Tharp On: Drinking in Korea

When coming to Korea, you are struck by the contradictions that slap you in face on a daily basis: strangers politely bow to each other, yet spit, jostle, and throw hard elbows on the street or subway; in many respects the culture appears to be rigid and sexually conservative, yet flesh-baring girl groups regularly thrust and grind on TV, and the young women publicly sport tiny hot pants and miniskirts that can be a painful distraction to any hot-blooded male walking down the street; when facing strangers, Koreans often put their toughest face forward – in many ways the country is the Land of a Thousand Scowls – but witness Koreans interact among themselves, and they’re as warm as it gets: all cackles, smiles, and raucous laughs.

So yes, Korea is a culture of extremes, and nowhere is this more apparent when it comes to drinking. This is a high-stress society, one of massive social pressures and vicious competition, so some release valves are needed. People gotta have some fun, so the one vice that is allowed – encouraged even – is drinking. If you like to tip the bottle, sip the sauce, hit the hooch, get drunk and drunker, black out, pee your pants, fight with a road sign, in short – get psychotically wasted with little fear of reprehension– this is the country for you.

Korea is kind of like Disneyland for alcoholics. It’s heaven for booze hounds. Everywhere you look, there is alcohol for sale. It can be cheap (soju for a buck a bottle) or expensive (whiskey sets, anyone?), but sool is offered up in all places at all times. It’s amazing really. Korea is so liberal about drinking that there’s NO LAST CALL. The bars stay open as long as the customers want. This is never a good idea. I’m currently writing this article from sunny Thailand, which is one of most partying nations on Earth, and even they have the sense to shut the bars down at a reasonable hour. Nothing good can come of people ordering Jager bombs at 5:30 a.m. I think Confucius himself said that.

One of the best things about drinking in Korea is that there’s absolutely no sanction for it.  You can show up at work the night after a massive bender reeking of booze, crimson-eyed and wearing yesterday’s puke-stained clothes, and your boss will pull you aside:

Uh…  yesterday… many drink-y???

You grunt and nod in the affirmative.

VERY GOOD! Slaps your back. VERY GOOD!

Not only are you not in trouble, but you’re more than likely to get that promotion. In the West, you’d probably be forced to undertake drinking sensitivity training, or attend AA.

This drinking culture in the workplace takes its form in what’s known as the “hwey-shik,” where employees gather after work to eat grilled pork, down endless bottles of soju, and warble reverbed-out songs in the confines of the norae-bang. Anyone who has worked for more than a month in Korea has probably been along to a hwey-shik. I personally love them, because I can get drunk for free, but others bristle at the forced drinking and supposed team building that the hwey-shik has come to symbolize. Some do, because they have better things to do than scream into a microphone with their boss, and others don’t because they simply can’t handle their booze. Just walk the streets of Seomyeon after 10 at night and you will see what I mean: the sidewalks and streets are littered with red splotches of puked-up pork, rice, and pepper paste, known locally as “kimchi flowers.”

This no-holds-barred drinking that is so commonplace on the peninsula can have disastrous results for the foreigners who come here to work. For some young, fresh-out-of-college folks, teaching in Korea is just an endless piss-up, an extended Spring Break. One visit to the Mud Festival will confirm this, where packs of twenty-something North Americans in various states of undress wander the town, celebrating the fact that they can drink in public without getting arrested. Also, various international scumbags get wind of Korea’s permissive drinking atmosphere and decide to put down roots. I’ve met some unsavory drunks in my seven years here, including a tattooed Kiwi thug who, when not teaching kindergarten, mainlined white Russians and put at least three people in the hospital; a fat Aussie who used to brag about the fact that he drank during class at his hagwon; and a binge-drinking Canadian who was known to go days without sleep while he wandered from bar to bar in his pajamas.

Of course I’m not better than any of these folks. Anyone who knows me has surely seen me blathering and drooling at establishments throughout the city. I am banned from one Casino for blacking out and punching a security guard, and once, I slept on Texas Street. Not at a hotel or friend’s place, but literally on Texas Street. I woke up with a blanket of shame that still sticks deep in my pores.

So let’s keep having fun. Enjoy yourselves and take advantage of Korea’s more-than-tolerant attitude toward drinking, but let’s try to keep it in hand. Do you really want to be falling out of a chair at the Family Mart at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, only to have a Korean man on his way to church pass by, look closely, turn to his wife, and say:  Doesn’t he teach our little Jeong-min?

You can read more from Chris Tharp on his Haps’ columnist page.

Tharp illustration by Russell McConnell

South Korea drinking by the numbers:
Per capita alcohol consumption: 14.80 liters
Recorded consumption: 11.80 liters
Unrecorded consumption: 3.00 liters

Per capita consumption by type:
Beer: 2.14 liters
Wine: 0.06 liters
Spirits: 9.57 liters
Other: 0.04 liters


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