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First hour of our regular Korean studies class. Only instead of textbooks, we partayed with samgyupsal, soju, and beer

If I could choose a favorite among all Korean customs I have experienced so far, it’s alcohol cray timez with professors and classmates. AKF has a love for drinking*, and wouldn’t even dare think about skipping the opportunity for free booze (kidding); but most importantly, what better way is there to score good grades than to manipulate your instructor into favoring you while inebriated? (Again, kidding.) All jokes aside, there aren’t many chances for students to connect with a respectable authority figure on a one-on-one, off-the-record basis, so being able to participate in an experience like this really isn’t something to miss. Furthermore, engaging with formal superiors on somewhat informal terms, is considered a taboo in Western cultures (if not outright illegal), even if intentions are purely platonic. So for those of you hoping to study here sometime in the future, I highly recommend you go for it if the chance ever passes your way; but not before reading this post (any post in general about Korean drinking culture). Because I’ll let you know right now, a night out on the town in Seoul, especially, is no joke. (I’m being serious, especially for those who aren’t used to drinking or tend to be uncomfortable in such situations.)

*RESPONSIBLY,guise. Being wasted is never an excuse for any sort of recklessness or stupidity.

Before diving into the actual experience, let’s talk about the drinking culture in general. To be frank, it’s insane. It’s a huge and integral part of socializing among peers, co-workers, family, and, in this case, between those of different social statuses. In my opinion, when you’re out, there virtually isn’t such a thing as ‘bonding time’ without opening up a few cans of beer. It may be so that Koreans enjoy drinking (cuz I doubt many will deny it ㅋㅋ*), but it’s also due to the perceived importance of fostering close, familial bonds within groups and circles.

*That was me half-joking, because by that I purely mean that drinking is a big part of social life in Korea, period. In no way am I’m implying that Koreans are “alcoholics” or “drunkards”. Regardless of a relatively open drinking culture and tolerance towards public drinking, alcohol dependency is not as common as one may think, nor is it acceptable.

Emphasis on intra-group networking and communication goes way back to (Neo-) Confucian Korea, when five certain ‘codes of conduct’ that served as guidelines for basic human relationships were literally educated and instilled [1]:

  1. Loyalty between king and subject (군신유의/ gunshinyuwi)
  2. Closeness between father and son (부자유친/ bujayuchin)
  3. Distinction between husband and wife (부부유별/ bupuyubyol)
  4. Order between elders and youngers (장유유서/ jangyuyuseo)
  5. Trust between friends (붕우유신/ bunguyushin)

No longer are these taught in today’s schools, but it is arguable that it is deeply engrained in the Korean psyche. They have resonated in the minds of many and lay the foundation of Korean collectivism. The roots of Korea’s strong sense of nation and people are too complex to merely summarize, but if I could name a historical factor, it definitely has something to do with threats of instability that have emerged way too many times throughout Korean history, posed either by foreign invasions or domestic upheavals [1]. Today, there is an unconscious but powerful sense of what is called “우리” (uri), or, for the lack of a better word in English, “we-ness” or “our-ness”, but that in which social hierarchy - the modern leftovers of the Confucian codes of conduct - is still maintained. (You’ll be able to see how this works in a bit.) 

In addition, not only are relations and community in themselves important, but also the ways they are nurtured and sustained. Business groups and university communities in particular are known to host a lot of group activities and events (such as company dinners or what they call “MTs” - overnight or weekend student retreats during which you… drink) in order to encourage unity and cohesiveness within their networks. And I guess, if you agree that drinking and dining is indeed a very social and communal engagement, alcohol’s probably one of the best ways to go about achieving it. 

RELATED POST: MORE ON KOREA’S DRINKING CULTURE + STATISTICS → 

Now on to the fun part. To date, I’ve been on several dinner-with-drinks outings with instructors (the most recent one being just yesterday, actually). Here are some of my observations:

  1. There’s always food involved. Rarely do Koreans drink without eating, whether it be something light like 전 (jeonKorean pancakes) and fried chicken, or a full-course meal like 삼겹살 (samgyupsa l BBQ pork belly) with 반찬 (banchan /various side dishes)
  2. Hopping from one place to another is common. Maybe you’ll start out in a traditional restaurant at the beginning of the night and eventually move to another (or several) locations for drinks. If you’re a foreigner, it’s likely that you’ll be taken to places that are known for traditional specialties. 
  3. With that said, more often than not, you will drink either one of, two of, or all of the following: soju, 맥주 (maekju / beer), and/or 막걸리 (maekgolli / traditional Korean rice wine).
  4. The instructor pays. It’s her/his treat, and it’s unquestionable, no matter how many times you may protest. To explain this, here’s a joke one of my professors made (that consisted a grain of truth): “No matter what, I pay because I make money, and you don’t. And when you start making money, I still pay because I probably make more money than you.” 
  5. You. Will. Drink. There’s no (polite) way around it. It’s inevitable. Which is why it’s important to mentally (and physically) prepare yourself; and though it’s possible to cut the night short before all hell breaks loose and leave before everyone else, it’s typically not encouraged. 
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Jeon and maekgolli! Note that you drink maekgolli out of tin bowls, poured from a kettle (not pictured); and it’s usually served cold. 

In terms of group networking, there definitely was a lot of bonding going on (between classmates, and between students and the professor), but not without having kept a few basic rules in mind. This is absolutely regardless of how much fun you’re having or how relaxed and comfortable you are around your professor, or how chill she/he may seem. It’s a fitting illustration of how social hierarchy is still being intrinsically preserved and how this is accepted as an obligation, regardless of the context or the temperament of the superior. For local Korean students, it’s almost second-nature to be aware of what to do and what not to do when around superiors. (And for foreign students like myself, it may take a while before you get the hang of it):

  1. Never say no when the professor offers you a drink. Even if she/he doesn’t demand and simply asks, it’s considered rude to reject it. (This also applies for the first round of drinks, assuming it doesn’t matter whether or not a superior is present. Eat Your Kimchi says that sitting out makes you look anti-sociable and will dampen the atmosphere.)
  2. When the professor pours you a drink, 1) bring your cup close to her/him instead of having her/him reach for you; 2) either hold the cup with two hands or with one hand and the other held against across your chest, which is something guys typically do (I tried it and it looked and felt weird). Girls would hold it with both hands, or with one and support the bottom of the cup with the other); 3) something interesting I noticed is that many students bow their head slightly when they do so.
  3. When you do ‘cheers’ with your professor, turn away from her/him when you drink. Another gesture of respect. You’re totally allowed to drink at your own pace too - you don’t always have to wait until a group round. Again, when you do, just make sure you turn away from your instructor.
  4. Never refill your own cup, nor should you ever let the professor refill their own. When you notice your professor’s glass running empty, immediately offer a refill (if someone hasn’t done so already). (And see #2). If you’re done with your drink, do not refill. Wait until the professor, or someone else, offers to pour you another cup. 
  5. If your professor is a smoker, they may take the liberty and smoke in front of you. However, that does not mean you’re allowed to smoke. Unless she/he offers. Which rarely happens. (Funny story - last night our professor passed a cigarette to every student in the group and was like “GO SMOKE.” Those who weren’t smokers silently slipped their sticks to those who were. And those who did smoke were probably the happiest drunks in the entire city that night.) If you’re one yourself and you’re dying for a puff, you probably should excuse yourself from the table and ‘make it seem’ like you’re going to the bathroom or something. Quite easy to do it in big group settings. Not so easy when there’s only two or three of you. 

That’s all I can think of right now, but none the less, I know. Do keep in mind that it does depend on who the professor is and whatnot, but these are the conventions at its basics. As foreigners, though, to be frank we’re relatively less obligated to such rigid compliance; and if you screw up, chances are you’ll be let off the hook. None the less, it’s always good to try your best not to and to try engaging yourself in these conventions; and, well, if all else fails, to be as polite as you possibly can. It also depends on how accustomed to Korean culture you are (or are expected to be). If it’s your fourth or fifth time around, a certain degree of Korean etiquette may be implicitly demanded. 

There are always exceptions though, and given the case I’m sure you’ll be understood. I know of people here who are, for instance, strict vegetarians or who don’t drink for health or religious reasons, and those values were respected. It would never be used against you, nor would it be treated as a reason not to participate in group events. 

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I  think I mentioned before that public drinking is legal in Korea. It’s really common to drink out in the streets, especially if you’re looking for a super cheap night out. Run to the nearest mini-mart, which would sell beer and soju for 1,000KRW (a bit less than 1USD) at the cheapest, buy some munchies and snag some corner on the sidewalk. This also means public drunkenness is common, so be wary of that! 

None the less, for those of you who are traumatized particularly about getting trapped into a never-ending cycle of soju shots and beer chugging, here are some personal tips:

  • Pace yourself. When you don’t have to drink (in between ‘cheers’ and offers from the professor), don’t drink. When you do have to drink, drink slowly
  • Keep hydrating yourself. No, not with more alcohol, but with water. The more water you drink, the more you’ll have to go to the bathroom, which means you’ll be constantly flushing out the alcohol from your system, even as you continue to drink. 
  • Make sure you’ve eaten properly throughout the day. If you’re going out for dinner, it’s always wise to have had a good lunch. Drinking on an empty stomach multiplies the possibility of you getting wasted about eleven gazillion times more, even if you’re eating with alcohol. 
  • If you feel yourself getting drunk and you’ve failed multiple times at escaping rounds of drinks and chugging contests, it’s okay to excuse yourself from the table. Make a short trip to the bathroom, splash yourself with some water and allow yourself a few minutes to sober up; if you need to throw up, throw up (IN THE TOILET, IF YOU CAN HELP IT!); or go outside for a breath of fresh air. Or - and this always works - pretend you need to make a phone call. 
  • Overall, always be alert of your state. Keep checking yourself so that you prevent getting wasted rather than having to fix yourself up when you do.
  • If you’re super new to drinking, I suggest going out a few times with close friends before going out with superiors and classmates you may not be tight with. This is so you familiarize yourself with drinking and how your body works when under the influence. It’s always a good idea to understand your limit and what pace you ought to stick to. We’re all different in terms of how our bodies handle alcohol. The more you’re aware of your own case, the more you can prevent. 

My final advice would be to have fun, go all out, but stay safe and be responsible. Not only is the line between both very thin, you also have to keep in mind the fact that you are a visitor in a foreign country; and that just because you are a foreigner people will cut you some slack. (I’m just saying this because I’ve met people here who have this inappropriate mindset.) Public drinking is permitted, but that does not justify public unruliness. If you can, be with friends you can trust will take care of you. You need to be prepared, mentally, physically, and ideally, financially as well*. Besides, the worse only happens when it does - not every night out in Seoul will end up in total disaster and regret and humiliation. And if it does, just remember: ~*with every experience comes a valuable lesson that will only make you a better person in the EnD*~

*Because taxis past midnight, especially when you live across town, can get pricey. They’re also capable of rigging the meter if they see that you a) are a foreigner and/or don’t speak Korean, and b) are completely and utterly gone. 

In all seriousness though, I hope I didn’t freak some of you from ever considering drinking in Korea. Trust me, all bad things aside, if there’s one place in the entire world where you ought to pop bottles, it’s here.

(Here’s some finger lickin’ “chi-maek” if you still feel nauseous (no pun intended). This is seriously da bomb - you cannot not eat this when you’re in Korea.)

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"Chi-maek" = fried chicken + maekju! Fried chicken comes in all kinds of flavors: chilli/spicy, garlic, or good ol’ fashion crispy crunch. IDK why but for some reason fried chicken in Korea tastes way better than in other places. 

MORE “AKF IN KOREA” →

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SOURCES:

[1] Kim, Suk-Hyon. “Korean Cultural Codes and Communication.” International Area Studies Review. 2003. 6:93. (http://ias.sagepub.com/content/6/1/93)

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    (saving in case i ever get to visit)
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