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