Korea: A culture of drink

I like South Korea. I truly do. Some things about this country still make me shake my head after 18 months of living here.

Saturday I opted to go for a walkabout around Dongducheon. I intended to mail some things home to family and friends but the Post Office was closed, I had hoped it would be open on the weekend but I was wrong, and I couldn’t find an opening and closing times posted on the door. Oh well, of the trinkets intended to be mailed home only my niece might notice if her birthday gift is a few days late. Since she just enjoyed an early tea party I think I’ll be forgiven. Eventually.

With my backpack brimming with gifts I planned on having shipped already I decided that a coffee was in order. My cafe of choice is called 7 gram but I don’t really go there for the coffee or food or the staff, it happens to be in middle of one a lively section of Jihaeng and permits me to indulge in people watching. Watching Koreans interact socially is a sport in and of itself.

Another thing about South Korea that still fascinates me is how buildings are multi-purpose. One eight story building might have four restaurants, three norae bangs, a coffee shop, a couple of hofs (bars) a PC bang (room) and DVD band (also a room – they’re fantastic by the way), plus a hagwon, a kid’s clothing store, an ice cream parlour and likely a few empty storefronts. Being Canadian I’m not used to scouring a directory to find out all the merchants in a building, mix liberally with a language I’m not fluent in and a lot of my selection process stems from me standing on the sidewalk, craning my neck back and trying to pick a likely looking store to visit. Window shopping I’m used to, window shopping four floors up, not so much.

The stores vary in size but what this mix-and-match style provides are shortcuts through buildings; ones I’m happy to utilize since 7 gram is tucked behind the main street of Jihaeng. Emerging from the building, off to my left I see a 60-something 아저씨 (ajosshi – which literally means ‘uncle’ in Korean but is a catch-all term for an older man) doubled over some shrubbery puking his guts out of galbi and soju.

This is not an uncommon occurrence.

Being spastically drunk is accepted and acceptable at any time of the day or night. Last year I walked to my 학원 (hagwon – private school) at 9:30am and became accustomed to seeing men sitting around the Family Mart or the GS 25 (convenience stores like 7-11) sharing bottles of soju or 1.5 liter bottles of Cass or Hite or Max.  Seeing a different set of men occupying the same tables on my way home from work 6 – 8 hours later was even more commonplace.

Of course, it is only 2:45PM on a Saturday so it seems like this guy found his cups early in the day. I’d later learn that there was a playoff baseball game between the Samsung Lions and the Doosan Bears which I’m sure contributed to early start times on soju across the nation.

Still, I didn’t break my stride and bought myself a rather disappointing caramel cafe mocha from 7 gram. It was somehow bland. Caramel. Coffee. Chocolate. How did this manage to be a steamy cup of ‘meh?‘ I don’t know, but luckily the street show wasn’t over.

Around Soju Joe gathered seven other equally inebriated ajosshis. Ok. Cool. This should be good.

And it was.

For the next 30 minutes the men swirled about each other, one clearly designated the whipping boy and another the bully with the other five alternating between keeping the two apart, berating them and tending after Soju Joe. I watched the bully cuff the whipping boy about the head four times and kick him in the belly, before whipping boy popped back with a solid punch to the shoulder of the bully. The bully towered over whipping boy by at least a half foot. Then they were separated, I never saw whipping boy’s lips move but somehow he kept getting the ire up of the bully and they kept circling together like a pair of magnets, only to be forcibly dragged apart by the other five.

Occasionally the five’s diligence waned and then the bully and the whipping boy would come together again with more jostling and threatening. Some of the five would peel themselves away from Soju Joe and pull the two apart, using calm, solid, drunken logic as why they were friends and shouldn’t fighting.

When they weren’t inadvertently stumbling into each other or sprawling on the pavement.

High low-comedy indeed. I wasn’t the only voyeur as many Koreans stopped to enjoy the impromptu show.

Know what struck me as most entertaining of the whole thing? Up drove one of South Korea’s roving trucks hawking some sort of food or other. This one was selling fish. Just picture a pick-up truck or light flatbed with ‘something’ for sale. Add a looped, garbled sound track announcing the wares and there you go. Think of it a bit like a mobile garage sale with specific items.

This brought the confrontation and the concern for Soju Joe to a halt because the other five realized food might be a very good thing. Even raw seafood. I hope they found somewhere to cook their food. I’m sure they did, as Korea does not lack for grills and barbeques.

Then, to prove that men the world over are the same and a simple lot, before they drifted off to find someplace and someone to cook up their fresh, live seafood; the bully and the whipping boy hugged and walked off together, leaning against each other in a show of support and to keep each other upright.

What’s a few slaps and kicks between friends? Nothing that live crab or fresh eel can’t solve!

Friends again.


I’d planned to make some statement about how pervasive and insidious the drinking culture is in South Korea… and it is… but you know what, I think I like the story about the bully and the whipping boy better as a tale about friends fighting and forgetting better.

건배 (gonbae – which is ‘cheers’ in Korean.)


7 thoughts on “Korea: A culture of drink

  1. I’m glad you enjoy them, I realized I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t capture a lot of the small moments while I was here. I should have been doing this years ago, at least 18 months ago. That way a lot of the culture shockings from my adjustment period in South Korea would be documented. I’m looking forward to my folks visiting (if they do) because seeing it through their eyes might help refresh my memories.

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