Sunday, June 3, 2012

Morals in the West - An Eastern Perspective (The Wando Incident)

In my last blog post I was pretty scathing on the standard of morals in this part of the world.  But in the light of recent events here in Korea, I thought I had better balance the books a little and criticize the moral behaviour of people from Western countries.

Last weekend there was a big beach party in Wando, an island in Jeollanamdo, South West Korea.  I did not attend, as that sort of thing is not really my cup of tea, but news of it reached every foreign teacher in the region via facebook messages and a very angry regional foreign teacher coordinator via e-mail.  What transpired was that at least some of the revellers disturbed local residents in a number of ways, which included; too much noise late at night, drunken behaviour, topless women (in a very conservative country, as our coordinator put it 'classy'), rubbish left on the beach, and the worst of all the vandalism of a locked public toilet.  The toilet was locked because there was no plumbing to it and therefore no water.  Apparently, many party goers decided to relieve themselves anyway (number 1's and 2's), including in the sinks as well as the waterless toilets.  I was told by a responsible visitor to the beach that weekend that the toilet smelt like death the following morning and I dread to think what the sight and smell must have been like on the inside.

This kind of behaviour is, of course, despicable in any country, but especially in a country that is not your own and a country that you know is conservative in nature and already a little suspicious of foreign people.  It boggles the mind that so many people can be so irresponsible, disrespectful, uncultured, and stupid.  As a result of this behaviour, one of the more beautiful parts of Korea is in effect closed to foreign visitors for the time being.  Local residents have had enough and have decided to not serve foreign people in restaurants, maybe not even allow them on the beach full stop, and generally be as unwelcoming as they can.  There were, undoubtedly, some responsible people at the beach that weekend that cleaned up and tried to be respectful, my criticism is not aimed at those who responsibly enjoy a drink or two.

What is even more galling is not that these people should have known better, but that they are supposed to be teachers too.  Every Korean person must know that almost every non-Korean they see is an English teacher in Korea, and when they see behaviour such as this they must wonder why they send their children to school to be taught English by a bunch of irresponsible hooligans.

Such incidents are not that common in Korea, because the country is not particularly geared for tourism, it is mainly teaching that attracts foreign people.  However, in other countries this kind of behaviour is a common practice, especially in places like Thailand, where full moon parties have become infamous.  What a crazy situation this has become, that people go all the way to Thailand to get hammered, something they could do just as well back home.  They aren't interested in the culture of countries, the history, the people, and must have little interest in the countriy's natural beauty also as they appear set on ruining it.  What does it tell you about our culture that such 'booze cruises' are so popular?  I wonder sometimes whether all the drinking pushes out their brain cells.

When I thought about it all a little more deeply, however, an incident such as the one in Wando should never come as a surprise.  Unfortunately, it is now a large part of Western culture.  I used to think it was a problem especially unique to my own country (the UK), but coming to Korea has shown me that Americans, Canadians, Australians, Irish, South Africans, and New Zealanders can be just as bad.

I will always remember my last night in England before leaving for South Korea the first time.  My cricket buddies and I were delayed on getting into Colchester Town centre (my hometown) from our cricket club because of a taxi no show, so we arrived at about 12 o'clock.  Walking down the high street of the town was a very grim scene indeed; people swearing at each other, people fighting, various puddles of vomit on the street, smashed windows, people so drunk they could hardly stand, and broken glass and rubbish everywhere.  I had not drunk that much so I was able to soberly reflect on all the carnage that was going on around me.  I was happy to be leaving.

Perhaps, in many respects, I am lucky.  My body has always rejected alcohol before I can become out of control and I usually feel like death for it, and because of this I have never really understood why people do such terrible things when they are drunk and drinking alcohol is a rare thing for me anyway.  Maybe, if I had a stronger constitution, I would have fallen into the same kind of behaviour.

In Western countries, it has become so easy to fall into the Friday and Saturday night booze-up pattern with Sunday being recover from hangover day.  Back at home in England, I can think of only a few people who I can say with confidence would never be included in the kind of group that wrecked Wando beach at the weekend, and that is a sad fact.  What is even more troubling is that good, kind, decent people can be persuaded to act like morons by a combination of alcohol and a kind of group culture of glorifying ridiculous behaviour.  A simple truth is that, if you want everyone to love you and to make friends easily all you have to do is get stupidly drunk, have sex with a random girl or boy for one night, shit yourself on the street, injure yourself on the street while drunk, throw-up over someone or on someone's property, have a fight, or get thrown in a cell in a local police station for a night.  If you can mange one or maybe even all these things you will be a popular person indeed in my country, and I suspect in most Western countries.

I have remarked to a few friends over here in Korea that a symptom of this can be seen on Facebook.  Post a fascinating article about the wonders of the universe or glorious picture of the natural world and you maybe lucky to receive one comment or 'like'.  Post a comment about how you did a crap on the next door neighbours front garden after a drunken night out, or a picture of you passed out with vomit all over your shirt and see the comments and 'likes' roll in.

Here in South Korea, let's make no mistake about it, people get drunk too.  Take a walk outside on a Saturday morning and you can come across at least a few puddles of vomit on the ground.  What does set apart most Eastern countries is that they do at least have some regard for others when they are drunk and completely liscentious behaviour is very heavily looked down upon and therefore people are not proud of their misdemeanors on a night out.  This is very much different to our culture of being almost proud of one's disgusting behaviour on the night before, sharing the story with friends and having a good laugh.  The reality is that this shouldn't be funny, it's a disgrace and sometimes it takes the perspective of another culture to have your eyes fully opened on the subject.  I can fully imagine that right now one of the perpetrators of the toilet vandalism in Wando or the person responsible for depositing faecal matter in the sink, is telling his story with a grin of pride at just how 'crazy' he is.  I heard similar stories to this when I was younger and I can remember thinking that they were pretty funny, but now as a grown-up, I can see these kinds of people for what they truly are, pathetic losers and attention seekers.

There is only one answer to our alcohol problem in the West, we have to stop glorifying the bad behaviour of drunken people.  They get drunk in the East too but they don't think that out of control behaviour is worthy of any praise and in this they are right.

Different cultures, different problems.  The Far East's problem is they are too much in control and too concerned with fitting in with the crowd and obeying authority.  This leads to the heartlessness I talked about in my previous blog.  Because one of the key values of Western culture is freedom, our extremes of bad behaviour are the result of showing that we ultimately can behave how we want to, without thought of others, ultimate freedom to be a complete idiot.  Westerners often have good hearts but can be easily made to forget about others with a few units inside their system.  This troubles me; are we moral or kind because we think that is what society requires or is it genuine?  If it is genuine then why does a few beers make us forget about it so easily?  Are western people just faking it until the weekend sets them free of their responsibilities?  My wife noticed this when we lived in England.  During the day, people she knew, people on the street, and even her friends were good, kind people with excellent manners and personalities.  Come the weekend, this all went out of the window, when she could receive racial abuse and witness general thuggery and outlandish behaviour.  She couldn't believe the 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' nature of the people in England. 

I am not advocating that we should all be teetotal, alcohol has been a valuable social lubricant for thousands of years.  It helps people to make friends, enjoy themselves, dance, and even to get over the first hurdle in starting relationships, but I think I have had enough of all the nonsense that comes with it.  I am setting myself a new resolution not to just ignore it when people tell stories of their 'accomplishments' the night before, but to ridicule and shame them when they do.  If more of us can do this maybe we can rid ourselves of this cultural virus spreading through Western countries. 


  1. Very well put. One trip to any city back home on a Saturday night would show the extent of the problem in Ireland. I was steeped in that mind-frame when I arrived here too, but thankfully I've grown out of it. There's so much more to life than the amount of alcohol we can consume.

  2. Thanks for the comment. A little to drink and a little funny behaviour is fine, but most people don't seem to know where to draw the line. 90% of the people I know get too drunk, i reckon.

  3. I don't drink alcohol, but Wando Beach Party was the happiest weekend of my teaching stint. Foreigners in Korea are explorative and welcoming, and cheerfully embraced me as a new friend. I was always delighted to light fireworks on Korean beaches; you haven't seen a genuine smile until you've seen a five-year-old gookling launch her first roman candle. The downside is the tsunami warning loudspeakers at the beach have been adapted to repeat obnoxious Hangukue radio-plays....

    1. I am sure most of the Wando beach parties over the years have been fine, but the one in question was very much complained about by local residents.