Last week, a student of mine from the UAE wrote an essay about his home country, claiming that it was the biggest in the world.
"I think this is the wrong adjective," I pointed out, leaning over his shoulder.
He smiled, exuding more teenage confidence in that one moment than I felt in the whole of my adolescence.
"It's true, my country is very big," he said. "Your maps are wrong."
This made me crack up a little, but he kept on, calm and confident. "The people who draw your maps, they're wrong."
I've had these encounters before, and they always catch you off guard. One person has spent their whole lives believing that their country holds a certain distinction; an invention or world record or something of the sort. Enter a foreigner with a whole different set of facts on the matter, and confusion occurs.
"The Turks made the Statue of Liberty," a banker in Istanbul once declared.
"Koreans invented soup," a 14-year-old in Daegu told me two years ago. (I'm 60% sure he was joking)
In the span of one year, I saw the World's Biggest Bell. Three times. In three separate countries.
I've travelled a fair bit, but I always stand firm behind the facts upon which I was raised. I assume that the Canadian school textbook truths are universal truths. I assume that our mapmakers aren't wrong.
Of course, I'm no different from anyone else.
A few days ago, an Italian student of mine protested a class project on Canadian inventions. Oh, the boy has no problems with motivation, his work ethic is dandy. His issue was with the class material. The text in front of him said that the telephone was a Canadian invention, whipped up by our Alexander Graham Bell. My student thought otherwise.
"Graham Bell stole the invention from an Italian!" he said. "It was Meucci, an Italian, he invented the telephone!"
I'm not proud to say that I didn't believe the boy. This was a relatively recent invention, after all. Surely there are patent records, photographs, archived newspaper headlines. Surely any confusion would have been cleared up at the time. Surely there's no longstanding grudge between the Italians and the Scots-Canadians over a stolen invention.
I would know about this, right?
I asked some relatives over dinner. Yep, they'd heard of this controversy before. I Googled the matter. Yep, it's real, and it's complicated; a prototype, a bankrupcy, a caveat. Where Bell fits into the story is confusing, but it seems that in the history books of Italy, Meucci is credited as the telephone's inventor.
And in the eyes of a 13-year-old Italian who comes to Canada for an English course, I'm the proud weirdo spouting misinformation with rah-rah conviction. "We invented the telephone," the teacher chirps foolishly, "and Superman, basketball, the IMAX."
"Suuure, Miss Anne," they must mutter to each other as they leave class. "I suppose Canadians invented soup, too?"