I sat there feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
As each second ticked by, I felt more and more uneasy.
I wanted to leave, to escape this feeling of confusion and muteness.
But I couldn’t get myself to do so.
I couldn’t get myself to stand up and lie that I had to go.
So I stayed.
I stayed, and I listened.
I listened to every word that was spoken.
Although to me, the words were just beautiful foreign sounds.
Sounds that floated seamlessly from the lips of my friends.
Sounds I desperately wanted to make into comprehensible words.
Sounds that unveiled stories I wish I could understand.
As these foreign sounds floated out and about, my mind started to drift away.
I started thinking about how much longer I should stay.
I started blaming myself for not studying harder.
I started wondering whether I was failing at life.
I snapped back to reality.
“Sorry, is it too hard for you to understand? Should we slow down? ‘So-and-so’ was just saying …”
I forced a smile to hide my discomfort.
As my friend explained the conversation that just took place, I felt a surge of mixed feelings.
On one hand, I was happy to finally understand.
On the other hand, I felt like an inconvenience.
“It must be bothersome to have to translate everything for me…,” I thought to myself.
As the conversation reverted back to Korean, my mind drifted off again.
This time, I started to recall my exchange student days in Belgium.
I remember hanging out with my younger host brother and his friends.
I remember sitting there awkwardly among them while they chattered and laughed.
I remember one of his female friends trying to translate everything for me.
I remember feeling so incapable of communicating in French that later that night I cried.
Sitting there at a coffee shop in Korea five years later, I was engulfed by this exact same feeling.
The feeling of being suffocated by my inability to communicate with words.
The feeling of wanting to run away and hide in the comfort of my home.
The feeling of wanting to cry because I feel like a failure.
But nevertheless, I stayed.
I stayed at that coffee shop, and I tried.
I tried to listen.
I tried to read facial expressions.
I tried to connect the random words I understood.
I tried to make sense of something.
I knew I had to try.
I knew if I kept on trying, the unfamiliar sounds would become words, and the words would become sentences, and the sentences would eventually become stories I could understand.
I knew all this because I had experienced it before.
Five years ago, I had gone from crying because I couldn’t communicate in French, to laughing at jokes with my Belgian friends.
I thought of how great it’d be to laugh at jokes with my Korean friends.
With that thought in mind, I plowed through all the negative feelings, and I kept trying…