My Lovely Horse

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.


8 thoughts on “My Lovely Horse

  1. The Parents says:

    Did you know that there is a National ‘Father Ted’ status day taking place on 11th March 2010? If you want details, contact me. I think it would be your cuppa tea!!! Go on …go on..go on…(Foreigners will need translation.)

  2. roseski says:

    Aw, I liked this post.

    When I was in France, the kiddies had been taught “English” by a Canadian girl. She’d taught them Canadian English and it really annoyed me!

  3. MO says:

    Yes! i’ve been there; know exactly how you feel I got sooo fed up hearing about ‘our president’ !!! I was always saying “whose president’ The folks were nice enough, just had never lived outside their own country before, and assumed that the american way was the only way , and , of course, the best way…

  4. Stupid Americans! Seriously, that b**** in the Chinese hostel is why I’m often embarrassed to be an American abroad.

    And these things do happen both ways, you know. The first time I lived in France, the only other anglophones (all three of them) were English. I had to learn all the pop-cultural references and remember not to say “pants” when I meant “trousers.” Mostly it was fine, but it definitely got lonely at times.

    Glad you had a fun night!

  5. That girl sounds like a real rude b**** and is probably the reason so much of the rest of thw world hates Americans. (I once met an American who claimed the English had stolen their language and corrupted it. To which my reply was “you do know why it’s called ENGLISH?!”)

  6. Mum – yep, saw it, my Facebook status on Thursday will be Ted-related. There are too many quotes to choose from!!
    Roseski – Wait, Canadian English is different?! I actually thought it was like ‘English English’ (I also call it ‘real English’ to wind up my American colleague, but he gives as good as he gets!) only with an accent closer to American.
    MO – That’s very concisely summed up what I was trying to say (and I think possibly not quite succeeding)… generally lovely people, but have never been anywhere else and genuinely believe that their country is the ‘main’ one, the standard to which all others must be compared and judged.
    Camille – aw, I hope you know that you are one of the lovely ones I referred to. ;) The pants comment made me laugh, because it was actually one that came up in our conversation on Wednesday night. One guy said he can never get used to it because of what ‘pants’ are in our language. He was talking to students about clothes, and someone said “Teacher is wearing a red shirt and blue pants”, and he said in great surprise “How do you know that?!!”. Heheh.
    Bevchen – It’s probably the language thing that gets me most. I could cope with it being different, but it really gets under my skin when I get comments about how we’ve ‘changed’ the language.

    Incidentally, in case I’m sounding like a horrible racist in this post, I’d like to point out that for the most part I’ve got(ten) along perfectly well with most of the Americans I’ve ever known, and don’t hate Americans on principle or anything like that! Actually, I have a bit of an obsession with the US, and am currently looking into booking a grand trek around the States when I’m done here. I think it’s an amazing country. But sometimes the (probably unintentional) attitude of superiority I encounter from Americans here gets to be a bit much. One of my closest friends in Daejeon is an American, and when I argue with him, it’s generally about that! But we still manage to be friends. :)

  7. I know how you feel Hails, though I’ve met tonnes of lovely American people sometimes you mee some who are soooo ignorant. And ive had a lovley time with a couple of English girls but if I meet anyone from Ireland I will be super duper happy :)

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