To say that a new country or new culture has turned you into an alcoholic says more about you and your drinking problem than it does about the country itself. So when I blame my (potential?) alcoholism on Korea, I don’t think that the issue is entirely about Korea, per se. I think it might in fact be the physical manifestation of my cultural reaction to Korea, or it may instead be a very lame and flimsy excuse.
And who coined this term ‘alcoholic’, anyway? Surely it was not a Korean, as the term ‘alcoholic’ does not even exist in the Korean language. So, perhaps my increased (and potentially hazardous) alcohol consumption in Korea is the overlapping Venn diagram of my life where my Australian persona meets and greets my new handsome Korean doppelganger, and they skip off together towards the hazy flashing lights of Seoul to engage in some ultimately destructive and narcissistic behaviour, which may involve alcohol…
So backing up a little… where did it all go wrong?
I only decided to delve into this particular facet of my Korean life a moment ago, as I peered into my refrigerator to grab some orange juice, and realized that there is nothing in my refrigerator right now bar 4 cans of beer, two bottles of rice wine (소주), one bottle of 매화수 (sweet rice wine), and one bottle of tonic water (who knows, I guess that might be used as a whisky mixer, but I do not recall buying it…). And this seems like the epitome of my food pyramid these days.
Now that explains why I have missed so many deadlines this month…
There are numerous unavoidable cultural factors in South Korea that have led me to believe that continuing to live in Korea will turn me into one of those alcohol-and-cereal type people…
Australian drinking v. Korean drinking.
By Australian standards, I don’t think I was a particularly big drinker before I packed up and migrated to Seoul. At the time I moved to Korea four years ago, I was a 24 year old law school graduate who could barely afford an average bottle of South Australian red wine. Daily drinking would have been a fairly expensive hobby for me in Sydney, because Australians drink good beer, and they make a habit of drinking wine that actually tastes like wine (South Korea has only started importing good international wines very recently). Drinking is Seoul is far cheaper than drinking in most international cities, partly because rice wine (소주) is cheaper than water (why doesn’t the government do something about that?) and because Korean beer tastes a lot like restaurant dishwater, and is therefore very cheap. So these factors do lay the basic foundation for my evolution into Korea’s biggest drinker.
The Korean language (as mentioned above) interestingly does not have suitable translation for “alcoholic”, which would suggest that either alcoholism is a very natural physical condition in Korea which requires no description, or, at the other extreme, the social/cultural conceptualization of “alcoholism” has not quite manifested in South Korea as yet. Nobody points at anyone and talks about “drinking problems” in Korea. Everyone in Korea has a “woman problem”, a “money problem”, or a “visa problem”, but nobody…nobody…has a “drinking problem”. Korean men themselves often consider the state of intoxication to be far more familiar to them than the cold sober tone of Hyundai board meetings.
Alcohol in Korea is far far far too cheap.
As mentioned previously…
Every company function involves Alcohol.
Korean legal teams and trading companies are renowned for hard drinking. On the job (occasionally). After work. Any night of the week. Korean doctors are perhaps by far the most committed drinkers I have met in Seoul, and that does make me very nervous, as Korean doctors do operate on real people in the morning after long nights of drinking. My current company does not fare so badly, but in previous Korean companies, I have been pushed to drink quite a lot, and then I was asked to perform songs for my boss and other managers in a 노래방 (Korean karaoke). Not only did this feel degrading, but my boss also got to choose the song (usually an old Korean song from the 80s), and he also made me dance, which is not such an uncommon situation for new employees in Korean companies. Refusing a drink at a work function (even as a foreign woman) and refusing to sing caused me greater isolation in my company, so I finally had to suck it up and drink and dance like a puppet for my greedy boss. Hence the motivation to move to a more foreign-female-friendly-Korean-trading-company (and there are at least a handful of those in Seoul).
Koreans respect you more if you drink
This might sound like a complete cop-out, but I honestly feel like work-wise and socially-wise I am already at the deep dark bottom of the Korean company cesspool because I am a woman, and I am also Australian, which is a dreadful combination in any Korean company. Korean companies mostly reflect masculine-military style management systems that do not always bode well for women, and foreigners (particularly Australians) are very much in the minority in all Korean technology and import/export companies. As such, I feel that the only way to regain some measure of respect (as producing reasonable work on time doesn’t seem to impress anyone in Korea) is to demonstrate strength and ability in drinking. I am from Broken Hill, the rural heartland of Australia, and while I will let myself be degraded to some degree by Korean management, I will not let any Korean manager think that they can drink better than I can. In fact, I am always the last man standing. And problem drinking aside, I think that is the best thing I can offer a Korean company; my rural Australian pride and my undefeated competence in rice wine consumption.
Living alone and little supervision
Each quarter, my living circumstances in Korea change quite significantly. I have lived in student dorms, in sprawling samsung apartments with Korean homestay families, in broken down sharehouses, in one-room apartments, and even in hotels and love motels in between rental contracts. Due to the fact that I don’t have any biological family in Korea, and I usually have a rapidly fluctuating residential situation, no one besides myself has an accurate idea of how much alcohol I am physically consuming on a day to day basis. One of my friends and I did a calculation this week of how many standard beverages we think we consume on a weekly basis during work functions and social gatherings, and we were quite astounded (and embarrassed) by the number. After that, we decided not to count our weekly beverages ever again, as our ignorance makes us feel less negligent about our respective health conditions.
Individualism is not something that stands out as a highly valued ideal in Korean company culture. While an Australian company may ask an employee for his or her personal interpretation of an issue, a Korean company (in my personal experience) will request compliance and complete-management loyalty, over personal opinions and individual contributions. This similarly carries over into company-related drinking. While an Australian company (and I am only using Australia as an example here as I am Australian…) is obligated to respect an individual who chooses not to drink due to religious, personal, or health reasons, in a Korean company dinner, if one employee refuses to drink, due to their religious beliefs, they may be belittled or ignored entirely by their boss for the rest of the evening (which is what I have seen in my own company in Seoul). There is also the minor point that in other countries, drinking heavily with your boss may be deemed as somewhat inappropriate or could potentially conflict with company policy. However in Korea, by contrast, if a Korean manager states that the team is going to drink after work (which they often do, at least in Korean trading companies) then there is an expectation that no one will back out, and everyone should drink as much as the manager directs them to. The one instance in which I did actually refuse to attend a company drinking night resulted in some serious tension in the office and my Korean boss didn’t make eye-contact with me for two whole days.
Pros and Cons
To be successful and to fit in in South Korea, completely avoiding alcohol does present serious challenges (in my humble opinion…). In truth, Koreans do feel closer after drinking with their colleagues and managers, and they often use drinking time as an opportunity to voice concerns or issues that they would otherwise feel embarrassed to bring up while sober. There is a brotherhood (I am practically a man in South Korea due to my athletic build…) and a kinship that comes from drinking with Koreans. Koreans in the workplace (and even in relationships) can struggle to express their thoughts or feelings directly as they constantly worry about saving face, so drinking is often the only scenario in Seoul where it is acceptable for people to fully express their personal thoughts or emotions. As such, drinking in Korea is not only hard to avoid, but it is often the only method to derive the truth from people (especially your boss, who is always taking advantage in one way or another… particularly in terms of gender-based pay-differentiation). As such, at the present moment, in my personal situation, the points in favour of drinking for professional and social reasons far outweigh the points against drinking, as drying out completely would mean isolating myself further from Korean culture (and I am already on the outside as I am Australian, and I am sadly a female), and it would hinder my insight into how my company runs and what the relationships in my company look like. As such, as long as I live in Korea, I am sure to succumb willingly to the shots of rice wine and cheap whisky, and endure the hazy morning-afters, as that is the way the more traditional Koreans companies still seem to do things, and as such, that is the way I am going to make up for my extensive shortcomings as an Australian in a strictly South Korean working environment.