Today, I got up at 4pm. And by “got up”, I mean that I got out of bed, walked the short distance to the shop for more water, and got back into bed again. It’s my own fault for not really paying much attention to the stories I’d heard about Koreans being “hardcore drinkers”. I should have known what I was getting into.
After school yesterday, my boss and colleagues threw me a little birthday party – which was somewhat surprising, as my birthday was a month ago. But they were horrified that I hadn’t mentioned it, as they see it as their responsibility to make me feel at home. My birthday wouldn’t go uncelebrated at home, so… party time!
They sang Happy Birthday and gave me gifts, and we had takeaway pizza and chicken at the school after work, and some beers. Then, before I knew what was happening, we were all piling into cars and heading into town for “a few drinks”.
What do you want to eat? asked one of the Korean teachers, as she and the others studied the menu in the first bar, translating for us where they could. Clare and I looked at each other, wondering if we’d dreamt the whole pizza and chicken thing. Erm, we’re not really hungry, I said politely. We just want to drink, said Clare, more bluntly.
Jennifer shook her head firmly. You are in Korea, she said. We do not drink without many banchan! And hey presto, the table was suddenly laden with food. And it kept being replenished. The same thing happened in the next bar. We snacked on everything from jellyfish to creamed corn. And the drinks kept flowing.
The dangerous thing about going out drinking in Korea is the strict drinking etiquette, which results in you drinking rather a lot more than you normally would. It is considered rude to pour your own drink. Instead, someone will refill your glass as soon as it’s empty, and you’re expected to do the same as soon as you spot an empty glass. And when you’re drinking soju, it’s a shot-drinking ritual, where you don’t just sip it at your own pace. Or rather, you can, but you never know when someone is going to suddenly raise their glass in another toast, and it’s down the hatch for everyone – and glasses will always be topped up for this, so you generally find yourself drinking even more if you just sip slowly than you would if you stuck to downing each shot in one.
It’s all very complicated, especially after dear knows how many bottles of soju, because you’ve also got to remember that it’s a sign of respect here to use both hands when receiving anything – including having your glass refilled. We foreigners were very careful to remember to hold out our glasses with both hands at the beginning of the night, but after about 5 solid hours of soju we lapsed back into just pushing the glass towards the pourer, or holding it with one hand. Fortunately our colleagues are all very nice, and just politely reminded us each time rather than, I dunno, challenging us to a duel or something.
A fun night was had, involving several different bars (and food at each one!), then a norebang (more on norebangs another time! For now, let’s just say “karaoke” and leave it at that), and then – do not ask me how or why – a nightclub followed by another soju bar when we left the club sometime after three. These people are serious party animals. I woke up this afternoon wearing all my clothes and a neon wristband, and clutching the phone number of a decidedly sexy Korean guy I (mostly) danced with the whole time we were at the club. Do you hear that? I was at a club! Me! I haven’t been clubbing since I was about 19, when I hated it. Soju seems to give me a different perspective. And not only that, but I was enjoying fun interludes with a good-looking local boy! I say boy, because he was, erm, 24.
It was the first time I ever lied about my age to get a man. I feel like I have entered a new stage in my life. And I am most definitely too old for this sort of thing…