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“Just Speak Up!” They Said

Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. ~Albert Camus

For most of my life, I have been told that I’m a timid kind of girl. I don’t like crowded places; I’m not used to speaking out loud and raising an opinion. I am from Vietnam, a country where it is unexpected to speak up. When I was in school, we were told to keep silent in class and not to speak without permission. Daily activities like eating and sleeping were closely monitored by school supervisors. School rules were extremely strict. Boys were not allowed to let their hair long enough to cover their ears as well as not allowed to shave all of their hair. Girls were not allowed to cut their hair short since it is too “masculine.” Teachers can hit students with a wooden, thick ruler. Many students disagreed with those rules as they don’t have any educational value. As for me, I was just okay with it. I kept my hair long, kept quiet in class and let teachers whip my butt with their rulers without saying anything. Maybe it was because I was too afraid. Speaking up would bring too much trouble so I decided it isn’t worth the cost.

My whole life before coming to the U.S was just like that: wake up, go to school, go to classes, go to extra classes until it’s night time and then do my homework. Honestly, I was living my life without having to think much about my shyness. It had never come to my mind that my social shyness would make my experience in an American classroom so difficult.

The first day of class, I came to school without knowing what to expect. Then the instructor said, “Let’s go around and introduce ourselves with an interesting fact about our lives.” I swear, my heart just sank. “What do I say? What is it about me that is interesting? Do I have to speak in front of these people?” I thought to myself. My mind just went blank with a cold feeling running down my spine. I was sweating and turning red outside. Everyone was talking, and when it is nearly my turn, I did not have a chance to prepare myself. When I was introducing myself the nervousness in my voice was obvious; I was not able to speak in complete sentences. I could feel where my blood was running as a flaming hot feeling wandered through my body. When everyone had finished, the instructor said, “Well, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Then, one guy sitting next to me just said, “It wasn’t easy for everyone,” while glancing at me. I looked down with embarrassment.

While going through the syllabuses in each of my classes, I was shocked to learn that most of my classes consisted of “discussion,” “group work,” and the worst of all, “public speaking.” The thing is, no one has taught me how to work with other people properly. I know it is something people must have it naturally, but for me, it feels like rocket science. Moreover, after coming to the U.S, I realized that my English was so bad that it lowered my self-esteem. When it came to discussion in groups, my communication skills were awful. I didn’t know when to speak. I remember thinking to myself, “When is the appropriate time to speak? I’ll just wait until this person stops and then I’ll speak up. Who do I look at when I’m talking? Damn, I missed my chance. Now I’ve lost my only chance.” Most of the time, I ended up not contributing.  Over time, my classmates just ignored me as if I was not there.

I can’t tell you how afraid I am of being called out on to speak my opinion out loud. Waiting for my name to be called out is like being on death row. I have a small voice, so most of the time, the professors just tell me to speak up. And that just makes me more nervous. I am not at all confident in my ideas and I am in constant fear of being judged for what I say. There are reasons why I don’t want everyone to hear my opinions.

Not even being called on is as uncomfortable as presentations are. Every time I stand up in front of too many people, I feel like dying. I try to raise my voice, but if someone says, “Can you speak louder, please?” I just crumble. After a particular presentation, my professor did not give me any criticisms even though I did poorly; instead, he had a lot of negative feedback for my friend, who had presented well. I guess the professor could see my fear and did not want me to break down in public.

Due to my social anxiety, I usually come across as rude. I find it extremely difficult to look people in the eyes. That was not a problem back in Vietnam, where it is more respectful of students not to look at teachers eye to eye when they speak. Unfortunately, this is not the case in America.

Back when I was taking my English 101 class, we had this day of peer review where the instructor paired students off to comment on their partner’s paper. I was paired up with this student, who knew that I was the quiet one with broken English. She decided to ignore me and then call out one guy, whose spoke English as his mother tongue, to be her partner. That was literally one of the worst hours of my life. Sitting there invisibly between the two of them, listen to them speak fluent English, and accepting the fact that they were ignoring me.

In that moment, I thought to myself, “How could I, a girl who was always praised for being quiet and obedient back home, come across as such a negative person to other people here?”

I can’t tell you how envious I am with other people with how they can be so normal. Unlike me, most of my friends fit in well with the environment. It is surprising to me how they can speak their mind without having to repeat it at least ten times in the head; how they just walk through hallways without feeling every eye are on them, judging them; how they make a call to a stranger to make an appointment without having to practice the dialogues several times and how they are not afraid of speaking in public. Seeing my fellow international students fit in so well made me feel like I never will.

There’s just something about talking to native people that scares me. I always have flashbacks of the incidents in class, the presentations, and the interviews. The weird thing is, I feel much more comfortable talking to other international students, knowing that they won’t judge me for my English and why I behave that way.

Being an international student is hard, having social anxiety doesn’t exactly help either. To improve your English skills, you have to practice speaking; but what do I do if I have an extreme fear of talking to other people?

After a while, I realized that I was not the only one with these kinds of issues. I talked to other people who have had the same problem. Most of them were international students who also have social anxiety. Maybe that’s why I don’t see multi-cultural groups that often; it is because they feel more comfortable sticking to their native groups and they are afraid to socialize multi-culturally. They are just like me. They avoid classes that have a lot of presentations and discussions. We have this kind of thing, where we go on to know if the class is more lecture-based, or the class is more engaging with discussions. Honestly, I was so glad that I was not the only one who did those crazy things. It made me feel better about myself since I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Nevertheless, I decided that I need to improve myself. After all, most classes in the U.S value students’ opinions. I tried to be more involved, either by talking more to the people around me or applying for jobs. For every job interviews, I practiced at least a week before. I thought of every possible question and prepared proper answers. However, most of my interviews ended in the most pathetic ways possible. I could not look the interviewers in the eyes, nor did I answer the question in the ways that would impress them. Ever had the experience of having tons of ideas but it became so hard to put those thoughts into words? No matter how well prepared I was, my social anxiety always got in my way. After nine rejected interviews, I was accepted to work for my college’s newspaper, which involved expressing my ideas on paper. Maybe I was capable of saying my thoughts, just not by speaking.

I’ve received many pieces of advice: “Just speak a lot more, you won’t be scared anymore,” “It’s not that hard, just imagine everyone as potatoes,” and the worst of all is people telling me to “open up.” The thing is, no matter what I do, the anxiety will always be there.

There seems to be some kind of stigma about mental illness. It just makes it harder to tell someone about it. You just don’t say, “Oh, by the way, I have depression” to somebody and hope that they understand what you are going through. Not many people are willing to open up about it. Some people are not the best at expressing their ideas out loud. Unfortunately, I feel like classes U.S college environment doesn’t have enough sympathy for that kind of people. It’s always about leadership, public speaking skills, and discussions. Those are literal nightmares for people who have social anxiety. Us introverts don’t stand much chance of expressing ourselves to society. But believe me when I say that we are trying our best.

Sometimes, I wish that professors were more aware that some of their students are uncomfortable with speaking in class. Maybe letting students introduce themselves with a note saying, “Hey, I have social anxiety and have trouble with speaking my thoughts. Please don’t call on me. I can do discussions online though. I’ll do great on those. Thanks a lot!” and be taken seriously.


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