA at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, Peru, in Spring 2019. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.