1. Alcohol is cheap.
Super cheap. You can buy 375ml of soju, a clear liquor comparable to vodka, for a little more than 1 USD and a liter of Cafri or Cass beer for less than 2 USD.
2. And it’s everywhere, for sale, 24 hours a day.
Unlike in some American states where the sale of hard liquor may be restricted to certain hours of the day, designated retailers, and certain days of the week, you can buy soju from any corner market 24 hours a day. Even in the most rural towns, this pocket-friendly libation is readily available.
3. It’s completely okay to drink at work.
…But not always. In some workplaces, drinking at work is the norm for special occasions. When I was teaching English in South Korea, on the last day of school before Christmas all my co-teachers, staff, principal and vice principal sat around a long table in the cafeteria and shared several rounds of soju with dried fish to celebrate.
It’s not necessarily like Don Draper and his sycophants on Mad Men, but in South Korea, the people you work with become family and work culture is as unique and individual as families themselves. If your boss likes to drink a lot, wayshiks – dinner and several rounds of drinks often followed by norebang – may occur much more often than at another office. Champagne for birthdays may be consumed more often, and reasons to celebrate will inevitably occur more often as well.
The surprising truth is that while you get slow and dreary eyed, your Korean colleagues will remain productive, bright, shiny office bees.
4. People are drunk everywhere at all times of day.
Early on in my Korean experience I witnessed two older men walking down the street arm-in-arm. One of them was quite animated while the other pulled him along. The loud man stuck out his tongue and licked the side of his friend’s face. His partner responded with a bemused smile and friendly pat on the shoulder. Still linked to his quirky chum he affectionately guided him across the street.
Generally, public drunkenness is not really a nuisance in South Korea. People seem more silly than unruly. The bar fight is a rarity and police are thin on the ground.
5. Soju tastes like a watered down version of your favorite liquor.
But it packs the same punch and will knock you out if you don’t pace yourself. Some expats like soju more because the hangover is less painful, but it makes returning to your beverage of choice that much harder.
6. Drinking is gendered here.
Korean women don’t tend to drink as much as their male counterparts. Usually, as I’ve often witnessed, they toast with everyone else but sip little bits from the same shot repeatedly throughout the evening or they’ll just drain a shot of water each time. But if you want to leave the celebration walking in a straight line then that’s actually not a bad route to go, if you’re a lady that is.
Guys have a much harder time getting off that easy. If you’re a man, some co-workers might think you don’t like them if you don’t participate. So if you’re a guy and you don’t want to drink, you’re going to have a much harder time navigating social etiquette.
However if you’re a woman and you like your liquor, people might be delightfully surprised at your willingness to knock’ em back. They’ll probably encourage you to drink even more, so be warned.
7. Drinking is considered the best way to bond.
Getting drunk together is one way that South Koreans cement friendships, especially among colleagues whose time spent together is usually very formal. More than once I’ve had an austere co-teacher break down and tell me intimate details about their personal life, unexpected political or social leanings, or surprising secrets while under the influence. The topic won’t be breached again — until the next wayshik that is.