“How many bottles did you drink Annie?”
“Four,” replies my petite 110-pound student without hesitation.
‘Did you get drunk?”
“A little bit,” she says giggling while holding her hand in front of her round face and shaking it in a ‘so-so” fashion in the stereotypical Cutesy Suzie way young Korean women have about them.
“Do you know how many bottles of Soju I drink to get drunk?’ I ask her.
“No,” she says shaking her head and grinning.
“Four,” I disclose leaning back a bit in my chair where I am sitting behind the teacher’s desk in the small modern classroom at my “hogwan,” as language schools are known in Korea
Annie just looks at me blankly, not understanding how this relates to her.
“Do you know how much I weigh?” I ask, continuing my interrogation, the other dozen or so students in the class glancing at each other wondering why I am now suddenly talking about my weight.
Turning her head slightly while playfully frowning, her black eyes giving me the once over, she ventures an estimation, “90 kilos?”
“A little bit more, 105 kilos,” I report, everyone now a bit more interested as we are on the topic of exactly how big their overgrown American instructor is.
“How tall you are teacher?” asks Jeong, whose name means “silent and chaste.” I am sure the silent part was a miss, and from the looks of the short dress matched with the knee high brown swede boots she is wearing, I have my doubts about the chaste part as well.
“I am almost 6’3’’ I reply, then, remembering everything in Korea is in the metric system, I clarify saying, “About 187 centimeters.”
Annie smiles and nods her head at me, finding my height and weight of interest, but still having no clue at what I am driving at. Then continuing, I explain, “Annie I am twice as big as you, and four bottles of soju gets me looped. That is about the amount of alcohol in a third of a bottle of whiskey. “
“Oh,” she giggles, her hand shooting up from the desk to cover her mouth, now understanding the reason for my line of questioning. She then lets the class in on something that doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody, “My mom, she is heavy drinker.”
The topic of discussion that Monday morning in our conversation class, which started at 7 am, so the students had time to get to their offices by 9, focused on practical uses of the simple past tense. As such, I had invited them to talk about what they had done over the weekend. Annie, being a good Christian girl, had attended church the previous morning with her mother. After departing the place of worship, no doubt attired appropriately in a dress suited for Sunday morning services, and carrying a zipped up copy of her King James, she met a few friends at her local “chicken hof.” Annie then, as she often does, promptly proceeded to get shitfaced by slaming down a couple dozen shots of soju while feasting on a pile of heavily battered deep fried chicken.
Soju is the national drink of Korea. It tastes like a thin cheap vodka, runs about 40 proof, and is ubiquitous, being sold in 300ml (about 12 ounces) bottles everywhere beverages are purveyed. The many convenience stores found throughout the neighborhoods of Seoul, and other municipalities on the southern half of the Korean peninsula, both mom and pop shops, as well as 7-11s, more often than not have some sort of seating arrangement outside where you can relax and quench your thirst for the fermented potato juice post-haste.
All of this is very convenient. Never can tell when you might need that bracer to quell the shakes.
‘Does anybody know any alcoholics?” I ask the class.
“Korea not have alcoholics,” I am informed by Minjun, a blearily -eyed young man in the class who was looking a little rough from the weekend.
“What did you do last night?” I ask the sharply dressed, 20- something banker with a spikey hairdo, who had only the previous class informed me that there were no homosexuals in South Korea. It never ceased to amaze me while I was living there how the vast majority of Koreans believe the moon landings were faked, yet deny the existence of homosexuality and alcoholism in their country. The former assertion nonsense and the latter is absurdly ludicrous.
Ignoring the goal of using the simple past Minjun informs me, “Watch football with my friends.”
“Watched,” I correct him, knowing damn well he will never bother to use the tense he has studied for well over 20 years.
“Did you guys drink soju?” I ask Minjun, raising my eyebrows, daring him not to come clean.
“No we drink beer, he admits, chuckling and swiping at his face with a pained grin, the mere mention of alcohol at that time of day causing him a flash of nausea.
Maybe it is that Koreans just don’t get the concept of “a functioning alcoholic,” of which I assure you are found in no short supply in “The Land of the Morning Calm.” Without fail, when the sun begins to illuminate the modern mega metropolis of Seoul as it rises from the waters of East China Sea, you can see multitudes of drunks laid out right where they took their final inebriated step the night before, having failed in their attempt to make it home. Chances are they were just too fucked up for any taxi driver to risk dealing with them, the drivers fearing, with reason, they might well vomit all over the back seat of the cab. As such, they merrymakers had no choice but to lay down and pass out where they found themselves just before they lost consciousness. Of course, this carnage is seasonal, and on cold winter nights when dying of exposure is a risk, I am sure there are drunk wagons run by the cops or some other municipal entity which clear the streets, but weather permitting, this is the scene.
You might argue that the streets of New York and other cities are littered with homeless people, hopeless strung out on drugs or booze as well. Sure, we no doubt have that problem as well in America, but how many of them are businessmen in Gucci suits, or well-dressed young women who obviously never made it home from the office the previous evening?
In the conversation classes I taught in my language school in Seoul, the textbook was structured around Korean culture so as to give the students an opportunity to discuss topics with which they were intimately familiar. One chapter I remember well was entitled ‘Bottoms Up.” There was always a list of discussion questions at the end of each unit, and I remember one question being, “How many times have you passed out in the street?” Well, I posed that question to one of my classes. The students all looked around at each other, smiled and everyone raised a hand.
Korea has a long distinguished culture of drinking, and if a bona fide stigma is not attached to being a teetotaler, it is at the least a very unusual behavior.
In the workplace in Korea, the boss is king. Whatever he says you do, or you find yourself another job, simple as that. If the big man is an avid drinker, which the overwhelming odds are that he is, you could find yourself in a good situation, depending on the frequency of the availability of his drinking buddies to hook up him at their favorite watering hole. If it is a simple case that his friends are too busy to meet him as often as he would like to tie one on, you might be drinking for free a couple nights a week as he drafts all the people in the office to go out after work to keep him company. The rules are clear; you can’t say no to the invitation, and the boss pays.
This is all fine and well if he is a decent guy, but if he is an ass who doesn’t have drinking buddies of his own, it keeps you from going and being with your own group of drunks, the free drinks becoming a poor consolation for having to put up with the jerk for an extra 4 or 5 hours after work a couple nights a week.
In addition, if you want to drink moderately, and the boss doesn’t go for that kind of thing, you may well find yourself being forced into a situation of having to drink until you are plastered whether you want to or not. In fact, I had a number of students who were moderate drinkers, mostly women, that freely admitted that they were signed up for the evening English classes, paid for by the company, just to escape an overbearing boss who insisted that they go drinking and routinely forced them to imbibe to the point of inebriation.
I used to love on weekend nights just to go to the 7-11, buy a few beers and a soju and take a seat at one of the tables that would be set up outside, effectively turning the storefront into a cheap sidewalk café. Getting my own buzz on, I would just sit back and watch the 1000’s of people who would be wandering around my neighborhood in Sinchon near the former heart of the city, before Seoul’s growth exploded on the other side of the Han river which cuts through the center of the megalopolis. By 10 p.m. most pedestrians were starting to weave. By midnight half the people on the streets were stubbing, and many were being carried along by friends who were still coherent and had enough ambulatory facilities to both walk themselves and help their companions who were going down fast. I would watch with amusement as taxi drivers, not wanting to get stuck on clean-up duty, would screen potential customers.
Thinking of the all the hangovers that would be endured the following a.m., I would reflect on how total inappropriate the country’s slogan, “The Land of the Morning Calm” is.
How about “The Land of the Morning Shakes and Jangled Nerves,” I always thought sounded a little more apropos.