Monday, May 16, 2011

Much Ado About (Almost) Nothing

Just the other day I was walking along Strøget, Copenhagen's pedestrian shopping street, when I came across a large crowd of people. Curious foreigner that I am, I moved in closer to investigate and see what was going on. A large, fancy car, with an even larger escort of vehicles and motorcycles was parked outside the Georg Jensen shop. I noticed the South Korean flag flying from the fancy car and had heard that some dignitaries from there were in town. I was curious though why so many people had gathered. Could one small country's residents be so interested in another small country's semi-famous politicians?

I started asking around to see what people thought was going on (the fancy car being empty of its passengers who were presumably inside the shop browsing at Denmark's most famous purveyors of fine silver). I got some pretty interesting answers. Most people were hanging around with their cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of Queen Margarethe. But as to who she might be with, the jury was out. Here were some possibilities, as told to me by people in the crowd:
  • The Prime Minister of Bulgaria
  • A princess from Japan (this woman even told me she knew this because the news had reported it)
  • And finally, the queen of South Korea
Another commentary on safety - look
how close we are to the Queen's own car!
Somewhat mystified, I asked a police officer who was really inside and he told me it was the visiting First Lady of South Korea. I told him that most people I had asked thought it was the queen of Denmark, to which he explained that it was indeed the queen's car which she had loaned for this shopping trip. I decided not to stick around, as there were about to be some pretty disappointed Danes, and kept walking along.

On my stroll, I thought about all the Danes I'd just encountered who either were unable to identify a South Korean flag or didn't know that modern South Korea is a monarch-less democracy. The other day in Danish class, one of my studiekammerater was giving me crap about Americans thinking Spain is located in South America. I don't know where this perception comes from, other than some Americans who mistakenly (or ignorantly) call Central and South Americans "Spanish" after their language and not their origin. But who knows, maybe he's right.

It is true that young Americans may be particularly geographically illiterate. A 2006 poll sponsored by National Geographic found that 6 in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East despite its regular appearance in news coverage. But are we any worse than Europeans?

 Sadly, yes.

In 2002, a similar study comparing geographic literacy among citizens from nine countries found the US second to last in knowledge, with only Mexico faring worse, and then, only slightly. Swedes came out on top. (Note: Denmark was not part of the study but, given proximity to and competitiveness with Sweden, would have likely beaten the US as well.) The study also found that Americans don't "get off the farm" much. Only 20 percent of Americans had traveled internationally in the previous three years compared to almost 70 percent in countries with the highest geographic literacy.

So I will have to chalk up my experience to not having queried enough crowd members. Perhaps only one in five or seven Danes are that familiar with South Korea. Which is probably higher than the Americans statistic. Or I should follow my Danish friend Per's advice and just stay off Strøget to begin with...