It has been over a year since I started to root for the Irish national rugby team. It would be a lie if I said I’d mastered the rules of the game, but what I do know is that if I watch a match (wearing my green rugby shirt), the Irish team wins. 100%. I even started to think the team was unbeatable. So I was genuinely surprised when Gaven told me they got defeated by Scotland early last month while I was back home in Seoul. I can’t turn my back for a second, can I?
My inexplicable favouritism towards the country often makes people wonder why. An explanation I could offer is that when I was a kid I came across an expression “Korea is the Ireland of Asia” (or was it the other way around?), and it kind of stayed with me. I thought it simply meant both countries share their reputational love for drinking, singing and dancing (음주가무), but only recently realised that there are other similarities in their political histories and situations, including the presence of foreign military forces and the North-South demarcation – in spite of the common language and ethnic heritage between North and South.
To cut to the chase, I would like to share another striking similarity between the two I discovered while I was reading about the Irish team’s recent performance for the 2007 Rugby World Cup. According to Brend Pope of RTÉ, the team tends to play better against strong sides and rather poorly against weak ones because they identify themselves as an underdog. Uncanny, that’s exactly what happened with the Korean national football team in the 2002 FIFA World Cup and how we were super pleased with the underdog tale we became.
Despite the known danger of sweeping generalisation, it is so tempting to speak of national stereotypes. My favourite is one in Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris I read a few years ago: “Americans admire success. Englishmen admire heroic failure” (1998: 24). Of course one wouldn’t expect every single American or Englishman to fit this description, but it got me to wonder in which category Koreans would fall if that’s the case. And my casual conclusion is that we have a thing for underdogs. Koreans don’t quite appreciate failure however heroic it is, but the ex-Confucian society doesn’t like “tall poppies” either. Americans’ goal-oriented attitude (or what we understand they are like) is therefore kind of frowned upon. At the same time, we don’t subscribe to fatalism. In fact, the biggest agenda for the Korean government of the 70s was to convince the people that the country could break out of the vicious circle of poverty if each member was determined enough. The very spirit of the Saemaul Undong (“New Community Movement”), which is believed to put the country among the Four Asian Tigers.
So, a safe choice left for us is rags-to-riches stories. Stories of what we call “a dragon that birthed at a brook” (개천에서 용 났다). If I stretch the topic a bit, it’s not only we love such stories but in a global context we see our modern history as an underdog state’s quest for a place in the core, leaving its original place in the periphery – from Andre Gunder Frank’s World-System perspective. And one of the reasons why the Internet was so positively received in the first place is, as my data confirms, that it was introduced and promoted as technological leverage for finally outdoing the core countries.
Hmmm, I have drifted into the Internet thing again. Anyway, I still believe the tightest bond between Ireland and Korea is the ‘cultural importance’ of drinking, singing and dancing. 😉 To wrap up, here’s a short clip of Riverdance.