“To alcohol! The cause of…and solution to…all life’s problems”
Korea’s affinity for alcohol is something beyond the western norm. As in most countries, a shared drink can help cement a friendship, represent an entry into adulthood, or simply change getting laid from a stochastic process to a deterministic one. I think Korea somewhat unique, however, in that most of its women can drink western men under the table.
Alcohol is cheap and plentiful in the country. A bottle of soju, essentially sweet potato vodka, is around $2USD per bottle, and even in a nice bar 500cc’s of draft domestic will be under $3USD. Being aware of this rendered paying $6USD for a bottle of beer in a U.S. bar especially difficult. Cheap grain alcohol doesn’t seem to be plentiful in the country; I assume that’s because college students can afford to get chocolate wasted on something that doesn’t double as a disinfectant.
Towards the end of my first year in Seoul I was invited to a party for a girl who was leaving to go study in America. The party, however, was not one held with her school friends. Rather, the partygoers consisted of her parents and family friends, a large number of who fit squarely into the rank of “ajosshi (아저씨, or middle aged man),” and the rest of who fit squarely into the rank of “ajumma (아줌마, or middle aged woman).” Within a few minutes of dinner’s commencement the beer bottles were passed around. Deciding that beer alone was insufficient, the ajosshis called for the addition of soju. Koreans call this concoction “Bomb alcohol,” and we westerners call it a “boilermaker.” Regardless of name, the general consensus seems to be that it is the cause of much morning-after hangover irritability.
Despite being sizeable and of hearty southern American stock, at eighteen I was still learning how to hold my liquor. I knew this, and I think some of the ajosshi sensed this, but, as we were in Korea, there was quite clearly one acceptable outcome to this evening: inebriation. They toasted various things, from the daughter’s collegiate success to the waiter, until the only thing left to toast was the alcohol itself. At that point they began to simply repeat “one shot!” which naturally lead to a numerical value of shots far greater than initially proposed.
By seven in the evening, I was struggling to hold on. The walk to the bathroom had required a great deal of concentration on my part, and the ajumma had begun to look at me with sad eyes, saying “It’s okay! You don’t have to drink anymore.” The ajosshi smiled in agreement, but only to please to their wives. Later, driving to a karaoke room where the celebration and drinking would continue, one of the ajosshi turned to me and said:
“When you come to a frontier, you must cross the frontier…or else…you are an idiot (“어떤 경계를 다가오면은, 당연히 경계를 지나가야 돼….아니면…바보야”)”
“Yes,” I agreed. It certainly would be stupid to not a cross a frontier to which one had traveled.
“In the restaurant,” he continued, “you crossed the frontier and kept drinking! We told you that you didn’t have to drink, but you needed to! You crossed the frontier, so that’s good! (“아까 식당에서, 경계를 지나가고 술을 계속 마셨어! 우린 술을 안 마셔도 된다고 그랬는데, 해야 된 거 아닌가? 경계를 지나가서 좋지”)”
“Thanks…” I responded.
A more frequent drinking companion is a man who, due to his advanced age, I simply call “halaboji (할아버지, grandfather).” “Halaboji,” at a spry eighty years old, is a veteran of the Korean War, as is clearly written on his I.D. card, and is convinced that everyone left of George Bush is communist. He lives in a spacious house in the middle of one of the entertainment districts of Seoul, which surprisingly suits him just fine. I don’t think he knows any martial arts, but in effort to add to my image of him as a sagacious old man of the far east, I like to pretend that he does.
There are certain rules to which you must adhere when drinking with Halaboji. Because he is so much older than I am, when he pours me a glass of liquor I’m supposed to place my left hand underneath my right wrist, while avoiding eye contact. After he has poured my glass, I must do the same for him, still avoiding eye contact and again placing my left hand underneath my right wrist. Finally, while drinking, I have to turn to the side so as to avoid looking at him. This isn’t merely a cute tradition to which nobody adheres…his own relatives refuse to look him in the eye while imbibing.
One spring I had the good fortune to accompany Halaboji and his daughter on a trip to Jeju Island, “Korea’s Hawaii.” My friends had told me a bit about the island before my departure. It is a “Samgakdo (삼각도),” or an island that has three things: “wind, stones, and women.” During the drive to the airport I told Halaboji that I had heard this. He responded, “Are you planning to make love to one of the girls there? Maybe ten years from now a little boy in Jeju will walk around saying, ‘have you seen my daddy, Dolsey? Where is Dolsaey? Haha (왜, 넌 여기 아가씨랑 연애 한 번 해볼래? 아마 십년후에 어떤 애는 제주도를 돌아다니면서 주변에 계시는 분들에게 ‘저희 아버님 돌쇠를 혹시 봤습니까?’라고 물러볼지도 몰라…하하 “돌쇠는 어디야!’”)”
On several occasions I found myself resenting the loud drinking culture of Korea. My second residence in the country was a boarding house on top of a bar known as the “Road House (which, for some reason always brought to mind the image of a less than reputable truck stop)” in Sinchon. It was a relatively quiet bar compared to the surrounding ones, but occasionally a group of drunken college girls would fail to recognize that while their boyfriends did not currently require hearing aids, they were likely to need them in the near future. More than once I went out at night in my boxers to yell at a group of kids who failed to show proper respect to the unfortunate residents of the district.
But in sum Korean drinking culture has enriched my life, particularly in the bar I frequented as a university student, where drinking games aren’t allowed. It’s hard for the American barkeep to ascertain, after all, if three Asians and a white guy yelling in Korean and waving chopsticks constitutes a drinking game, or simply a cultural difference.