Saturday, 19 November 2011

Korea's Drinking Culture and Why I'm a Teetotaller

Saturday night and Sunday I spent with a group of mostly Koreans and some foreigners at a martial art excursion. This had not been my first such an outing with Koreans, so I expected there to be a lot of drinking and therefore prepared myself psychologically for it. As I am a teetotaller, I need such preparation. In general, teetotallers are a minority, but here in Korea with its extreme drinking culture teetotallers are almost non-existent.

Sometimes they start 'em young.
Image Source
If you do not drink in Korea, you are practically ostracised, for almost all social outings include alcohol. Somebody that doesn't drink with the group is considered unsociable and rude. I remember one occasion where I joined a group of Koreans and when I refused to drink I was basically told to leave by one person. Another senior Korean with whom I have close ties came to my rescue and persuaded them that I should stay since I am his “chinggu” (friend) and explained that it is part of my “religion,” which is a half-truth. However, I'm sure that had it not been for me being a foreigner I would either have needed to leave in shame because of my insult for not drinking with them, or I would have had to conform and drink with the group. I have met some “teetotaller” Koreans in Korea who would accept one drink and drink a little of it, just so that they do not come across as insulting. Some Koreans that do not wish to drink come up with stories like being sick or that they are taking medicine with which they are not allowed to use alcohol. However, even with some people showing the medicine as proof, I've witnessed the extreme pressure they receive to drink at least half a glass of soju. While foreigners can get away with not drinking, they will often experience severe pressure and may find themselves indirectly ostracised for being unsociable.

A drunk Korean passing out in public.
Not that uncommon a sight, actually.
Image Source

There are some Korean subcultures that do not drink, whom are part of so-called sectarian faiths such as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons. Because these Koreans are part of their own communities they at least have a social life. Koreans who do not belong to such religious persuasions are, as I mentioned already, ostracised and struggle to make friends. Even Koreans from these religious groups have a hard time, particularly in their work place. It is customary for colleagues to go drinking together after work, and refusing to do so, particularly if one's senior or boss suggested the drinking, is considered terribly rude, and even disrespectful. In that sense, not drinking could sometimes cost you your job.

Bottles of soju -- Korea's most famous
alcohol comparable to vodka.
Image Source
Had drinking in Korea merely been one or two beers, it would not have been that bad. Unfortunately Koreans take social drinking to the extreme. Drinking often involves drinking games and other group-pressure drinking. Hearing Koreans shout “one-shot”, i.e. gulping down your glass in one go, accompanied with the encouraging cheers, is not unusual. One's ability to “take a drink” is equated with being “strong”. I guess this is not a uniquely Korean thing, but in Korea it really seems to be a continued test and senior citizens going out with their friends do not seem to take it any lighter than when they were youngsters drinking themselves into a stupor. Seeing old Korean men ridiculously drunk is as common as seeing dead-drunk college boys.

Two older Korean friends passed out on the street
together after a night of heavy drinking. Or, at least,
that's my assumption of this picture.
Image Source

There is a small movement amongst upper class Koreans to drink wine. Since whine is so expensive, and since it is enjoyed slowly, wine drinkers tend to drink far less. Wine drinking in Korea is in many cases just for pompous show, like wearing a very expensive name brand suit, and going to art exhibits just for the pretence of appreciating art, but at least wine drinking is giving a way out to some Koreans who would like to socialise without getting completely knackered.

Soju advertisements usually involve a
sexy Korean woman, showing lots of skin
and curves, that enjoys to drink and party.
There is undeniably a sexual connection
made with drinking soju.
The thing that disturbs me the most about Korea's terrible drinking culture are the associated ethics that go with it. When Koreans misbehave while drunk, they are often excused. This is often true even when laws are broken. Here's another example of the shady morality of a drunken culture. So I once went out with a mixed group of foreigners and Koreans. One foreign girl got terribly drunk and started to behave awfully bad. She also became a danger to herself; constantly falling about and hitting her head. She refused to lie down and rest. Two Korean guys told me—and I think they are from different parts of Korea so this must be a common sentiment—that if she was a Korean girl they would just knock her out. They actually showed me the points where they would hit her. Being a martial artist I recognised the pressure points (temple; side of the neck; and somewhere else I'd rather not mention) and realised that these are indeed points to knock someone out with, so they are actually talking from experience. Did you get this? In Korea, it is common and acceptable to hit a rowdy drunk Korean woman unconscious. Eventually the foreign girl in our group did go to sleep without being knocked unconscious. The next morning she had no recollection at all of the previous night. Of course, nobody was angry with her for her misbehaviour—she was drunk after all. But the thing that disturbs me is that she could have been taken advantage of, i.e. raped, were she amongst a different group of people, and she would not have been any the wiser the next day. I'm wondering how often this sort of thing actually happens in Korea. In a culture where ridiculous amounts of alcohol consumption is socially acceptable and even socially encouraged, where drunken misbehaviour is excused, and where knocking out difficult drunk women is common (something I reconfirmed with some of my male students), taken advantage of an unconscious woman while you are drunk yourself, doesn't seem far fetched to me at all.

Luckily for this girl, Korea
is relatively safe.
Image Source

So why don't I drink alcahol? There are a couple of reasons really. The first reason I do not drink is as a statement. It is for the same reason I do not smoke. My father did. He smoked and it made him stink and I swore that I would not be like him. There was also a patch during which he drank and became aggressive. I remember clearly how my brother and I would hide (and sometimes throw away) his whiskey because of how we hated the way it changed his personality. It took him a while, but he eventually realised the negative impact his drinking had on us, so he stopped excessive drinking. I respect him for caring enough for us to choose us over the bottle. Nonetheless, the negative associations with alcohol was set, so I also swore not to be like my father, who continued to drink socially. Second, many people on my maternal side of the family are alcoholics. In particular my uncles, one of them my godfather whom I always looked up to. I saw how the drink had destroyed both their lives and their families and it disgusted me. It also came as a revelation to me that since I take after my mother's side of the family, I probably have a predisposition towards becoming an alcoholic myself. I know I have an addictive personality, so I'm not taking any chances. Later, when I became a Christian and accepted the scripture that says our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that therefore healthy living is part of our act of worship, I decided to live a healthy life style. This is in part the reason why I'm a (flexible) vegetarian, why I avoid frequent consumption of caffeine, why I exercise even though I often do not feel like it. Finally, I honestly do not like the taste of alcohol. I once tried to drink Amarula Cream, thinking that I'd at least enjoy the taste since a like fruity, creamy stuff. I do like cherry liqueur dark chocolates after all. Regardless, I had to boil the Amarula Cream for quite some time to get rid of the alcohol taste. Last year I was in a hotel by myself and there was beer in the bar fridge. Being alone I thought I'd just try it a bit--I'm far from anybody who knows me, nobody would know. I took maybe two sips and can still honestly say that I really dislike the taste. If it is indeed an acquired taste, it is a taste I'd rather not acquire.

I'm not against people temperately consuming alcohol. There are many people who seem able to enjoy it in moderation only. Although I do not, many of my friends enjoy a drink on occasion. I am, however, against drunkenness and am definitely against Korea's excessive drinking culture. I strongly believe that Korea would be much better off without this element in its society. It is complete nonsense that a person cannot have fun without alcohol, that one cannot be sociable without drinking. And if it is the case for some timid people who needs the bravado of the bottle, the severe price Korea and its families are paying because of alcohol is not worth it.

In this post I focussed on a very negative aspect of Korea, sure. There are, however, many other positive things about Korea otherwise I would not have lived here for nearly five years now. Korea is cool.

No comments: