About a month ago, I signed up for the 2019 Korean Speech Contest in Malaysia. I don’t know what came over me – I’m not a fan of public speaking. I’ve always struggled with stage fright, and I hate the sound of my voice.
I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. Perhaps I thought it would look good on my resume.
I’m writing this to document the experience while I still remember it, and to share it with other Korean learners in the community, in hopes that someone out there will find comfort in my story, knowing that they’re not alone.
So… This is how it went.
Before the Competition
I spent the month leading up to the competition drowning in anxiety. Every night I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling, asking myself why I did what I did. I hate public speaking. I’ve never even done this in my native language, much less a foreign one that I’m not yet fluent in. What exactly was I hoping to achieve, by joining this competition?
I had already submitted my speech, so it was a bit too late to back out. I practiced every day. I conjured up in my head countless ways in which things could go wrong, and in every scenario, people laughed. At me. I memorised so many different versions of the speech just so that I’d have something to fall back on in case I forgot what to say halfway through.
And of course, the night before the competition, I could scarcely sleep. But that was nothing compared to what came after.
The Big Day
I started shaking the moment I walked through the doors.
The competition was held in a small auditorium with no more than fifteen rows of seats. I took a seat in the fifth row, and all I could think about was how apparent my trembling would be, with the audience so close.
There were three categories – beginner, intermediate and advanced. I was in the advanced category, which came last. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was the last contestant in my category (and the whole competition, basically). My heart sank when I realised I would have to sit through over 30 speeches before I could go up and give mine, which would give my anxiety plenty of time to build. I’d much rather be one of the first ones to go up just so that I could get it over and done with as soon as possible.
As expected, my anxiety got worse as I waited for my turn. My hands were cold and trembling the whole time, and I had to sneak out thrice to hide in the bathroom stalls just so no one would see me hyperventilating.
I’d sat next to three girls who came together. They chatted the whole time, giggling and exchanging words of encouragement. Some people came with their friends and family, who cheered them on when it was their turn to go up.
I went alone. I told only a handful of people about the competition and begged them not to come, because I didn’t think I could do it in front of them. While I don’t regret that decision, I did feel a little lonely there.
And then they told us that there would be an impromptu Q&A session after the speech, for the contestants of the advanced category. The judges would ask questions, and we would have to answer on the spot. I started panicking, of course. I could handle casual conversations, but formal speech to a panel of judges, under such extreme stress, and without preparation beforehand?
When we finally got to the advanced category, I was ready to puke. Literally. My stomach started churning, and I knew I needed to get my nerves under control ASAP or I would throw up on the stage. I kept telling myself to calm down, but it wasn’t working.
And then I noticed something. The Korean emcee made a mistake while reading his script. He smiled and shrugged it off smoothly. It must have been his sixth or seventh mistake that day. He’d been making small mistakes since the opening speech and each time he would correct himself and just move on as if nothing happened. I thought to myself, “If a native speaker can make mistakes and get away with it, why can’t I?”
Somehow I found myself repeating that in my head while I marched slowly onto the stage to take my place under the spotlight.
On the Stage
The spotlight was so strong I could barely see anything from up there. The audience was a blur – I found that disconcerting. My mouth started going auto-pilot, reciting the speech as I’d written it, while I searched the white blur for faces, trying to gauge the audience’s reaction. Are they smiling? What are they thinking? Why can’t I see their faces?
And then halfway through, my mind went blank and all of a sudden I couldn’t remember what I supposed to say. I tried to shrug it off, and moved on to what I could remember, making minor adjustments to the speech as I went. I don’t think the audience could tell, but the judges certainly could – they all had copies of my original speech.
When I was done, the judges thanked me for my effort. And then came the question, “Korean drama and k-pop show only the good of our culture, but nothing of the bad. Can you talk about an aspect of Korean culture that you find negative or undesirable?”
I hadn’t expected a question like that. The contestant before me got ‘Why did you decide to learn Korean?’ and the one before her was asked to explain why, in her opinion, that K-pop is as popular as it is. I wouldn’t say those are easier questions per se, but they are much more straightforward in the sense that they don’t require as much tact, which is a very difficult thing to pull off in a language that you’re not really fluent in. I started panicking. Should I be honest? Can I be honest? What sort of answer are they expecting to hear?
And then, aware that everyone is waiting for my answer, I said that the workplace culture in Korea seems to promote working overtime, which is a great source of stress for working adults, and that while it is understandable considering Korea has had to grow as rapidly as it had in the recent decades, it is a bit sad… In much fewer words.
I didn’t like how I did at all. I said maybe five sentences, and for the rest of the event, all I could think about how I wished I’d worded my sentences differently. Provided more elaboration. Or a different, more interesting answer. Somehow my performance for the Q&A session mattered more than my speech – at least, to me. I did okay with my speech. I didn’t stutter, and while I did forget a few sentences, I was able to recover from it relatively smoothly, compared to many other contestants who also panicked and messed up.
But anyone can memorise a script and recite it. Impromptu speaking, though – that’s the real test. And somehow I’d failed it. In my head, at least.
After the Competition
I won the 대상 (grand prize).
Yet as I stood on the stage to receive the trophy, all I could feel was shame and numbness. I felt as if I didn’t deserve it. I was still thinking about the Q&A session. Nothing else seemed to matter. All I wanted in that moment was to go home.
I know my disappointment seems vastly disproportionate considering the cause. It was probably my anxiety (among other things) talking, and believe me, I do see how ridiculous it is. It makes me mad, because it robs me of the joy I worked so hard to attain.
I could sugarcoat this and tell you that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and that it completely changed my perspective on language learning. That it shattered all my insecurities and I’m now super confident in my Korean speaking skills. But I won’t, because we both know that’s not true.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. I did the impossible, and lived to tell the tale. That must count for something, right? And that realisation I had with the Korean emcee – that’s going to stay with me for a while. Now I have something to reassure myself with whenever I get insecure about my speaking skills – anyone can make mistakes. If native speakers can get away with them, so can I.
Would I do it again? I’m not sure. I seem to have overextended my nerves a little doing this, because I fell sick immediately after I got home. I was overcome by a dizziness that escalated into a migraine, before coming down with a fever that lasted a day. I also lost my appetite, and didn’t regain it until 2 days after the event. Even now, just thinking about that day makes me feel like throwing up a little.
Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. That’s okay. I’m glad I did it anyway.