One of the most humbling things you will ever experience is finding that no one around you has ever even heard of your home country.
Koreans, at least the ones I’ve encountered in Daejeon, are not aware of this “Ireland” of which I speak. When I received blank looks a few times, I switched my answer to “the UK”, but this had even more unsettling results. I have since discovered that the Korean language doesn’t seem to have a word for the UK. For example, the Koreans speak “hanguk-mal” (Korean) and come from “hanguk” (Korea). I speak “yonguk-mal” (English), and I come from “yonguk” (England). This pains me somewhat.
It’s not that I have anything in particular against England, it’s just that I’ve been there all of three times in my whole life (and two of those times were simply for the purpose of changing planes) and don’t feel any affinity with it at all. For people to just wave aside my entire background and say “Ah, you’re from England!” in a “sure, well, it’s close enough!” sort of way is a little unsettling. It’s changing my nationality. It’s like telling Koreans they’re Japanese (NB – this is probably not a good idea!!).
Travelling through Europe, I did very quickly realise that my little home country, while the centre of my world for all those years, means pretty much nothing to the majority of people. Europeans and Americans (the people I most often encountered on my travels) had, of course, heard of Ireland, and knew that there was something dodgy about the top part, and doesn’t it belong to the UK or something? This limited knowledge was a shock to my system, and made me see for the first time just how huge the world is – that completely foreign cultures and totally different ways of living can be going on in countries we’re barely aware exist. It definitely humbled me and drove me to find out as much as I could about every new place I visited, read about, or heard of.
Still, at least I had that partial awareness from Americans and Europeans – although one thing that did irrationally annoy me was hearing Americans refer to a “British accent”. I could probably do a fairly accurate impression of the accent they mean – Hugh Grant, anyone? – but there’s no way I’d call that a British accent. There is no British accent! I tried to explain to a bewildered New Yorker in a pub in Poland. The Scottish are British… and let me tell you, they sound nothing like the accent you mean!
Maybe I’d call it an upper-class London accent. Even just an English accent, although that’s pushing it a bit, since there are so many of those, too. But a British accent? No. Such. Thing.
I did say that this was an irrational annoyance, and that’s because I will cheerfully admit to saying that someone has an “American accent”. :) I can identify the American twang, and while I can pick out the more obvious accents (like New York, for example, and a vague “the South”), for the most part I can’t tell them apart. I understand that it’s no different from someone talking about a British accent because they can’t identify what part of Britain it’s from… but it just does seem incredible to me that anyone could even connect a Glaswegian brogue with the accent of, say, the Queen, and say “yeah, those two are obviously from the same country, listen to the accent!”.
Anyway, I seem to have gotten sidetracked. What I was originally going to say was that Koreans, for the most part, cannot point out Ireland on a map. Fair enough… after all, it’s only recently that I learned where, well, most countries are on the map (thank you Traveller IQ Challenge!). But if you say “in the UK”, they’ll look relieved and say “Ahhhhh! In England?”. I used to try to explain, somewhat indignantly, but it all got a bit confusing, so now I just tend to say yes.
“Ireland is in England?” Yes.
“London?” Erm… yes.
I mean, what does it really matter to them? Ireland, England, potayto, potahto.
Today, however, I attempted to break the poor geography cycle by teaching the six-year-olds all about the UK as part of the “Around the World” music class programme we’re doing for the next month. Last week was Egypt. We learned about pyramids and the Sphinx, we looked at a map, we came away with real knowledge about where Egypt is and what it’s all about. It was great.
This week is the UK. Obviously, it was an unmitigated disaster.
I zoomed in on Europe… then the UK… then England. Yonguk, I said carefully. England. Yonguk means England. England is one country in the UK.
I zoomed out again. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, I pointed out slowly. Also countries in the UK.
I pointed and circled and pointed some more. I showed photos of scenes and landmarks from around the UK. I got them to learn the names of the other countries.
UK, I chanted. UK. England plus Scotland plus Northern Ireland plus Wales. UK.
They were all looking quite agreeable, and I felt a small shiver of success. Time for some revision. Whose flag is this? I said, putting up a picture of the carefully labelled “UK FLAG”.
England! they cried excitedly. My face crumpled.
The UK, I corrected gently. What countries are in the UK?
Europe? ventured one kind-hearted little soul, not liking the disappointment on my face.
It was a very long and confusing day, and I had to give up.
My name is Hayley, and I am from England.