The Chinese Monkey Incident: When Should Personal Morality Overshadow Cultural Sensitivity?
If you’re still here out of morbid curiosity, I’ll continue. I don’t write this to be gratuitous in any way. The event I outline below is only to lay foundation for a broader, more important moral and cultural question.
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The Chinese Monkey Incident
My step-father was telling us the story of how his boss, Dan, flew to China to drum up new clientÃ¨le for their wholesale seafood business. His prospective clients treated him to a local restaurant that specializes in very traditional Chinese fare – a variety of animal delicacies. At the conclusion of a dozen or so courses including all manner of mammal, fish, reptile and insect bits, the coup de gras was delivered to the table: a live monkey. The monkey was walked to the dining table, into the center of which a hole had been cut, then strapped to the underside of the table with only its head protruding through the top. Still alive, the screaming animal’s scalp was subsequently sawed off and its brains scooped onto the plates of waiting dinner guests for all to enjoy.
If you’ve never heard this story before, let me be the first to reveal that it’s largely believed to be utter bullshit – an urban myth. My stepfather had never heard the story before, so was naive to his boss’ deceptive tale of travel horror. (For those interested, this site debunks the Live Monkey Brains myth in greater detail.)
The Real Question
My question is this: what if it weren’t BS? What if you were Dan and found yourself in the position of civilized Westerner and guest of live monkey brain-eating Chinese?
Would you simply remove yourself from the table without a word and never look back?
Would you vocally and openly decry the entire situation as barbaric to the faces of your fellow diners and storm out?
Or would you sit there in quiet disgust and chalk it up to just another “cultural difference”?
Perhaps it’s too hypothetical and extreme a question. Let’s take a few relatively tamer examples that I, and I’m guessing many Vagabondish readers, find to be the unnecessary exploitation of animals for the sake of blood sport entertainment.
How about cock fighting? Or bull fighting? Or the Michael Vick incident? These are very real “sports” occurring in countries throughout the world every day. What if, during your travels, a group of new-found friends and locals that you met a few days ago are headed to some animal blood sport match? Would you go, despite your own sense of morality? Or would you decline and risk insulting and perhaps alienating yourself amongst them?
Is it fair to dismiss anything which you might find morally repugnant as “just a difference in cultures”? After all, what gives “civilized” Westerners the right to impose their self-righteous sense of morality on the cultures of “developing” countries?
As travelers, I think we’re generally more accepting than most. But how far is too far for you personally? Or is there no clear-cut boundary at all? When does or should personal morality overshadow any semblance of cultural sensitivity?
I don’t know the answer, but I do think it’s a more complicated question than it might first appear. Truth be told, I don’t know what I’d do in any of the above situations.