Next time someone throws around the stereotype about how Westerners in Korea are drunken sots who behave badly, remind them of that Korean guy who went drunk driving in Cambodia in July 2008, killed a family, and refused to tell his name to the cops (and anyway cannot speak English or Khmer). Ask them when was the last time a Westerner did that in Korea. Seriously, ask them.
And don’t accept the thing about the tank and the two schoolgirls on the country road back in 2002: the drivers weren’t drunk, two girls is not a whole family, and it was, after all, a mistake. The driver responsible was almost crying afterward, and clearly shaken up by it, by all eyewitness accounts I remember from the time.
A Westerner who killed a family on the streets in any city in Korea while driving drunk, is what I’m asking for. Give me one example. Maybe there is one, but I’ve not heard of it.
This will serve as a bridge to discussing how socially accepted driving drunk here is. Because anyone who hasn’t seen it need only wander over to any major station, where drunken tools hopping into their vehicles and driving off like maniacs can be seen.
I don’t mean to suggest that all of the danger on the roads is due to drunk driving — many sober people drive like complete maniacs here too, or, to be more precise, like selfish amoral maniacs. Whether or not this guy felt more free to drink and drive in Cambodia (since it’s a “poor” and “backwards” country), I’ll never know, but I’d wager he doesn’t think drinking and driving in Korea is a big deal, either, else he might have avoided it when abroad.1.Hey, I don’t even know if Koreans are as prone to drive drunk here as they might be in a country like Cambodia, which is widely viewed as a lesser, and perhaps more lawless, place than Korea.
Certainly, drunk driving is socially less unacceptable here than in any other place I’ve lived. Which is not to say that some Koreans don’t object to it: when Lime told me about this, she basically muttered something about the suitability of capital punishment for this case. But on occasions when I go out in Bucheon, I do sometimes see utterly drunk people piling into a parked car and driving away. Not one of them stops and says, “Hey, you’re drunk, man, you shouldn’t be driving.” Not in the cases I’ve seen, anyway. The sense that driving can be done without, you know, complete control of one’s faculties is the bigger issue, and cell phones, portable TVs, and more all fall into the mix at some point.
And if you think that all that has nothing to do with the rate of traffic fatalities here, you’re daydreaming.
1. People take their bad habits with them when they go abroad, though: many (Anglo-)North Americans seem to not want to eat anything too weird and to insist everyone speak perfect English to them; a number of Europeans seem to want things to be more orderly somehow, and get annoyed at the damned North Americans; and a certain number of Koreans carry their bad habits abroad too. It’s not just a reluctance to try any non-Korean food, or to avoid tipping, either: a friend who traveled in Cambodia mentioned how masseuses — note, they were just masseuses — in fancy hotels where she stayed complained bitterly of Korean men expecting them to offer sex services that were not on offer. Not all Korean tourists are like that, of course, just as not all American tourists are Big-Mac-demanding ignoramuses, but they do have a reputation in Southeast Asia for a reason.