I'm so pleased to welcome Lily to the blog today. Lily writes about life, books, faith and figuring it all out - so basically all of my favorite things. She's just back from a long season living and teaching in South Korea, which is where her out of the ordinary story takes place...
It was the night of the end-of-the-year teacher’s dinner at the Korean elementary school where I worked as an English teacher. After several rounds of speeches of which I understood only a handful of words, and copious amounts of nodding, bowing, and smiling, we’d been released to the buffet. Although I’d been living in Korea for several months now, I was still unsure of the etiquette in many situations. I closely watched my coworkers for guidance on what I should eat and how much to take. I’d long ago given up on trying to figure out what was in the various unfamiliar dishes and decided to take whatever looked interesting and make the best of it.
After managing to eat most of my dinner without fumbling my chopsticks or dropping food all over myself, I started to relax. I still felt awkward and out of place, but I understood the dynamics of a work dinner with colleagues. I had a framework for this kind of social setting. And then they wheeled in the karaoke machine.
Perhaps the only thing Koreans love as much as kimchi and soju is singing karaoke, or norebang as it is called in Korean. Singing is such a deeply embedded part of Korean culture that it’s virtually unthinkable to be Korean and not sing (sort of like being Korean and not drinking, but that’s a different story for a different time). Much like golf in America, singing karaoke is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do as part of a business meeting or work event.
When we’d first arrived at the restaurant I’d scouted the room for the telltale sign of the cart with the microphones, speaker, and video screen and had been comforted when I didn’t immediately see one. I should have known there was always one in reserve.
Once the principal announced that it was time for norebang, the book of song choices was thrust into my hands and I was told, “Here. Choose song! English!” I tried a polite, “No thanks! I’ll just listen!” but my coworkers seemed to take this as a personal affront. “Just choose. Just one is OK!” they badgered until they eventually wore me down.
It should be noted that I love singing. I sing to myself all the time. But I am objectively bad at it. And for some reason, I’m much worse at karaoke than I am at singing a capella or singing along to the radio in my car. I know those machines are designed to make everyone sound like a pop star, but when I use them, I lose all sense of rhythm and pitch.
I flipped through the song book, heart racing, unable to concentrate on the words on the page much less make a purposeful decision about what to sing. “Which one? Which one?” my coworkers asked. They wanted to pass the book to someone else.
Something caught my eye. Finally, a song I recognized! I pointed triumphantly and they nodded enthusiastically. “OK, OK. Wait one minute,” and cued up the machine.
And then, there I was, in front of the entire faculty, My heart was beating so hard I thought I might pass out, when the sweet strains of Carly Rae Jepsen’s international hit, “Call Me Maybe” came through the speaker.
My vice principal seemed inordinately pleased to see me singing, but I could tell that my coworkers were underwhelmed by my abilities. My face was bright red and I was starting to feel like I couldn’t possibly make it to the end of the song when I had a flash of genius. I remembered a conversation I’d had with the music teacher, Mr. Kim, about western pop music. He’d been complaining about the Justin Bieber song his sixth grade students were learning for the school festival, but then mentioned that he had a daughter who loved the song “Call Me Maybe.”
I threw a Hail Mary. “Now, Mr. Kim! Sing with me!” I yelled into the mike. I grabbed the second mike from the cart rack and thrust it into his hands. The fifty-year-old Mr. Kim looked startled for a second, then put the mike to his mouth, “And all the udder boys, try to cha-ase me. But here’s my number. So call me maybe,” he belted out.
We were a hit.
Ok, maybe not a hit, but we were certainly memorable.
I sat back down feeling shaky and embarrassed, but also exhilarated. If you’d told me a year before that I would do a duet with a middle aged Korean man to a Carly Rae Jepsen song in front of a roomful of coworkers, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. But there I was, doing the unfathomable.
Was I embarrassed? Extremely. Was it one of those situations where I thought it was horrible, but everyone else thought it was great? No. Everyone else also thought I was horrible. (“Hmmm….Lily Teacher…Maybe you no more singing?”) But that’s OK.
It’s OK because for once I didn’t let Embarrassment or Shame dictate my choices. I didn’t let Shame tell me how to feel about myself afterwards. I said yes to something that was out of my comfort zone, and while it didn’t end in an inspirational success story I could publish in Reader’s Digest, it taught me something important.
Failure isn’t the worst thing. You will survive embarrassment. You can let Shame tell you who you are and who you have to be, or you can chase hard after Life until you catch up to him, then try to play it cool while you slip him your digits.
“So... here’s my number. Call me, maybe?”
Lily Ellyn Dunn is a faith-wrestler, a freelance writer, a substitute teacher, an avid traveler, and (most importantly) an ice cream connoisseur. She and her husband are trying to adjust to life in Columbia, SC after two years in South Korea. Lily writes about life, faith and every day grace on her blog, http://lilyellyn.com. You can also find her on Twitter @lilyellyn.
Wow! Didn't you love that ending? Failure really isn't the worst... and oh how I need to hear that often and loudly. Leave Lily a comment below and let her know your favorite karaoke song... or how much you liked her piece.
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