Korean drinking culture is a pretty big part of life here.
Whether it’s a group of friends just relaxing over a couple of pints and a leisurely meal, or a group of business men getting fall-down-drunk on soju after finishing work sometime around midnight, the bars here are never empty. Major business deals are hammered out during lengthy drinking sessions. Work colleagues are expected to bond with each other over a shared meal and copious volumes of soju on a regular basis – my first experience of this had me in bed for the rest of the weekend, vowing never to drink that horrible, horrible stuff again. It hits you a bit hard when you’re not used to it, but nowadays I can keep up with my Korean colleagues without sliding underneath the table in a pathetic heap. I actually really like the taste now, despite hating it at the start!
Korean bars vary a lot in terms of decor and style, but for the most part, they have a fairly Western-looking layout, sometimes open-plan filled with tables, and sometimes lots of private booths or even little rooms with sliding doors. Most of them insist that you buy food while you’re there – not doing so is decidedly un-Korean, as my boss informed me on my first work night out. We drink, we eat, she said firmly. Even if you’ve just come from dinner, you’ll find yourself sitting down to a shared platter of chicken wings or mixed meat. A basket of Korean dried rice snacks will usually be brought to your table for free when you first sit down.
You don’t buy your drinks in rounds at the bar. Instead, you decide what you want to drink (and eat), and press the bell on your table. It rings out with the familiar doorbell-like “ding-dong” that I’m so used to hearing now on a night out, and a uniformed server will be at your table in a few seconds. The best part of this, in my opinion, is the way that the staff all respond when a bell rings. Every one of them shouts out “Nayyyyy!” (“yes” – and yes, it did take quite a long time to get used to “nay” being “yes”!), just so you know they’re dropping everything to come running to you. It’s very sweet. Anyway, you tell them what you need, and they write it down on the list on your table, which is added to every time you order more food or drinks. When you want to go, you take the page up to the till and pay the total.
One other notable thing about Korean bars is that everyone will be drinking soju along with their pitchers of beer. I love the etiquette surrounding this, which I’ve already explained in another post, and I love how we try to follow it as closely as we can even if there are no Koreans present. It all feels very respectful and polite. And then, after a few shots and all the pouring, refilling, hands on elbows rigmarole, there’s a game that’s usually played. When you unscrew the lid of a bottle of soju and break the seal, it leaves a long “tail” of metal sticking out. The lid is passed around the table from person to person, and you each take turns at trying to flick the strip of metal off the lid.
The person who succeeds (and either takes someone’s eye out with the flying piece of metal, or has to apologise to a group of strangers across the room when it lands in one of their drinks) holds on to the lid while the people on either side of them have to drink a shot of soju.
Then the flicker looks inside the lid, where a number is printed. The others then have to take turns at guessing the number. So let’s say person one says five, and the lid holder says “no, higher”. Person two must then guess higher than five; let’s say they say forty. If the lid holder says “lower”, then the next person must guess a number between five and forty. If it’s “higher”… you get the idea. We do this part in Korean, to practice our numbers. The catch here is that you really don’t want to be the one to guess the correct number, because you’re the one who has to down a drink this time!
And that’s a glimpse into a night out in a Korean bar, which is how I spent Saturday evening, lazing around in the most fabulously cold air conditioning and watching the Germany game with some friends, a few pitchers of beer, some soju, and a lot of “nayyyyyy!”s. Life is good. :)