By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
A recent Korea Times editorial advised American-retail store Costco to recall the old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Sage advice, sure, but its expiration date has come and gone. That old saying needs to be updated as, "Rome has come to you."
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" allegedly goes back to ancient Rome when St. Augustine, on a visit, was advised by the bishop of Milan: "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are." It has been shortened to: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
That is practical wisdom for those who enjoy staying out of jail or avoiding an embarrassing faux pas. But should one "do as the Romans do" or turn a blind eye when the locals engage in barbarism, oppression, or just plain old stupidity? Literally doing as the Romans did could have also meant engaging in pedophilia, slavery, rape, and a host of other barbaric things that were legal or condoned in ancient Rome.
Travel allegedly broadens one's horizons, but as a traveler or expat, "When in Rome" means restricting oneself by engaging in a Star Trek Prime Directive of non-interference. "No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations." In other words, stop being yourself and leave your own culture at the immigration checkpoint.
An incredibly globalized world with instant interaction among wired and mobile people produces new thoughts and new ways through the crossroads of mutual exchange. The static passivity of "When in Rome" is out of date in such a dynamic world.
To my friends who warn of anarchy when I applaud Costco and advocate evading laws that block peaceful and voluntary exchanges I ask, should a visitor in the past have gone along with Japan's colonization of this country?
I doubt that a Korea Times staff editorial, if the paper had been allowed to exist then, would have editorialized in favor of obeying what was then the law of the land. It surely would have been a violation of local law to rescue slaves from Korea before slavery was officially ended here in 1894 but I would have cheered on such rescuers.
Internationally, were outsiders wrong to aid Jews in Nazi Germany, blacks under South Africa's apartheid or American slavery and Jim Crow, or North Koreans seeking to flee North Korea through China today?
As the Charles Dickens character Mr. Bumble said, "If the law supposes that, the law is a ass _ a idiot." That a body of government, even a democratically elected one, passes a law or regulation restricting economic or personal liberty doesn't mean that citizens must always acquiesce.
I will admit to breaking the law only once in Korea (or, "non-cooperation," as Mahatma Gandhi might have said). Earlier this year a good friend of mine organized a swing dance party at a hotel club in Seoul. We were warned in advance that the club did not have a dancing license, thus, no dancing was allowed.
I considered asking my mom to write a letter to the Seoul mayor, letting him know that she wouldn't mind if I danced at a hotel club lacking a proper dance license. I also thought about being more radical by organizing an unauthorized dance party in front of City Hall, but decided I didn't want to spend a night in jail. Instead, I violated the local ordinance by swing dancing at the hotel club, without permission, with other brave souls.
But in my defense, I was dancing with Romans.
The writer is a visiting scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul, Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.