Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Getting Drunk: A Korean Pastime

Ah, spring time in South Korea.
Last Sunday was a beautiful spring Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea.  We woke up and started the routine of curing our hangovers.  For me this usually involves drinking a liter of water, eating some fruit, eating some eggs, drinking some Gatorade, and then taking a long steam bath.  I'm mostly ready to go after this.  Then we met a friend for coffee and then met others for pizza in a park.  As the sun was setting, Caroline and I headed back to my apartment to relax and plan for the next day of school.  I had all the windows open because that's what one generally does on a nice spring day.  It was around 7pm, I was watching a show and Caroline was getting her lesson planning done, when all of a sudden right outside the living room window we hear, "BLAAAAAAAAH, SPLASH, cough-cough!"

Caroline: "WTF?"
Me: "Oh god, that's like right outside..."
Right Outside: "AAAAHH GAAA, cough, SPLASH, BLAAAAAAH, SPLASH, cough-cough."
Caroline: "Ugh!  That's vomitting!"
Me: "Ah dammit, I think so..."
Right Outside: "cough-cough-cough, B-BLAAAAAAH, SPLASH, cough-cough."
Caroline: "Aaaah!  Come on!"
Me: "When does it end?!"
Right Outside: "BLAAAAAH, SPLASH!"

This recent disruption of a pleasant spring evening with the close up sounds of vomit hitting the pavement got me thinking that there is a lot of pukin' going on in this country.  Then I thought about how there is a lot of drinkin' going on in this country.  Then I thought about how I do a lot of drinkin' in this country.  Then I thought I better write a blog post about it.

I've heard South Korea called the Ireland of Asia several times and for several reasons.  Geographically they are similar in size, surrounded by water, and split north and south.  Historically they have been picked on by powerful neighbors, aka England and Japan.  They also share a fondness for the drink.  When I lived in China, good bars to just sit and drink were few and far between.  Most Chinese drink in restaurants, karaoke buildings, or loud dance clubs.  However, South Korea has a plethora of pub, lounge, and dive bars to drink at.  There are probably over a hundred of these kind of bars with in a mile radius of my apartment.  (I live in a central location so that probably helps too.)  So first there are endless sources of alcohol from bars to stores and none of them really have a closing time.

Second, it's cheap.  The best bang for you buck is soju.  For just over $1.00 you can get a little bottle of this stuff.  It sort of tastes like a weak vodka and it's about 20% alcohol.  Koreans drink it on a fairly regular basis.  When out to dinner, they pour it for each other into small glasses.  If a drink is poured for you then you must drink it and then return the favor by pouring soju back in to your drinking buddy's glass.  This can happen as much as a couple dozen times in one night.  If you refuse the offer then you can lose a lot of respect and you can expect confused/angry glares in your future.  If you are a recovering alcoholic then I wouldn't recommend teaching in Korea.  If you're a budding alcoholic then teaching in Korea is a perfect fit.  Oh I joke, but seriously.
I suddenly crave soju.

Then there's the beer.  If you want to drink with out paying for imports then the selection is terrible.  Korea's so called national beers go from horrible to less horrible.  The big three are Cass, Hite, and OB Blue.  Of course this doesn't stop anyone from buying it.  You can get a 1.6 liter bottle for less than $5.00.  OB Blue is often my choice because I have rated it least horrible.  This country has a serious high quality beer market that is completely untapped (pun intended).  There's no telling what damage a Korean wheat beer or pale ale could do here.  Millions to be made!  I need investors!
The Usual Suspects

The Power of Beer!

Not only is alcohol cheap and readily available, but it is an intricate part of social interactions.  The before mentioned "pour for pour" technique is practiced mostly at business or co-worker meetings that take place right after work.  These meetings usually end with everyone getting a heavy buzz and going to a karaoke bar.  I've been lucky and have only been made to sing one Beatles song.  Other native English teachers have not been so lucky.  Furthermore, I can't tell you how many times I've walked down the street and seen middle aged men in suits stumbling around and hanging all over each other.  I also see 1-5 puddles of puke on my way to school everyday.  About ever other week I encounter a public urinal with vomit sitting in the base.  There should be a market for cute little vomit bags.  Hello Kitty Puke Pouch?  Girl's Generation Gag Bag?  I swear sometimes being in Korea is like living in a college town all over again.  Here are some pictures I didn't take but they are from Korea:

 Now if South Korea were to be offended by people posting pictures on the internet of their citizens passed out in public then they would pass some laws.  Apparently they don't really care because public intoxication and public drinking are no problem here.  Honestly, I enjoy the fact that South Korea loves drinking and has very relaxed laws about it.  Now don't get the wrong idea, South Korea is not full of alcoholics.  They work more hours than any other developed country in the world.  They are constantly under pressure to be the best in their studies or at work.  They have to obey anyone who is older than them.  So when they get the opportunity to unwind then they should be able to go all out and I don't blame them.

As you can imagine the life of a native English teacher in South Korea must also involve lots of drinking.  It's true.  I made a graph of how much I have drank since college began.  I divided it up by one year segments.  My freshman and sophomore year were about normal for an underage student that can only get their kicks from kegger parties.  Then the amount sky rocketed my junior year.  This included a combination of turning 21 years old, living in a house for the first time with my best friends, and a new shiny beer pong table.  Shenanigans!  Then the amount steadily decreases as I turn senior and super senior.  Then it plummets when I graduate, move to the suburbs of Kansas City, work forty hours a week, and become boring for a year.  The amount increases a little when I move to China for a year and then shoots back up when I move to South Korea.  So now it's like I'm back in my super senior days.

Teaching English in South Korea creates a little subculture that you become a part of.  The job is not very demanding and it pays well.  There are also hundreds like you in the same city.  However, when you are working you are surrounded by people that are nothing like you.  So when working is finished then you scramble to find the other westerners with the low demand/high paying jobs and it's time to hang out.  This is time that usually involves speaking a lot of English and drinking a form of alcohol.  You really enjoy this time outside work and so you do things like the Hash House Harriers (running and drinking), dinner parties (eating and drinking), baseball games (baseball and drinking), concerts (music and drinking), and then just drinking.  This has become pretty standard for most of us.  Hey we're just indulging in some Korean culture, so party on! Or as the Koreans say, "Gambae!"
Korean Art Work

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