Drunken Manslaughter Trip in Cambodia

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.

4 thoughts on “Drunken Manslaughter Trip in Cambodia

  1. When I was born it wasn’t anywhere near as socially unacceptable to drive drunk in the US as it is now.

    How long did it take for that to change in North America?

    What’s the attitude in other parts of the world (e.g., Europe)?

    What will it take to change the mindset in Korea?

    MADD wasn’t founded until the 1980s, and that did more to educate and help cohere social pressure against drunk driving than anything else that I’m aware of. What will it take to do that in Korea?

  2. Julia,

    I’d argue that in Korea there are fewer longstanding taboos about extreme use of alcohol itself, which contributes to the drunk-driving problem. Reading about gin lane and thinking back over the moral reformers and manner ssociety movements, and teetotal movements for that matter, the only thing vaguelty similar here are the taboos on women drinking (which seem to be falling away increasingly) and the avoidance of alcohol by (mostly female) Protestant Christians. But the things people get away with here because they’re drunk are sometimes astonishing.

    A lot of people here drink just to get absolutely smashed, something like how I think teenagers drink in North America.

    It’s odd for me — growing up in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, I was very aware of MADD, saw lots of PSAs about drunk driving, and so on. I only ever saw one person drink and drive while I was living in Canada.

    So I don’t know what will change the attitudes here. Maybe the occasional crackdowns have helped, but I doubt it. Something like MADD would probably help change how the kids growing up think about it, but… well, probably some kind of enforcement of traffic laws would help. Strict punishments for being caught drunk driving.

    But alcohol is such a huge part of socializing here, and other social changes will need to come before people do anything not involving drinking on a social outing. There’s just so little to do in groups here, and people seem to depend on drinking to relax and socialize. To the point where alcohol is seemingly a crucial social glue, but… er, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll continue on about this in the Gin Lane & Soju-ro posts I’ll be working on this summer and fall.

    I guess I feel like this: there’s infrastructure to deal with the problem (a justice system); there’s more than enough resources; but there’s really no political will, and a less-strong penchant for forming societies or groups like MADD. This is what Koreans sometimes mean when they call Korea a developing country: there’s resources, but the mindset hasn’t changed.

    I, for the most part, find that a frustrating cop-out, though I try to be generous and understand.

  3. So, the culture isn’t primed for the same sort of response that North American culture was primed for when MADD came along and started hitting us all with clue-by-fours.

    It sounds like if there’s going to be a change in mindset, it’s going to take a lot more work than it did in North America.

  4. I know a woman who asked some high schoolers what they thought it would take for change to happen in areas like this. Their response, uncharacteristically negative for such young people, was, “When all the people who are adults right now die, things will change.”

    Which is pretty gloomy, even gloomier than I’m willing to accept, but I think there is a level on which it’s true cultures change at the speed of death. Cultures certainly change at a different pace than the societies who live within them — hence subcultures, culture wars, and so on.

    I think the somewhat different mode of socializing, the role alcohol plays in it, and other cultural changes will be necessary. Things probably are changing already, and have done for years, but I’m dubious a movement like MADD would even arise at this point, let alone whether it would bring about change.

    Maybe some of the reasons I think so will come clearer in my continuing posts on Gin Lane and Soju-ro.

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