Anxiety Trigger Warning: Dinner with Strangers

In Stories, Vietnam by Nick2 Comments

Does the thought of eating dinner with strangers terrify you into paralysis? Do you pretend to play on your phone whenever you see someone you don’t want to talk to? Is ‘awkward’ one of your favorite words?

Well, you’re not alone. I mean, you might be alone. But that’s fine, don’t worry.

But what if you’re forced to share a table with strangers next time you go to Applebee’s for half-priced appetizers? Will you pretend to come down with Ebola to get out of it?

What if you want to eat a slab of butter and sugar at Cheesecake Factory, and there’s nowhere left to sit? The staff invite you back to the kitchen, prop you up on a milk crate and watch intently as you tepidly nibble on your dessert, feeling the burning gaze of two dozen eyes as they bore into your soul.

Are you sweating?

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.Jerry Seinfeld

For some people, social anxiety is a very real and debilitating condition.

But for many, anxiety is an excuse to withdraw from society because the world is scary and hard. Talking to people is literally worse than death by firing squad.

But awkward situations are common when you leave the safe confines of your home town, state, or country. As a world traveler, at some point you’ll have a crossroads moment where you can either continue being awkward, or you can grow a pair.

Early on in my life in Vietnam, I faced that crossroads moment.

It was time for dinner, and the night’s target was a hu tieu restaurant in a tiny alley. There are only three tables outside—more than that, and the alley would look like a practice course for driving students.

It just so happened that all of those tables were occupied, and there were no carryout bowls left. Oh well, I’ll just eat somewhere else.

Not so fast—the owner ushers me inside. I can’t wait for the luxury VIP table reserved for elite customers.

The VIP table, it turned out, was the family’s living room coffee table.

So there I am, sitting with grandmom. We’re watching a live musical performance I can’t understand. I’m surrounded by pictures of someone else’s family, the typical Vietnamese photographs that all look like they were taken by the local People’s Committee 3 decades ago.

There’s no fan, no air conditioning, no breeze from outside. Just grandmom asking me questions I can’t understand, offering to show me how to eat the soup—like moving food from a vessel to my mouth using a metal tool was an alien concept.

I smile and nod a lot, because that’s the only Vietnamese I’m really good at.

And you know what? At no point during my meal did the back wall roll away to reveal a live studio audience of several hundred people all watching my ‘awkward’ dinner. There was no hidden camera recording my conversations, ready to be uploaded to YouTube.

But this situation is ripe for gross exaggeration. I could write a totally different post with A LOT of like, CAPITAL LETTERS about how close I was to having a FREAKING PANIC ATTACK. That dinner was the most AWKWARD moment of my LIFE, and now I know what it must have been like for soldiers to be interrogated by the Viet Cong.

But I’m not a hysterical, quivering mess of emotions, and neither are you.

Nobody gives a shit. The main reason people are so awkward is because they think everyone else is paying attention to them, when the opposite is true. Most people go about their day without ever realizing you exist.

Traveling is slightly different because you’re a foreigner, but what’s the worst thing that can happen?

You make a fool of yourself and everyone forgets ten minutes later, that’s it.

You mispronounce some food and say “fried assholes” instead of “sandwich,” and what happens?

The tourism police aren’t going to parade you through the streets while peasants throw tomatoes and chamber pots at you. You won’t be drawn and quartered by a man in a dark hood. You won’t ‘literally die.’

At worst, curious locals might ask you questions in broken English. Just adopt the same attitude as if you saw a scary snake in your garden—it’s more afraid of you than you are of it.

Did You Know?
99.999% of strangers aren’t actually serial killers or vegans. So get out there and start making friends!

Difficult to imagine, but true. Getting outside of your comfort zone is critical to enjoy your time traveling, and that’s coming from experience. Eating dinner with strangers isn’t a big deal.

As a special challenge for the day, try smiling at the next person who makes eye contact with you. And of course, if this post triggered or offended you in any way, tough shit.

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