Just Another Wednesday Night in Korea

We went out for groceries after Dave got off work, just after 9PM. Our gas had been turned off due to lack of bill paying and the lack of any sort of warning notice. It had been a week since either of us had had a warm shower, and I couldn’t cook my comforting soup. At least we had the rice cooker.

On our way home from buying cabbage, rice, and garlic, I insisted on chimac (pronounced chee-mac), short for chicken and makju, aka beer. I will have to write about this wonderful combination later, but for now let’s just say that it makes me incredibly happy.

I figured we would go to our usual place – the place around the corner from our apartment. But Dave had other ideas; he wanted to go to our local pub. While it does have chicken, and it does serve beer, thus technically allowing us to partake in chimac, it also serves other foods — thus disqualifying our outing from going out for chimac in my eyes. Also, the pub is more known for its “beercino” than its food; beercino, I kid you not, is beer on tap upon which fake, tasteless foam is added from a separate tap to make it appear more frothy. Ah, Korea.

Beercino

That beer foam is indeed fake.

I sipped my beercino and looked around the place. It was pretty packed. Most of the people there were part of a large party. Several tables were pushed together so that about 10 or so  — all but one were men — could all sit together. They looked and sounded like they were having a great time.

All except for one person. One young man was literally passed out at the table. Another victim of Korean drinking culture. You see, in South Korea, drinking comes with a lot of rules to go with its lots of drinking. First rule: the eldest dictates how much is consumed by pretty much everyone during the evening. And this party, as we found out, happened to be to celebrate the retirement of an Air Force engineer. In other words, the man of honor was also the eldest and therefore the one calling the shots in all sense of that phrase. The drinking culture here states that the eldest pays. However, those younger must keep pace with the host’s desire to consume. And on this particular night, the retired Air Force guy was making a night out of it (note: it was Wednesday). So, as he went, so did the others. Empty bottles of soju and makju cluttered the tables. Shot glasses were also strewn about.

Second rule: it’s rude to leave a glass empty; it shows a lack of generosity on the part of your drinking partners. Therefore, you always have something to drink in your glass. Third rule: It’s considered rude not to drink what’s in your glass, because if you don’t, then you are not appreciating your company’s generosity. So the drunken Catch-22 begins. You will always have something in your glass because someone put it there to be generous. You have to drink it in order to show appreciation for said generosity – and that goes double if the person supplying the drinks is an elder and/or superior (see First rule). So now you have to empty your glass which then needs to be filled again…

…which leaves you with a 20-something guy passed out at a table. A victim of several too many somacs (soju + makju often done as a “one shot” – think sake bomb for those of you familiar with that concept). After the party cleared out, it took two co-workers to pick the guy up and dump him in a cab. He was out cold.

This whole ritual is super weird to me. First of all, (and this can be considered a Fourth rule of sorts) Koreans commonly get shit-faced with their co-workers; it’s a form of bonding and will happen every time the boss/a company elder wants it to happen, and the event is over when the boss/company elder says it is – your family is not consequential here; you drink if your work dictates that you drink. This is NOT something I am used to. Having a beverage with a colleague after work, sure. But doing it to this excess on this time table? Nope.

In sum, Koreans drink A TON over here in both number of times and quantity of booze consumed during that time. Enough that there is a term, “soju flower,” for the alcohol-induced kimchi vomit piles often seen on the street in the mornings.

It makes me wonder: Is the term “alcoholic” subjective? In the United States, alcohol dependence is determined to be biological in origin and also has its place in the DSM – the diagnostic manual of psychological disorders. But how do those concepts of alcoholism fit into a culture that basically mandates drinking and doesn’t easily allow you to set your own limits (note: There are ways to abstain, but they involve deception as opposed to an honest expression of a lack of desire to drink)? It’s hard to really differentiate between heavy drinking and when a person NEEDS to drink. I have a feeling though the former is celebrated here, the latter is not (at least one guy agrees with me on this point). The fact remains, public drunkenness is a common sight here and the tolerance for alcohol-induced behavior is more accepted here than it is where I come from. Is that a good thing? I have no idea. It seems wrong to me, but it’s impossible for me to separate my beliefs from my culture.

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