Apr 2, 2007


Koreans are some of the highest alcohol-per-capita consumers in the world. That amounts to an outrageous quantity of booze going around. But the Koreans' national drinking habit is no mystery, it just brings the polite thinking of their culture (where rank, status and age break everything down into a ritualistic pecking order and set of social customs somewhat tantamount to the formalities of a Catholic Church service - what with the sharing of the wine and the wiping after the sips and all) to a natural conclusion.

The rules are based around one simple standard: you must never fill your own glass. Ever. Period. You must fill everyone else's. And since everyone follows the rule, your glass is never empty.

Now, I was trying to think of a simple way to describe my impressions of this, but I'm going to have to rip a page out of Darryl's travel log from adventures in Germany - telling me about a[n obviously sweet-assed] bar in Dusseldorf that goes about filling your mug with draft whether you ask them to or not (unless you send the universal signal for 'no-more-beer-needed' by placing a coaster on top of the glass) - and say it's very civilized, but with a few glaring exceptions - and here's where drinking in Korea gets dicey.

Choice of liquors is limited. Usually, bottles upon bottles of Soju are always implied and turn out pretty quickly - Soju is a crisply disgusting potato-vodka-type alcohol Koreans sip out of little shot glasses and can't resist. I've tried some of this shit and it tastes pretty much like paint-remover. Korean beers on the other hand (named 'Cass', 'Hite' and 'OB' - by the way, check out Hite's site for a laugh - Asians in general have the strangest taste in html decor), are sweaty versions of Coors Lite, and you ask for one by saying 'meck-choo' (gesundheit!).

Groups-outings are usually done under the guise of casual business meetings, and the rules follow: the younger or lower-status offer alcohol to the oldest first, handing his own glass to the drinker to offer a pour. The drinker returns the favor (sometimes first emptying out unfinished drops into his napkin and/or wiping spittle off the edge of the shot glass with the heel of his hand). Germiphobes need not apply here, folks. Everyone ends up drinking from everyone else's glass eventually as glasses migrate around the table.

There are other little formalities: if you're accepting a shot from someone older (you're not actually allowed to turn this offer down), you have to turn your head or hide your mouth behind your hand as you drink, presumably because it'd be vulgar to show that magnified-through-the-shot-glass past-the-teeth-and through-the-gums view of Soju going down your gullet. Or perhaps it is so no one can determine just how much of a sip (thereby being able to count the total amount of sips) you've had? No idea. Of course, chewing gets the same treatment.

This goes on and on, with the younger drinkers unable (for politeness' sake) to refuse drinks though they may in fact be drunker than tequila worms, and the older drinkers continuing to accept (for deference's sake) shots all night though they may also be too drunk to stand by the time everything is said and done. There are no yellow cards - just blackouts.

You'd think for all the binge drinking that you'd see people face-down in the gutter by noon, but if you drank during the day in Korea, you'd be considered a drunk. And only alcoholics drink alone - who will pour you the drink if you're by yourself? You're also expected to be eating. Even straight-up bars will bring free shrimp crackers or platters of pistachio and dried squid if you're just having beers.

Any occasion, any time, drinking is not just acceptable - it's expected. It's a means to honor, praise or acknowledge (and certainly, as in every culture, to celebrate).

So I wasn't that surprised when what I expected to be a formal parent-teacher meeting turned out to be an all out Soju and beef Bulgogi fest, teeming with a lot of red faced Koreans.

"I emm Drunk!" my religious Korean English co-teacher whispered to me (he's too straight-laced and permanently on-the-wagon-for-jesus to feel comfortable with getting tipsy). He confided in me before the whole thing went down that he hates these type of meetings, and I quickly began to see why. Poor guy. His devout Christian wife in Wonju even if she knew the rules - that he couldn't refuse a drink from a room full of the older mothers of his students - would still probably kick his ass for pissing off God with alcohol consumption if she had found out.

Every mother of every student in his homeroom class paid a little tribute to him, crouching one by one over to where he was seated cross-legged in front of the BBQ, Soju bottle in one hand and their own shot glass in the other, offering to pour him a dram while they asked about their kid's progress in class or how his wife is or whatever they were saying that I couldn't understand.

About twenty women, and not one drink he could refuse. Two pint-sized bottles [all to himself] later, they wanted to take him for 'another round' down the street.

"We have a phrase for just this situation in Canada," I laughed, "'you're screwed'."

1 comment:

garby said...

I'm never coming to visit.

1. I control my glass fullness, thanks.

2. Your booze description made me vomity.

3. Sharing glasses? With people you may or may not know? EW.