Friday, March 10, 2006

I show you my country...

Teddy de Burca Jnr
. tries to come to terms with the fact that from an Asian perspective certain countries, including Ireland, don’t get a mention

When I first came to Vietnam to work as a teacher none of my students knew where I came from. I would keep pronouncing “Ireland” over and over again, with the emphasis on the “r” sounding first syllable, in the hope they’d recognise it.

“Yes, I know,” one would reply, “I know Holland.”
“No, Ireland, not Holland,” I would correct them happily.
“Ah, yes – Iceland!” someone else would chime in.
“No, Arrrrland!” I’d say, writing it on the board to clarify the ‘r’-ness of the word.

This would provoke a mini-discussion, a wee conferral in Vietnamese of which I could pick out “I know, isn’t that the country where men wear dresses?”

“No, Scottish men wear kilts, but in Ireland we prefer trousers, as you can see,” I’d tell them, curtseying in my chinos. Then the penny would only drop for one savvy man who would jump up and shout, “Zoy (Roy) Keane!” the then captain of Irish football team and, far more importantly, Manchester United.

Was that it? Was Roy Keane our sole cultural ambassador? A man who is known in his home country as the Dark Destroyer and famous for his short fuse and ability to strike the fear of God into anyone looking at him, even his own teammates.

Not quite. I also discovered that the (seemingly nameless) members of Westlife, and previously Boyzone, were the only Irish people famous amongst the teenagers in Vietnam, which was nothing much to sing about either.

How funny it was to see the disappointment on student’s faces when I introduced myself as something other than Australian, American or English. But, in another way, it how refreshing it seemed as well. I had travelled a lot before and all across Europe and America I’d met people with plenty of opinions or notions on what it is to be Irish: We are usually drunk, we live on potatoes, we talk too much, most of the time incomprehensibly, we come from a land where it rains everyday, have close relations with sheep and it takes more than one of us to change a light bulb.

But the Vietnamese don’t know anyone of these clichés (truths). There is no “top of the morning” nonsense, no “craic”, no “shamrocks and shenanigans”, nothing but a blank stare of wonder. I could see them thinking: “how could an European country be so small and insignificant that Vietnam hasn’t even heard
of it?”

Briefly, I thought it was my chance for Year Zero. I had before me a blank canvas on which to construct history. I could have told them anything. I could have said: “Irish people speak better English than the English: fact!” and they would have scribbled this down studiously. I could have told them an Irish monk discovered America 800 years before Columbus but having taken a vow of silence he modestly kept it to himself.

But I decided to stick to language training and like to think I left my mark. Out there, somewhere, today, perhaps there are a few graduates of the Teddy de Burca Jnr. school of English, saying “howya” instead of “hello”, saying “‘tis” rather than “it is” and who know that Ray Houghton stuck it in the English net in Stuttgart, 1988. (My finest hour as a teacher came when one student aced his test and his classmate beside him said, “Good man yourself, Tuan Anh.”)

And despite an influx of Irish expatriates in recent times, including the establishment of an embassy, Ireland still isn’t quite on the mental map for most Vietnamese. When I meet locals for the first time I still like to play “see if you can guess where I’m from.” There are only so many native English speaking countries but they never get it. My only consolation is they’d say Ireland before Wales, which in the words of Ali G, is “a country just 200 miles from London” after all.

I should also do well to remember when I first told my grandmother I was going to live and work in Vietnam she gasped with dismay, took my hand and whispered, as if someone might be listening in: “But isn’t there a war on there?”

It seems, across the board, we little countries have a lot to learn about each other. So how about it Vietnam – I’ll show you my country, if you show me yours?

No comments: