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Noraeband: Shark Shots

Living as an expat teacher in Korea, I come into contact with drinking culture on at least a weekly basis.

That’s not to say foreign teachers are all living the rock star lifestyle; Korea just has an alcohol-fueled social system, and regular and heavy boozing does not carry the stigma it does in the Western world. It is an important way to bond and connect with coworkers, friends, and potential business associates.

As a ritualized activity, drinking alcohol comes with strict etiquette. If you can follow the protocol and hold your own, you’re in.

Understand the Rules

The rules for imbibing are rigid in Korea, and following them will score you major points with your Korean hosts.

First and most importantly, never pour your own beverage. Someone will pour it for you. You must also pour for others, watching diligently to be sure your companions’ glasses are never empty.

When another drinker fills your vessel, hold the cup with both hands. This is the polite gesture for accepting anything given to you in Korea.

Finally, turn your back to anyone of higher rank as you drink. Stratification is deeply embedded in Korean society, so you should always be aware of the pecking order. Anyone older or higher on the corporate ladder should be treated deferentially, and one easy way to do that is to turn away from them as you sip.

Know the Game Plan: 5 Rounds In, 12 Steps Out

In addition to basic etiquette, there is a standard 5-step drinking process that you should be aware of. The procedure can be flexible in the order or the omission of steps, what’s important is that you do “Five Rounds” or Oh Cha of drinking in five different locations.

Soju Photo: grahamhills

Round One: Dinner and soju (let’s just think of soju as watery vodka for the sake of simplicity).

Round Two: The group generally moves on to a Hof, a Korean bar where you will be required to order snacks like fried chicken with your beer.

Round Three: Another Hof or a Western-style bar where only libations are served and you are not required to purchase food. By this time the party is probably getting pretty raucous and will more than likely proceed to

Round Four: Noraebang, a karaoke bar where patrons rent private singing rooms by the hour.

Round Five: To wrap up the evening, those still standing will move to a nightclub or disco.

Middle rounds are a great time for drinking games, which usually involve shouting, chanting, and singing. You may be commanded to oneshot (finish your brew) or loveshot (hook arms with the person seated next to you and swig together like a wedding toast). You will almost certainly hear “gun bae!” Korean for cheers. Taking a slug after you clink glasses is universal.

Keep it Together

Once you have established that you know and can follow the rules and procedures of Korean drinking, you can relax and turn your focus to basic survival. If you plan to make it through Five Rounds alive, this can quickly become a priority.

Regardless of the occasion, you will likely find that the people around you are drinking in large quantities. For the sake of your physical and mental well-being, it’s good to have a firm plan in place for avoiding overindulging, which can be tricky in a culture where refusing alcohol is considered rude.

Remember to pace yourself. Take time to chat and socialize and don’t be too eager to tie one on. Continuing to snack throughout the night both defers drinking and can fortify your stomach. And when all else fails, toss that shot of soju over your shoulder when no one is looking.

Forgive and Forget

Given the exuberant attitude towards drinking in Korea, it is inevitable that some poor soul in your company is going to overdo it.

Never mention this again.
Photo and Feature Photo: BlackOutKorea

Let’s hope this is not you. The best thing to do for this person is allow them to “take a rest” at the table without much fuss and then pour them into a cab when the time comes.

Drinking yourself into a drooling stupor is not shameful in Korea. You will be expected to cut anyone who does it some slack.

The last and most important thing to remember is to never mention it again. Whether your buddy got into a belligerent, drunken shouting match or simply fell asleep upright and snoring in his captain’s chair, protocol is to pretend that it never happened.

It may be difficult to refrain, but perhaps someday you will have a reason to appreciate this rule.

Gun bae and good luck!

***Explore the world party scene with 101 PLACES TO GET F*CKED UP BEFORE YOU DIE. Part travel guide, part drunken social commentary, 101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die may have some of the most hilarious scenes and straight-up observations of youth culture of any book you’ve ever read.***

Culture + ReligionDrink


About The Author

Kate Holmes

Kate is an expat writer, teacher and historian currently living in Korea. After racking up a big country-count in her formative years, today she’s trying to slow it down and get to know people and places. She travels because she wants to know about everything.

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  • Jennifer

    YEAH!! I love this article! Good Job Kate. It encompasses the drinking culture in this county so well. While both informative and funny. Good work! Assa!

  • Candice

    Holy crap, I’m a fairly experienced drinker and I’m not even sure if I could keep up with all this, hahaha. Amazing. Time for me to start thinking about teaching there again.

  • Shelby

    Great job. I live in Seoul and this is on point.

  • CJ Karpiak

    So funny and informative. Brilliant article. I don’t know if I could handle that though…I think I’ll keep my abroad drinking in pubs and wine bars.

  • Bryan

    Yes, all very comprehensive and, sadly, true. The problems are:

    1) Soju is literally the worst alcoholic beverage man has ever created. Calling it ‘watery vodka’ is like saying drinking straight vinegar is like drinking ‘watery olive oil’.

    2) Korean beer is also quite possibly the worst in the world. I’ve imbibed in close to 40 countries, and while living here in Seoul, I keep asking Koreans “ok, but where’s the GOOD beer?” In America, we have crappy mass-produced stuff, but there are also higher-end things. In Korea, it’s all MGD and PBR, because the only reason to drink is to get ‘faced, not to enjoy it.

    3) The whole ‘Forgive and Forget’ thing sounds cute, but in reality, it means you can throw up on someone, get in a fight, literally shit yourself, and say ANYTHING you want, and the next morning, it’s all peachy again, which isn’t something that semi-responsible adult human beings really do. I’m certainly not opposed to an all-night bender, but keep your shit together, you know? I was 16 years old, too, but then I learned HOW TO HANDLE MY LIQUOR. :-) It’s called ‘growing up’. Koreans never really do this.
    And, perhaps most importantly, if you are a foreigner,none of this applies – if you mess something up, even while drunk, you’ll be on the next plane home, where you can nurse your hangover in the friendly skies.

    good writing, though :-)

    • Hal Amen

      Wow. Saying “Koreans never grow up” is like saying all internet commenters are jagoffs.

  • Chris

    Nice article, perhaps we can start this type of social engineering here state side!?

  • jhoff

    author is spot on. (just thought i’d add my two years of experience being here in korea to the article)

    chalhesseoyo (haha, no idea if that’s how you spell it romanized)

  • Jessica Skelton

    Very entertaining! Don’t think I’d be able to keep up though; even with all that food!

  • eric

    Another good secret to avoid getting completely hammered on soju, especially if you’re the only foreigner in the group, is to keep a bottle of water under the table where you’re sitting and fill your soju cup from that when no one’s looking.

  • Kate

    Wow so clever!! Thanks for the tip, I will definitely be using that one!

  • Pingback: Extreme Binge Drinking on Display: An Interview with Black Out Korea

  • alexandernigth

    ok but If is a person like me who dont drink beer or any wine or anything, how I can say it without been mean.??

    • Mahjabeen

      i was wondering the same thing.. 

      • Zulhilmi Ghouse

        Me too.

  • Tab Burnett

    Chelsea Snyder, for tonight. “Drinking in Korea requires etiquette and endurance” I’m sure I’m capable of both :) Sorry If I’m not? nahhh

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