Letter from Korea, September 2011.

Suwon, Korea

Dear Ireland,

You may not know this but Koreans are known as the Irish of the east. I didn’t know this until a while after I arrived here first in 2005. Of course, when I was young and heard the main reason why I thought it was great and I looked forward to challenging this accolade to the best of my ability; could Koreans out-drink me, a then twenty-three year old post-university drifter who had ended up in Korea with the promise of earning enough money to travel around the world. The fact that I never made it past Malaysia is beyond the point.

Of course, there are more reasons why Koreans are known as the Irish of the east than the fact that both countries are famous for the amount of alcohol that is consumed by their citizenry.

Both countries sit on the periphery of two continents. Ireland is the most western nation in Europe while Korea is a peninsula which juts out from the Eurasian continent. Those wishing to travel to either country have very few options on the direction to approach them, but at the same time they hold important strategic positions.

Both countries have had their history dominated by the statesmanship and global philandering of two more powerful neighbours.  Ireland for a long time was fought over between Britain and France, while later in Ireland’s history the United States began to play a larger part in Ireland’s affairs. Korea was heavily influenced by China for a long time, and scholars today still battle over the level of this influence. Questions such as was Korea’s position merely one of patronage to a more powerful neighbour or was the Korean kingdom a vassal state of the Chinese. Then, of course, there is the arrival of Japanese interest in Korea from the mid-nineteenth century[i].

Of course, there is more to the connection that just geographic and historical coincidence. Socially, both countries again possess many similarities. Both countries, up until recently at least, have strong agrarian traditions. Ireland is famous for its potatoes of course and the famine which spread when the national staple failed in successive years. While Korea’s biggest and most unique festival is a family based harvest festival which thanks the country’s ancestors for all that they have done for them in the past so that they are lucky enough to have the food on their table on that day and all the days that follow.

There’s a lot more that I can mention; both countries were extremely poor up until the latter part of the twentieth century and then experienced exceptional growth and prosperity, both countries have had to call in the help of the IMF to bail them out due to financial mismanagement, both countries have had civil wars, both countries are still divided, both countries are consistent under-achievers in the world of sport (individual performers aside).

You could probably come up with more similarities but like all the examples above I see most of them as mere coincidences. To be honest, short of the drinking there is very little affinity between Korea and Ireland. There is an incredible amount of people in Korea aren’t even sure what Ireland is, let alone where Ireland is. And, shock of shocks, many don’t even realise that Guinness is even Irish (I know, unstomachable). Irish people are equally ignorant of Korea. When I mention I live in Korea, most people want to clarify whether or not it’s in the north of the south.

The people are what make a country, and Irish people and Korean people are very different.  I think that the only thing that Irish people and Korean people have in common is their steadfast belief that they are undeniably the greatest thing to arrive on this planet since Christ walked on water, if not before that. We are also equally keen to explain to other nations why we are not like our neighbours and why we are better than them.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. I know plenty of wonderful and open minded Irish and Korean people and their existence would refute this defamation in an instant, but in fairness they are outnumbered significantly, but then again this is probably the case with the rest of the countries in the world.

Take the famous ‘bally, bally’ (an armchair experts Anglicisation of course), which means ‘hurry, hurry’ that Koreans and Korea is always associated with. Sure enough the further you go into the countryside the less ‘bally, bally’ you will find it (this is unfortunately becoming less so with the large numbers of weekenders who flood the countryside regularly), but in built up areas it feels that people are constantly doing their best to get to where they are going before you, even if no one else is going there. The delivery drivers on the scooters are trying to ride over you, the taxis and buses hurtle at you beyond breakneck speed with people clutching with white knuckles onto the bars and handles inside, people frantically push the open and close buttons on the lift doors (this bothers me to no end, don’t know why, but for me five seconds isn’t going to make a huge difference to your arrival time) and charge in and out whilst barging through other people. I could highlight more examples but I’ll stop now. Korea, especially in the cities – of which there are a lot – seems to be always in a frantic rush to finish something.

In contrast, for those of you familiar with Ireland you’ll probably quip that it’s a wonder anything ever got finished. It’s not until the past few years that buses started to arrive on time and with any degree of frequency, and even then there are doubts about this. Ireland has copied its nearest neighbour in too many areas and allowed all the negative aspects that country’s bureaucracy to blind the national sense of fair play without developing the intelligence to actually be sure that those who were in charge actually made it work until it’s beyond repair.

It takes forever to get anything done; you can’t build a house (not that anyone can afford to now), you can’t open a bank account, you can’t see the right doctor, you can’t get a bus at the weekend… Sure there are some great things about Ireland, especially when you’ve been in an intense living environment like Korea, such as the slower less rushed pace of life. But living there all the time infuriates so many to the point that over 200,000 people left in almost two years because it just wasn’t worth waiting around to see if the country would be fixed after the property crash. We all knew it would take a while and would cost more than any other country to get the job done. As Irish people we have no one to blame but ourselves and our own ‘sure it’ll be grand’ complacent attitude.

With all that in mind, I would never be one to drag Ireland and Irish people down by the neck without some redeeming factor. I know for a fact that we’re not all that bad. Where Irish people stand above any other nationality is our common understanding and respect for the plight for the other man (the species) in the street. While we might turn our nose up at most people walking towards us, if called upon to communicate as oft we do, we can always meet that person on a level footing and accept them for who they are, which is another being made of skin and bone. This goes across the board. In all corners of the country I’ve encountered this level of humanity more than anywhere else I’ve visited in the world. Perhaps I’m being biased.

There is no pining for respect or bending to cultural norms. There is, as a Corkman said to me once, ‘an interest in a fella’, and this applies on a national level. We all have a story to tell and perhaps with the Irish tradition of storytelling we respect each man for his own story that he will tell, or she as the case may be. Irish people exist in an unwritten kind of apolitical socialism where we all have dirtied our hands in the same mud at some stage, and we are all eager to reaffirm our commitment to this cause. We like to think that we are all suffering together even when we’re rich. And when we’re suffering, no one loves a sense of irresolvable misery like we Irish do. Of course, most of us see it as modesty.

[i]  In the 19th Century the Korean government initially refused to recognise Japanese ascendency until the Chinese government sent word to Seoul that the Japanese throne was to be respected.

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