It has just occurred to me that soju really is, as a Korean friend proudly informed me, “the cheapest strong drink in all the world”.
Drinking is a big part of Korean culture. In some contexts, this is a fine thing. What could be nicer than spending Friday night grazing at a constant supply of Korean food as you laugh and talk with friends, merrily raising your glass in a toast every couple of seconds, before heading to a noraebang to sing your little hearts out? I really love the laid-back, sit-on-the-floor, relaxed and intimate feel that the restaurants here have, with families and groups of friends eating from the same central, still cooking, food dish. I love how people go out for drinks after dinner and cheerfully order enough food to instantly cover the table with plates and dishes again. I love the drinking ritual of refilling each others’ glasses, always careful to use both hands, and joining in with the glass-clinking and compulsory gulps of soju every time the oldest person at the table takes a drink.
On the other hand, alcoholism is rife in Korea, and I can’t help but wonder when some men see their families. As I’ve mentioned before, the work ethic in this country is incredibly strong. People get up practically in the middle of the night to go to work, perhaps not leaving until what most of us would consider bedtime. After work, they go to a bar and drink, presumably to give themselves some pleasure, relaxation, comfort, or whatever else it is that such a work-centered existence lacks. They drink until they can drink no more, but they are not rowdy drunks. They simply find a quiet place, like a doorway or a step, and sit there quietly with their heads in their hands. It’s almost dignified. I can’t help but wonder about their lives when I pass them in the street. Don’t they have friends good enough to put them in a taxi home? Wouldn’t they rather go home to whoever’s waiting for them than get drunk in the precious hours they have free from work? Don’t they have anyone? Or are things at home that bad? And won’t work be even worse in the morning with the hangover they’re going to have?!
Two very different sides to Korea’s drink-infused culture. Which is why I am both delighted and horrified to discover that bottle of soju is cheaper than a carton of milk. In Korea, shops don’t need to have an alcohol licence, so you can pick up your beer or soju when you’re buying your newspaper or your loaf of bread. The alcohol is right there in any convenience store fridge, often just beside the milk or the bottled water! Soju takes up the most shelf space by far, with several brands available in even the smallest corner shop. It comes in infamous and instantly recognisable green glass bottles, and the alcohol content is generally anywhere between 20%-40%.
You’ll get through dozens of these as a group on a night out, but I’ve found that two bottles (shared with my dining companion!) is my limit on a work night when out for a meal, unless I want to go into work with a raging hangover. Which I don’t. So that’s one bottle to myself – more than enough to render me what my Granda would call “tiddly” and what I would call “slightly tipsy” or “very happy!”.
I never really paid attention to the cost, since it’s always in with the food on the bill. But I happened to glance at it in the shop after my friend’s remark about how cheap it is, and I’ve realised that it’s only around 1,000 won per bottle. That’s about 50p, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, in Korea, you can drink watered-down vodka by the bottle for 50p a time… is it any wonder it’s such a big part of the culture?!