I have grown accustomed to public speaking. I don’t think I love it, but I am more passionate about the work I do to let fear of a room full of faces looking at me overtake me. But last Wednesday night was not an ordinary speaking gig. It had to be perfect. I had to be understood in a native language which is still not my own.
There was very little in the way of preparation I could do other than practice my Korean speech over and over again. I only found out that evening that I was one of five people chosen to speak in a room of 400. I had to be brief and would be cut off if I wasn’t. And most importantly, I was to speak before the food and alcohol arrived. The President and First Lady had a grueling schedule but it did not deter him from giving a rather lengthy speech. It must have been interesting and funny, but I understand a miniscule amount. What I gleaned was his push to get Korean Americans to identify as Koreans without the regional loyalty so prevalent in Korea. After all, what province you are from creates stereotypes as meaningful as how honest you are to the ever significant, how good looking you are. I was hopeful then that my speech would pertain to much of this sentiment, that the absorption of Korean adoptees into this general “we are all Korean” feeling would resonate for President Lee. In truth, I was freaking out, too busy being worried about what to cut so my message would sound cogent.
I was the last one to present my thoughts. The first four not only spoke without reading anything prepared, but seemed almost familiar in their speaking toward the leader of their birth country. The woman before me was the curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a word, she was amazing – funny, personal, knowledgeable and eloquent. I was in awe and wished so much I could speak English. I actually could pull that same performance off if only in English.
The consulate office of NY insisted that I put in my speech the importance of language classes and cultural education. I had taken that out. So, trying to not be funny, I inadvertently got a laugh. Hello, I said, I would love to learn more Korean…only later in the evening did I realize, that was actually funny.
The speech went well. I could hear only silence in the room. I flubbed up once and quickly apologized to which I was surprised with an onslaught of applause. A loud rally and I completed my words. I got to shake the President’s hand and was pleasantly surprised by the First Lady’s insistence to shake my hand and receive a really nice comment from her. I believe it really was a job well done.
What I am most proud of is that I got to have the other adoptees in the room stand up and receive acknowledgement too. I think it was almost as important for them to be seen as the words I practiced for hours and hours. The many hands I shook and compliments received were shared with them too. I am at my best when serving as an ambassador and sharing myself with my fellow adoptees. It was a great night for us.
Now we wait. It felt great to be seen, to be heard and understood. The evening was followed with requests for copies of the speech and interviews with the three major Korean papers in NY.
This tale could not be complete though without humor and affection for a few salient moments:
- The process of getting into the venue was none other than a typical NYC moment. The traffic was heinous and so gown in hand and heels not meant for walking, we ended up trudging six blocks down Fifth Avenue. I felt like I was supposed to be in some commercial or drama.
- My name tag was a mess – it said Joy Rho (pronounced NO). But because Koreans read last names first, on first glance people were calling me Cho I-No. Also, it did not identify me as a social worker or adoptee but rather a counselor of a major international conservatory in NYC (that is my other part time job). Clearly that idenfication was far more prestigious than the real reason I was there.
- This is my husband’s name tag. Simply stated he was my husband and it identified as such. Now, it takes a strong man of strong ego to be able to walk around with a nametag that says this. He wore it proudly. He was indeed a mighty fine accessory for my evening.
- There were star sightings. For me, the highlight was getting a photo with two of the Ahn sisters. It was thrilling.
- Last but not least, my little guy very seriously asked me whilst brushing teeth the next morning – How did it go Mommy, did they understand you? Good. Yes indeed, it was a good thing.
As fun as the night was and as much as I was thrilled to have this opportunity, the impact is not lost on me. I am hoping there was something the President heard that he took home with him. I am even wishing the First Lady heard something to nag her husband about. I hope this was not a “one hit wonder” moment, but something bigger than just me and one great evening.