For the third installment of ‘Ireland vs. Korea’, I will look at the role of drinking in both countries. ‘One Shot’ is a Konglish expression, which can be equated with ‘bottoms up’ or ‘down it’. Obviously drinking too much alcohol is a bad for your mental and physical health, but that’s not the focus of this post.
When my classes collect enough points for good behaviour, I let them watch a music video of their choice in class. Last week a student asked me to play ‘Hangover’ by Snoop Dogg and Psy. I had been waiting for it to happen ever since the video’s YouTube debut last month, so I was prepared. ‘I can’t play Hangover for you. Do you understand why?’ I said to her. ‘Because of drink Soju and get sick,’ she responded, with an undertone of ‘I was only chancing my arm anyway’. Here’s the hangover video, in case you haven’t seen it yet:
It often comes as a shock to Irish people when I tell them about Korea’s drinking culture. ‘They wouldn’t have struck me as big drinkers at all’, is the normal response, followed by ‘Surely they can’t be as bad as us!’ While the Irish are notorious worldwide for our fondness for drink, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics, Korea is 4 places higher than us in terms of pure alcohol consumption.
Reminders of drink are everywhere in Korea. They are on advertisements in the subway, in the puddles of kimchi-speckled puke I have to dodge as I walk to school, and the men in business suits passed out on benches and surrounded by green glass bottles.
Some of my English teacher friends from countries like Canada and the USA have told me how strange they find it when Koreans ask questions like ‘Can you drink alcohol well?’ and ‘How much Soju can you drink?’ But as an Irish person, I’m not really phased by it. I usually respond by saying ‘I could drink you under the table’, and then explaining what it means to drink somebody under the table. (Obviously this is only banter and I don’t actually engage in any liver-destroying drinking contests with Korean people).
The Irish and Koreans don’t just share a love for drink – we also share a love for a good tune. In Ireland we have live music and sing-songs, while the Koreans book into private karaoke rooms known as norae bang (노래방), when they reach ‘drunk enough to sing’ levels. While I do love hitting up the norae bang at the end of a hard week, I do often miss Dublin’s excellent live music scene.
And what’s this ‘Soju’ I keep barking on about? Soju (소주) is a Korean spirit traditionally made with rice, although cheaper modern versions are made with sweet potato and tapioca. ‘Hangover’ is pretty much one long advertisement for Jamisul Soju, as well as a Korean beer called Hite. Soju is not only the best selling spirit in Korea, taking up 97% of the alcohol market, it’s also the best selling spirit in the world. Jinro Soju outsells Smirnoff vodka by a ratio of 3:1. So how does it taste? Pretty rank is the answer, but people drink it to get locked, not for the taste.
Soju has been embedded in Korea since the 14th century, and has its own complex etiquette. It should be poured with two hands, while the receiver should hold their cup with the right hand, with the wrist of the right hand held lightly with the left hand. It is also polite to turn your head away from an older person while drinking. Many other elements of Korea’s drinking culture can be seen in the Hangover video, for example the hangover prevention drinks that Koreans consume before a big night out, karaoke rooms and ramen. I won’t go into any detail here, because Eat Your Kimchi has already done a really good explanation:
You might say that Soju is to Korean identity, what Guinness is to Irish identity. But unlike Guinesss, Soju is very cheap and gets you messed up very quickly. In this sense, it’s more like drinking vodka. It’s no secret that I’m terrible at maths, but I did a little calculation to compare the cost of drinking vodka in Ireland, to drinking Soju in Korea. According to the Tesco Ireland website, a 360ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka with 37.5% alcohol costs €14.29. A 350ml bottle of 19% alcohol Soju usually costs ₩1,500 (€1.09). Adjusted for alcohol content*, vodka in Ireland is 6.5 times more expensive than Soju in Korea.
Of course wages in Korea, and the cost of living in general, are lower. But coming from a country where a big night out always took a massive chunk of my weekly income, to one where it barely dents it at all, is quite a change. Even more stark is the very different policy responses between both countries. In Ireland alcohol is very heavily taxed, off licenses close at 10pm, and most bars have to close at 2.30am. In Korea, on the other hand, ridiculously cheap drink flows 24/7.
The result is that a big night out in Ireland is very different to a big night out in Korea. Because drinking at bars and restaurants is so expensive in Ireland, most young people pre-drink at home and then hit a bar at about 10pm. In Korea, on the other hand, eating and drinking out is very cheap so the night usually starts early with dinner and drinks at a restaurant. And while we usually go to one or two bars in Ireland, followed sometimes by a night-club, a night out in Korea involves stopping off at several bars until you forget you’re tone deaf and book into a Noraebang to belt out every Westlife song in the catalogue. There’s no limit to how late you can stay out drinking in Korea, and it’s a very night centric place. One of my most surreal experiences so far has been drinking Somek (soju and beer cocktails) and eating chicken skewers at a barbeque restaurant at 5am.
In Ireland, drinking is mainly considered an activity to do with friends, but in Korea drinking on week nights with co-workers is seen as an essential team building exercise, as this article documents. Working hours are extremely long, and a night on the tear is generally considered the most effective way to unwind and bond with colleagues. You can imagine the pressure this creates for anyone with care responsibilities outside of work – women, in most cases. Things can also be uncomfortable for those who just don’t want to drink. I’ve heard it’s very hard for Koreans to refuse a drink, but foreigners are more easily excused.
Finally, if you’re in Dublin and curious about this ‘Soju’ I speak of, you can try it at The Hop House on Parnell Street. Or if you’re not into the hard stuff, other good Korean alcohol options include plum wine and makkoli, a type of rice wine. I believe The Hop House also has a popular Korean beer called Cass, but I don’t suggest drinking it unless you’ve never had any other beer before, and therefore have nothing to compare it to.
*I got this calculation by pretending 19% is half of 37.5% and 350ml is the same as 360ml. I did say I wasn’t good at maths!