I want to shower you with sugar lumps, and ride you over… fences!
Polish your hooves every single day, and bring you to the horse… dentist!
There’s a brief silence, and then a confused and slightly nervous-sounding voice pipes up: Erm… is this an Irish thing?
The four of us look round, startled out of our singsong, and chorus a resounding “yes!”. And then I laugh in delight. I am standing in a bowling alley in South Korea, singing a one-chord ‘song’ called “My Lovely Horse” with three Irish people including a guy who is actually called Paddy. My life is average.
I don’t think I realised until tonight just how much of a struggle I’ve found it to always be in the minority. Not only am I a white person who sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the Koreans, but even in the foreign community here I’m somewhat out of place. The majority of people I meet are American. For the most part, while friendly enough, they treat me like I’m as foreign to them as the Koreans are. I’ve had to change my accent to be understood, and I speak American English because British English gets blank looks or causes confusion. I do have some lovely American friends, but often I find myself feeling like I’m considered less important because I’m not from the US.
One girl I met in a hostel in China really pissed me off. She was chatting away to the three other guests in the dorm, and to me, and we were having that initial “foreigners unite” sense of solidarity that you very often get when you have a conversation with a native English speaker in this part of the world. A sense that here is someone who understands what you’re talking about, and has shared your experiences. Then she said, …and you know, you instinctively say ‘hi’ in English when you see someone who’s not Asian – but lately I’ve been doing that and finding that the people I’m speaking to are all foreigners, too! Italians, Germans… it’s actually a novelty to have so many of us in the same room. Where are you from?
Ohio, said one person.
New York, said another.
Northern Ireland, said I. She looked at me in surprise, and then kind of rolled her eyes and waved her hand in the most insultingly dismissive way you can imagine. Oh, well, you’re just one of them! She turned to the next person – what about you?
There are so many things that annoy me about this that I won’t even start. I did my best to freeze the polite smile on my face, and, possibly seeing a glimpse of the thunder that was behind my mask, she added a quick No offence, but, y’know, you’re not actually American! as if this somehow made things better. It really, really infuriated me. And when I’m sitting in a group of Americans, I often feel very out of place – because I’m the only “foreigner”. It’s actually a very difficult (and unexpected) hurdle to get over when you’re trying to find a group of people with whom you can relax and be yourself. Not only are you not Korean, you’re not American – so you can’t fit in with the local community or the ex-pat community.
And so tonight, when I went out with a new group for some food and ten pin bowling, I was genuinely emotional to be greeted by a lilting Irish accent. Three times! They were all from the South, not the North, but at this stage that practically makes them my siblings. Also present were two South African friends and an Englishman, all of whom shared our non-American English and general status as “foreign”. And for the first time since I left NI, I was in the majority. Four of us were from the same small island that a surprising number of people in the world think is basically England. I got all the references. I was included in the “do you remember when…” and “what was that show called?” moments. Every time they spoke, I grinned with pure joy at their accents. Words like rubbish bin (trash can), rubber (eraser), and lift (elevator) floated lazily around with no hurried corrections or amused “you and your strange version of English” remarks. I even said “how” in my own accent at one point. Someone saying “no surrender” automatically led to four simultaneous Ian Paisely impressions and a gale of laughter. And someone talking about repeatedly strumming the same chord on a guitar very naturally evolved into us standing there oblivious to all around us, singing My Lovely Horse.
It sounds ridiculous, but the tentative “Is this an Irish thing?” question and the immediate “yes!” made me feel so happy. Honestly, it’s like I’ve been losing my identity or something, what with the change in accent, speaking in Americanisms, saying “yeah, England” when Koreans refuse to acknowledge the existence of my home country, being excluded from so many conversations because even the foreigners see me as a foreigner… it was indescribably lovely to spend time with people who really, truly speak my language. Tonight, it was OK not to be American.
And to get a strike in the ten pin bowling and hear someone shout out, not “assaaaah!!” (Korean), not “alriiiight!” (American), but “aww, class!” (100% Irish) is like being hugged by one of those big furry hug-in-a-mug things in the Cup-a-soup adverts.