5 small struggles of being an Irish person in Korea

My apologies for the drought in blog posts over the past few months! My only explanation is that I have been doing other stuff and haven’t really been in the mood to blog. I did sometimes think ‘Maybe I should blog about doing things’. But it feels a bit like being in primary school and writing my ‘news’ every Monday morning. ‘Today is October 15th 1995. It is cloudy. We went out to buy a new toilet seat on Saturday. We had a roast chicken and watched The Waltons on Sunday’.

If I end up seeing or doing something particularly interesting I might write a post about it. But for now, here’s a few things that can make it hard to be an Irish person in Korea.

1. Our political setup makes everyone have kittens

When I had been in Korea for just a couple of months, I was required to go to an open class at another school so I could see a more experienced public school English teacher at work. The teacher in question happened to be from Belfast. Inspectors from the office of education were there too, and we exchanged some polite small talk before the class.

Inspector: Where are you from?

Me: I’m from Ireland.

Inspector: Oh, that’s unusual. We don’t have all that many teachers from Ireland.

Me: Yeah there’s not too many of us! But actually [Belfast teacher’s name] is from Ireland too.

Inspector: Oh really? I thought he told us he was British.

Me: [Awkwardly fumbles around, trying to explain].

As if that wasn’t awkward though, some Korean people think the UK is comprised of England, Scotland and Ireland (poor Wales just seems to fall under the radar entirely).

Every time a celebrity makes that particular faux pas, there is media-fueled outrage in Ireland. Waterford Whispers even made a tongue-in-cheek Guide To Overreacting When Someone Thinks Ireland Is Part Of The UK. It happens so often in Korea that you learn to just keep your pants on and explain the situation in a calm fashion.

Ireland and Korea actually have fairly similar histories, in terms of being colonised by our close and more powerful neighbours. So it might seem as though Koreans would understand and empathise with our situation, and many of them do. But there is also a lot of confusion, and I think these are just a couple of the reasons for that:

  • Northern Ireland: Many people find it confusing that it’s just six counties that are part of the UK.
  • Koreans know Irish people as English teachers, since that’s what most of us do here. While Korea has retained its own language, most Koreans have no idea of the existence of the Irish language, or other aspects of Irish culture and history that differentiate us.

To be fair the situation is pretty confusing, even for an Irish person. Source: Wikimedia

There is, however, a whole chapter in my school’s current text-book called Welcome to Belfast. It does a great job of describing some of the tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. But it doesn’t really do anything to provoke understanding of the political situation, as they just have Northern Ireland floating there like an island, severed from the republic. And hundreds of years of turmoil is summarised as ‘bad relationships between local people’. I know they have to be concise but that just makes it sound like someone was cutting their grass too early on a Sunday morning or leaving their wheelie bin out for too long.

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2. … And sometimes people think we’re from Iceland 

Korean person: Where are you from?

Me: Ireland

Korean person: Iceland?

Me: No, Ireland

Korean person: *Puzzled expression*

Me: It’s close to England.

Korean person: Ah, Ireland!

Who would have thought that Iceland is more to the forefront of the collective Korean consciousness than Ireland? And are there also Icelandic people the length and breath of  Korea, sighing because yet another taxi driver has mistaken them for an Irish person?

Having said that, some people do surprise you with how much they know about Ireland, especially in terms of cultural commodities. People have mentioned everything from Dracula author Brahm Stoker, to soccer player Roy Keane, to the Glen Hansard musical Once.

There are also a huge amount of popular Irish Actors and musicians that people don’t actually realise are Irish. Often the conversation will go like this:

Korean person: I don’t know any famous people from Ireland.

Me: Do you know Hozier / The Script / Westlife / Michael Fassbender/ Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell etc.

Korean person: Oh yes! But they are American, no?

Me: (.﹒︣︿﹒︣.)

3. Nobody knows what we’re on about

Technically this one really applies to anyone living in Korea who isn’t from North America, as teaching English here without a North American accent poses a few challenges. American English is often considered to be the standard, to the extent that some Hagwons (private academies) only people from North America.

My accent doesn’t cause a lot of problems when teaching, though I do have to be careful saying words like ‘money’, ‘bus’ and ‘fun’ because of the extreme ‘U’ sound with the Irish accent. But in my opinion the Irish accent isn’t a bad one for EFL learners because we we tend to emphasise our ‘T’s more than Americans and our ‘R’s more than English people. Take the word ‘internet’:

North America: In-er-net.

England: In-teh-net.

Ireland: In-ter-net.

Of course this is a massive generalisation since there are so many different ways of pronouncing words within all of those countries.

Becoming friends with people from different English speaking countries here has also made me realise that the Irish brand of English is very idiomatic and a bit nuts. There are so many expressions I just presumed all English speakers say, until the blank faces of my friends from other countries told me otherwise. Only Irish people talk about putting things on the ‘long finger’, for example. (For any non-Irish readers, that means postponing something for a long time). One of my American friends suggested someone should invent a translation App to help everyone else to understand Irish people, and I think she’s right.

4. We can’t get (much) of the good stuff 

This one really applies to Irish people living in most non-Western countries. I’m led to believe that if you live in a place with a higher concentration of Irish people, like Australia for example, you can find a certain amount of familiar products in the supermarkets. In Korea though, Irish food products are few and far between.

Not only that, but other western countries are likely to have more similar  eating habits to us, so getting good quality familiar-ish food isn’t that hard. But here many restaurants adapt western food to suit Korean palates, which is fair enough since it is Korea. Sometimes the results can be amazing, like the whimsical and creative world of Korean style pizza. But I don’t like my garlic bread doused in sugar or tomatoes in my fruit salad, thanks very much and all. The Korean staff at my school are often shocked when I ignore the ‘western’ element of the school lunch and just eat Korean food. ‘But Clare, don’t you like this delicious salad of lettuce, overcooked pasta, bacon, raisins and chopped apples doused in thousand island dressing?’

It can also be hard to find the products that we consider basics in the western world. In the little corner shop near my apartment I can buy about 10 varieties of dried seaweed, but for a block of cheddar cheese I have to go to the big Home Plus (Tesco), and pay a princely sum. Other things can’t be found at all, like a good hearty loaf of brown bread or butter that doesn’t taste like shite. Side note: Why does butter taste terrible in every country apart from Ireland?

I honestly love Korean food and I’m going to miss it like crazy when I go home. But sometimes you just want to eat something comforting and familiar. Thankfully my folks are very good at sending stuff, otherwise life would be pretty difficult!

5. We are forced to be pedantic every time someone says ‘Innisfree’ wrong

Believe it or not, there is a very popular chain of beauty shops in Korea named after the fictional island in Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree. It’s actually quite a decent shop, but everyone fails to pronounce the ‘sh’ sound at the end of ‘Innis’. Obviously it’s not their fault, but I can’t help wincing when it happens. Even worse, there is no ‘f’ sound in the Korean alphabet so sometimes Koreans will talk about going to ‘Innis-pree’. The humanity!

All of this means I’m forced to correct people and then bore them by going on about the poetry of W.B Yeats.

In all seriousness though, it is an absolutely gorgeous poem. If you don’t know it, it’s about escaping to a peaceful place in nature – totally relatable if you live amongst all the madness in a big city in Korea.

Innisfree

Innisfree, one of Korea’s post popular beauty shops. Source: Fashion Daily

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About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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