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Foreign Anxiety

As I sit here on house arrest from the virus that spreads across the world, I cast my thoughts back to the teenager I once was. An ‘emo’ kid who loved listening to My Chemical Romance and Mayday Parade, brushing his long fringe out of his eyes then cleaning his glasses. A kid who would feel more nervous about going out with his friends than be excited. “Why is that?” the teenager often asked himself. Fast-forward a bunch...well...A LOT of years to the present day. I’m now 30-years-old living on the other side of the world in Tokyo, Japan. “Sure, the sense of anxiety has gotten better with age” I tell myself. But has it really? Last weekend a group of friends from back home in the UK invited me to their weekly quiz session on Zoom, conducting the quiz midday in order for me to participate with the 8-hour time difference. I felt happy, even lucky to have friends that would think of me like that. However, there was a part of me that felt nervous. Why? Why did I feel nervous? They are friends that I’ve known since secondary school. For the past 15 years we’ve celebrated birthdays together, been on vacation, gotten drunk, experienced gigs, sports games, the list goes on. So why did I feel nervous about a little webcam catch-up? I would love to say that after a long hard thought I found the route of the problem and I’m now going to offer you the keys to the mansion and tell you exactly how to get rid of your anxiety. If I did promise these things, I’d be lying. Is this social anxiety? I don’t know, but here’s the funny thing. I work as an English teacher in Japan where I teach 8 lessons a day. Kindergarten, kids, junior high, high school, and adults. I teach all age groups which range from 1-on-1 lessons to groups of 8 students. You’d think my anxiety would blast out so strong that my school would no longer have a roof. That’s not the case. In all honesty, very rarely do I feel my anxiety kick in at work. “Hold up!” I hear you thinking. “How does that even make sense?” You tell me. I’m around people all day, and as the teacher I’m the focal point of the room. I’m the one who everyone is staring at. I’m the one who’s expected to lead the conversations and activities for the 50 minute lesson. Being a classroom where people are there to learn a language, I know that each student is listening intently to understand every word. At least most of them are (I’m sure there’s a few kids that are probably thinking they’d rather be playing video games). ‘How does that even make sense?’ I repeat the question back to myself. I feel anxiety for a fun, online quiz with friends I’ve known for over 15 years but don’t feel it in a room full of students where I’m expected to have the attention of the class. And that’s exactly it, isn’t it? I’m EXPECTED to have the attention. As we all know from our days at school, each class has a focus. It’s planned, and everything the teacher says is pre-thought of. I know what to expect for the 50 minutes because I’ve planned it. Sure, some lessons consist of what we call ‘free talk’ (a lesson where we don’t do the lesson planned and just have a conversation about anything the student wants to), but even with that I know that I have something to fall back on if the conversation runs dry. I know the students are there to learn English, so I can always teach them a ‘word of the day’ or an idiom. The point is that I’m in control. I can steer the conversations in any direction I want to. Back in real life, I can’t do that. Unless I have some kind of superpower where I can control the other person’s responses, in a social gathering I have no idea what’s going to happen. I can’t predict whether it’ll be the greatest time of my life, or whether I feel so nervous and anxious that my friends might think, “damn, Matt’s become a very boring person”. I like to think that since we’ve all been friends for so long, that thought doesn’t cross any of their minds, but I guess that’s what anxiety is. It’s running through all kinds of different scenarios in your head, debating with your own thoughts whether such a thing would happen. Life isn’t a 50 minute lesson repeated 8 times a day. It’s unpredictable, which is scary. The anxiety in us often likes to focus more on the bad scenarios than the good. As I look at that 15 year old emo kid, I’d like to tell him to stop worrying. Stop day-dreaming of what people think of you or what bad might happen on a night out and live. Be happy. Live for the moment. But that would be a little hypocritical of me. Sure, I feel like the anxiety in myself has become smaller, but it’s still there. It still fills my mind and can be exhausting to deal with. I moved to a country where I can’t speak the language enough to have a conversation past introducing myself and asking the person what they like. But that’s not why the anxiety still exists within myself. It exists because there’s still social gatherings. There’s still days out where I don’t know what will happen. There are still moments where I’m surrounded by people. A lot of people. I don’t know what they think of me. Do they like the way I dress? Are they looking at my tattoos? Do they look down on me because I’m a foreigner? This is something I’ll continue to work on. I need to focus on singing like no one is listening, and dancing like no one is watching.

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