Friday, April 14, 2006

Soju: the devil dressed in green

Adam, Heather, Maria and I

I woke up this morning with my head pouding from the simultaneous killer headache and a bad eighties tune that's been rolling around the tunnels of my subconscious since the noreabang the night before. As I was mentally searching for memories that were completely obliterated by that little green bottle of poison, I stepped out of bed and noticed a couple bruises, inevitably from my self-acknowledged clumsiness combined with the effects of alcohol. I would like to reiterate that soju is the devil. I usually don't touch the stuff but at staff dinners it's nearly impossible. The boss or a Korean co-worker pours a shot and gives it to you in front of everyone. If you refuse, to some, it's the equivalent of refusing their friendship. And I thought the days of peer pressure were long gone for me. Then I moved to Korea.

Does our boss have these dinners on school nights because he finds pleasure in watching us suffer through the day surrounded by swarms of noisy children? I hope not, but sometimes I wonder.

A typical staff dinner for my school goes like this: We go to a kalbi restaurant and sit Korean-style, on the floor usually taking up the entire restaurant. Mound after mound of raw flesh is then brought out and thrown on the grills on the table. I eat lettuce, rice and red pepper paste, a meal (or lack thereof) which only fuels the soju fire.

The Korean barbecue is a long process. Round after round of meat, soup and side dishes are brought out along with the never-ending supply of beer, soju and becksaju. Mr. Park, the owner of the school, typically comes around after round #1 of of food to give the ceremonial soju bomb (a soju shot dropped in a glass of beer) to initiate the new teachers into his school. Then the shots start flowing for everyone. And like I said before, you can't refuse a shot from your Korean boss, now can you?

Mr. Park on the left and Tab pointing to the soju bottle

I have not ever taken part in or witnessed this sort of social drinking with co-workers and bosses before in America. The most ridiculous things happen at staff dinners and the next day at work it's back to normal for the Koreans. It's definitely a different drinking culture here. It's socially acceptable to be belligerently drunk here (unless you're a woman, that is), even in front of your employer.

Almost anything is forgiven and forgotten the next day. It's like it didn't even happen. Like the time a foreigner got wasted and fell asleep with her head in my bosses lap at the noreabang. Once one of the Korean teachers got so drunk she couldn't go home to her parents house (despite the fact she is 27 years old) so she passed out on my couch. Or the funniest one, when a guy at my school woke up in his boxers at 4:30 am near the subway with no recollection of how he got there or where his pants were.

We always go to a noreabang (karaoke room) after dinner but I usually only last a few songs before the soju sleep wave hits me and I stumble home and pass out (usually around 10 pm). The noreabangs are usually in the basement of some random building a few blocks away from my apartment and luckily I have a good sense of direction when my consciousness has long departed for other worlds.

In any case, it's always a good time had by all. Maybe as a warped psychological experiment on work environment and alcohol-induced social relationships, elementary school's back home (Earhart?) should try it out and see what sorts of bonds are formed and what repressed emotions are released by the wicked memory-snatching genie inside that little green bottle.

Flesh eaters