Growing up Cambodian-American in Philly - Part Two
"Likable On Purpose" or "Vichet's Personality is Weird Pastiche of RPG Dice Rolling and Committing to Random Topics of Conversation for Lack of Alternatives"
During a two hour car ride with my partner, we went into a series of memories each of us had about growing up as anxious, shy, and awkward children, adolescents, teenagers, and early adults.
I don't think that anyone who met me in the last ten years would guess how cripplingly shy I was, and how desperately I wish I wasn't.
To be clear, I've always been an extrovert at heart.
I think I was just really bad at it for maybe 25 years.
Here's an example of a nightmare scenario that my partner and I shared in common as children: calling a pizza place to order delivery.
I had to do this a lot for my parents (or my brother who sometimes didn't want to and had Cambodian older brother "you go do the thing" privilege).
Intrusive thoughts a 7 year old Vichet gets while ordering pizza:
What happens if I mess up the order?
What if I forget to mention the coupon?
What if the coupon is EXPIRED and I didn't notice?
Or if I forget to ask how much the total is?
Or forget to give my address and the pizza ends up at someone else's house?
Or - gasp - if I say words slightly t-o-o l-o-n-g or not long enough?
HOW LONG HAS THIS PIZZA GUY BEEN WAITING FOR ME TO SAY ANYTHING?
You might notice a theme centered around speaking well.
I dunno where my anxiety about my speech even came from. I suspect most of us don't know where our anxieties come from other than a general notion of unhappiness or lack of fulfillment, but that's wild conjecture* and I'll only express it with that asterisk.
*Vichet wildly conjectures about a lot of things, and can generally be ignored in these cases.
I do know that for years and years and years, my speech anxiety expressed itself in a very specific way.
I'd repeat every sentence I ever said, immediately after saying it, by silently mouthing it.
It went like this:
Young Vichet: "I'd like to oooorder a pepperoni pizza, please."
Young Vichet: *silently* I'd like to order a pepperoni pizza, please.
Note the silent correction. Order, not oooorder unless maybe you're one of those fancy people in the PhilaDELphia Stooory.
I did this since as long as I could remember being able to speak, until someone pointed it out, and then I probably continued doing it silently in my head for another decade.
Thankfully, I've mostly grown out of it, partly because I'm a good bit more natural in my speech nowadays, and less afraid of misspeeaaaaaaaaking. (damnit).
I will say that people seem to think I'm naturally good at imitating accents and mannerisms as an adult. I dunno if that's natural or from a decade of repeating everything I said to myself so that I could say it better, but hey, that's for you, the reader to conjecture wildly about.
Another common thing: I'd often panic in social interactions when I had nothing to say, and try to just be loud or wacky** (more on this later). This has had mixed results in childhood (being bullied), and also in adulthoood ("Vichet's so quirky and sassy and loud and drunk!").
Don't feel sorry for me yet. My loud wackiness probably just as often resulted in some other nervous kid being silenced or put in an anxious place.
Still, all of that was in service of some notion of being liked.
So, until a few years ago (early 30s for reference), most interactions I had in life were all about being likable on purpose. Almost everything that is "neat" or "interesting" about me is something I cultivated because I thought it'd make it easier to be liked, because being liked was something I never had as a kid.
Dancing? Did to to impress girls.
Sports? Did them not to be a nerd.
Cooking? Yeah, I'm about that 'gram life.
Crash diets? Probably self-hatred and also being attractive/likeable.
To bring it back, grade school was just a dumpster fire of being bullied and generally fearing my classmates' opinions of me. If I'm being honest, almost none of my friendships from that time lasted because I never put in the work to detangle whether I was friends with anyone in grade school because it meant I'd get bullied by them less, or because I actually enjoyed spending time with them. I can't think of any moment that stands out in that entire 8 years that I enjoyed within the walls of Shawmont Elementary and Middle.
Not like I was particularly likable at the time. I acted out a lot. I was pretty mean to anyone that I could get away with being mean to - this usually meant girls - because it helped me feel like, "well, at least I'm not them."
So, having a fresh start in high school was nice, until it wasn't.
Because, as I learned in my freshman and sophomore year, going 8 years without making any meaningful connections and feeling like you were just surviving every day isn't much of a winning personality.
So, to everyone still in my life who met me early on in Central, thank you, I love you, I'm sorry for whatever I'm SURE that I said or did during one of my wildcard** (more on this later) moments.
Like, I used to pat girls on the head because I thought it was a quirky unique thing instead of goddamned insufferable.
Reminiscence is made up of specifics, so here is a scene:
Mr. Huber's music class, circa fall of 1999. First day of school. First period. A friendly girl talks to me. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I'm going to guess she introduced herself because I don't remember being confused about her name (hey Jenny!).
How does one respond to someone being nice? You should talk. But what to talk about? What are the things you know and are interested in?
And that's how I spent most of my mornings in music class talking Jenny's ear off about Final Fantasy 8. Jenny wasn't much of a gamer, but she was/is patient as hell and one of the best friends anyone can have.
Another series of wildcard** (more on this later) moments:
I don't know exactly when this happened - sometime in junior year - but at some point in high school I decided that I was going to ask out every girl I met in some capacity.
Maybe she was pretty. Maybe she was friendly to me. Maybe I was just like "I wanna ask her out". I don't remember specific reasons beyond that.
This played out exactly probably as awfully and cringey as you can imagine, as long as that imagination involves nothing more than kissing and hand holding because lack of sex education meant that I didn't know what a vagina was until sophomore year health class. But it definitely also involves a lot of girls probably having to deal with me awkwardly finding a way to ask if they wanna "walk around somewhere" but because I didn't learn the "change conversation topic" skill yet, I just kind of opened with "hey you wanna walk somewhere on a date sometime."
What the hell does high school Vichet even propose during these askings out? If I remember correctly, walks in the Gallery (RIP), walks in Franklin Mills (RIP), walks in Love Park (kind of RIP, it's not a skating mecca anymore), you know, walkin' around.
At the time, I dunno if I even knew what I would have done if a girl actually came onto me. I do remember at the time having a lot of puritanical notions about how women don't like sex (untrue) especially from men (not untrue).
This general awkwardness continued for a while in every setting I can think of. I dunno when it hit me that people weren't being actively mean to me anymore, that I actually had to develop some kind of social intuition, but at some point it did.
Anyway, in my 35th year, I'm just getting a full grasp of how a lot of that confusion and hurt and lack of companionship has really echoed into my adult life.
One thing I noticed about myself while writing this was that I had a very specific way of reacting to unknown social situations that developed over time that, at this point, I can't tell if it's some sort of compulsion or just part of my actual personality.
And, to be fair, I don't know how much I have an actual personality that can be uniquely separated from all the ways that I am trying to be likable on purpose.
Big ups to the folks who were patient enough to deal with me social development, where a lot of my thought process towards socializing involved having a basic script about how most conversations go, potential topics to bring up and best times to bring them up, and my favorite, wildcard topics where I just come up with a game or something that I'm personally specifically uncomfortable talking about and then seeing whether I'm able to deal with it on the fly. These often go nowhere, but they help me be a person.
I'd like to attribute the development of my social skills to my ability to game-ify these interactions like they're in some kind of RPG where you wake up every day and just kinda like, interact with people optionally, and there's a lot of RNG (for you normies, "random number generation" is gamer lingo for any gameplay element that involves chance. So you know, small talk is exactly this).
You know, life, but with half-brained video game strategy at play.
How did this all affect me growing up?
A lot. For good (I'm likeable? Ish?) or for bad (for reasons that I'm not totally comfortable with),
I dunno where else I was going with this, other than I'm going to try to have more present conversations that I don't try to control anymore.
Also, being silent and listening. That's a big one.