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What Americans can learn from the Irish

Apr 22,2004
I’m jealous of the Irish. There, I said it. I’m an American with shamrock envy. I was feeling it most acutely last month, when the St. Paddy’s Day festivites in Seoul were rivaling even those of my hometown, Chicago, where being green is practically a legal requirement.
Just look at what the Irish community has managed to organize in this foreign land: a drama company, a popular resident folk band, the most successful Gaelic football team in Asia, the mayor of Seoul as grand marshal of their parade, the nickname “Koreans of the West”... Yessir, the Irish are a vibrant and integrated community.
But what of my American bretheren, easily comprising one of the largest percentages of foreigners in Korea? American civilians in Seoul get the short end of the stick. I’m not even talking about the pockets of anti-Americanism, but the fact that with the military base smack in the middle of the city, presumably holding what American cultural and celebratory events exist privately behind their walls, we civvies have no proud community to call our own.
Many like to argue that American culture has a death grip on this country. I tend to disagree. It all depends on what you want to claim as “American culture.” Britney Spears, Burger King and Starbucks are commercial, but they don’t define society. Levis and the North Face are fashionable, but they don’t constitute fellowship.
Foreigners are out everyweekend playing cricket, rugby, soccer, ultimate frisbee ― heck, they’ve got fully functioning leagues. But who’s organizing Sunday afternoon softball games? Who is importing Milwaukee’s Best to cook the bratwurst? Who is staging Steinbeck and strumming Springsteen covers in Itaewon? That’s right, no one. We’re too busy telling people we’re Canadian.
It’s an unfortunate fact that there is an unspoken shame attached to being an American abroad. The fashionable stance to take, espcially for young expats, is that we reject America and all its imperialistic connotations. Regardless of personal beliefs, our public personas often prevent Americans from finding each other and creating that common bond, that forum of support, that appreciation for tradition, that community.
To become true cultural ambassadors we must, like the Irish, take our Korean hosts beyond TV and fast-food and into the American state of mind. We’re optimistic, ambitious, innovative, diverse, proud ― and we throw great Super Bowl parties. That deserves to be celebrated as much as hanbok and Guinness.


by Kirsten Jerch


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