A lot of my friends think I am brave and outgoing, but they are sometimes surprised to find that I also have an introverted, shy, and even cowardly side. I have to deal with on a pretty regular basis. True, I am in many ways an extrovert, but I am also an introvert.
I am spending this week in San Francisco with my friend Minima, and we have been talking a lot about introverts. Not all introverts are hermits, misanthropes, or people who have social phobias. Some introverts are social, active in their communities, and have a large circle of friends, yet also experience days in which they are like cats hiding under a couch. I am definitely one of those types of introverts. I have a lot of friends, and I end up having warm conversations with strangers everywhere I go, but I am also scared of many things. I am terrified of talking on the telephone. I don’t like asking people for help finding something in a store. If I am visiting someone, I fear asking my hosts if I can use something in their house. I am afraid to ask friends for a ride home from somewhere. I am terrified of going to appointments, be it doctor’s appointments or lunch dates with friends. (This fear dissolves within a few minutes, but before the appointment, my hands shake, my intestines twist into knots, and I swear to myself that I would almost rather die than go through with it.) And I am terrified of taking public transportation in a new city, which brings me to my current stay in San Francisco.
Yesterday, Minima had to work, so I was on my own for the day to explore. Minima showed me how to get to the MUNI station and told me how use the turnstiles. As she explained it to me, I was thinking, “Okay, I’ll listen politely to her telling me this, but I’m just going to walk everywhere. No way in HELL am I getting on the bus system here by myself! What if I get lost? What if I look like an idiot because I don’t know where to put my money? What if I can’t figure out how much the fare is? What if I end up in that creepy suburb Colma where there’s nothing but cemeteries and floral shops?” So I vowed to just walk everywhere and to put off learning to use the transit system until my last day here, when I will have to use it to go the airport.
So I set out yesterday morning with an idea of some specific neighborhoods I wanted to visit. First, I wanted to go find the Russian delis in outer Richmond. Then I was going to explore the Mission to look for interesting coffee shops and Mexican grocery stores. I got out my map to plan my walking route. Then I realized that Minima’s neighborhood in the Sunset was pretty far from outer Richmond. I realized it was going to take me half the day to walk way out there, and that I probably wouldn’t have time to explore the Mission if I did it. But I really, really, really wanted to see the Russian neighborhood. So I took a deep breath and thought long and hard about my fear of unfamiliar transit systems. I thought about how when I first moved to Seattle, I chose to ride my bicycle in the rain for an entire year before I finally summoned the courage to learn how to use Seattle’s bus system. I thought of how bad that sucked. (Imagine wearing cold wet underwear and socks pretty much all the time.) I thought about how I stubbornly walked miles and miles in the miserable humid heat last summer in China, because I was too terrified of getting lost on the Chengdu bus system. (Because there is nothing more daunting than an unfamiliar transit system in another country.)
Then I thought about “bravery”. I am not a brave person. I am actually very cowardly. But I am a person whose desires are SO large that they dwarf my cowardice. My desires are so strong that I would probably chew my hands off out of restlessness if my they were denied. Yesterday, my desire was to eat Russian food. I wanted it SO bad that I finally headed toward the MUNI station, pretty much against my will, dragged by my desires. I walked toward the turnstiles, my hands shaking. I looked around to see if there were other people around to see anything idiotic I might do. And there were. (Most of them super hot Asian men.) I inched closer to the turnstiles, trying to act like I knew where I was supposed to put my money. A grandfatherly policeman gave me a curious look, cocking his head as if he were about to ask me if I needed help. Apparently, I looked like a lost blind mole, nosing about pitifully. When I finally did dare to actually step up to the turnstiles, I was for some reason surprised to find that they worked exactly as Minima had said they would. Yup, $2. Put it in the coin slot. That’s ALL you have to do. Transfer slip pops out the other side. No big deal. I felt a great sense of relief and headed over to wait for the train. Then I started feeling anxiety again, because I looked at the transit map and found that I only recognized two of the station names. But then I reminded myself that I had a map, that I wasn’t going to get lost, and that getting lost in a new place is a blessing anyway, because you find all kinds of interesting places you never would have found otherwise. So I got on the crowded train, feeling tense but not panicked. Then some kind of weird alarm started going off (it seemed there was something wrong with the train’s sliding doors), and that made my anxiety spike again. What’s that noise? What does it mean? What’s going on? What if we’re stuck here? What if, what if, what if… And then there was this frazzled looking Vietnam vet standing in front of me, and his arm was uncomfortably close to my face as he held the hand pole. A woman sitting in a seat to my left had really greasy, matted hair, and that made me feel anxious, I’m not sure why. A younger guy to my right was standing way too close to me. I wanted off that train as soon as possible.
Finally the alarm stopped going off and the train began to move. More and more people got on at each stop, and my anxiety increased. Finally, I just got off at the first stop that sounded familiar, even though it was way too early, because I just couldn’t handle being on the train any longer. But even though I didn’t stay on the train for long, something about being on it for just that short ride increased my confidence in my ability to use the transit system all by myself. By the end of the day, I had taken several different buses around the city to all kinds of far-flung places. I found (surprise, surprise) that the buses work exactly like the buses do in Seattle. In fact, they were even more straightforward, because most of them run in straight lines along a grid, unlike the convoluted routes in Seattle. I had no problems at all. I didn’t get lost, and I was able to visit so many places in one day. In short, forcing myself to do what I was scared of was good for me.
This experience reminds me of a childhood memory. My tiny hometown didn’t have much in the way of restaurants or other businesses, so on special days, my mom would drive my brother and I half an hour to a bigger town and we would go to Taco Bell. After eating lunch, we would beg my mom to buy us those Taco Bell cinnamon twists for dessert. She would agree to it, but told us, “You have to order by yourselves if you want them. I’ll give you the money, but you have to go order.” But both my brother and I were terrified of talking to strangers, especially adults. We would whine and beg my mom to order for us, but she wouldn’t. Finally, our desire for cinnamon twists would eventually cause us to drag our feet up to the counter, fighting with each other the whole way up over which of us would talk to the cashier. I think this was one of the best things my mom ever made us do. We thought she was mean at the time, but in the end, it turned out to be good for us. I think it is because of what I learned at Taco Bell that I was able to take the transit system around San Francisco alone.