Thursday, August 04, 2011

Mandatory Fun

Last night (on a Wednesday, of all days), I went to my very first 회식 (pronounced "hwe shik" and technically meaning a dinner or a meal).

Like much in Korea, it's more than what its name implies. First of all, it's mandatory. It was a group from production management and supervision, and I was basically informed that we're having a 회식. No silly questions like "are you free?" or "what's a good day?" or any of that, just an announcement and expectation that we would all be there. We didn't even know where we were going until Monday, and even that changed a few hours before we actually left the office (we were supposed to eat eel (I've never tried it) and then switched to a beef place at the last minute).

In bigger, more corporate companies, it's apparently customary for the higher-ups to torture their underlings by making the poor kids sing and dance and drink excessively and generally entertain their bosses. Thankfully, we don't quite have that vibe here, though it does still exist to some extent (if one of the two supervisors that attended told you to drink, you drink).

We started out quite well. Dinner at a barbecue place- not typical Korean barbecue, though, it was more like thick steaks grilled at the table and then cut up on the grill. Really good, though also really greasy. We all ate like pigs, probably helped along by the fact that the drinking started almost immediately. Beer and soju, of course.

Soju bombs, in LA, are a very different creature than what they are here. A soju bomb is a shot glass filled with soju that is dropped into a half-filled glass of beer, then chugged. (Like an Irish car bomb, which is a shot glass of whiskey and a splash of Baileys dropped into a half-pint of Guinness.)

Here in Korea, they drink somacs. (So = soju, mac = maekju (맥주), the Korean word for beer.) A varying amount of soju is poured into a glass, then beer is poured over it. I'm told that the beer should be poured in a rather slow stream so that the drink fizzes and foams. I drank one at the insistence of one of the vfx supervisors, but since I don't like beer, it was wasted on me. He made the somacs with just a little bit of soju, quite a bit of beer, and a ton of foam. (I liked the foam, I have to admit- and side note, Koreans don't drink beer out of pint glasses. They're more like dainty 6-ounce (8 ounces, max) glasses.)

Dinner was fine, even fun- we were sitting in a private room and the group I was sitting with (it's impossible to talk to people at the other end of the room, after all) was a cheery, talkative bunch. There were a few awkward silences, but after the first three bottles were emptied, everyone got a little louder and a little less awkward.

The second place we went to was a bar, technically, but since we were such a big group (about twenty, I think), they seated us in a karaoke room (노래방: 노래 (norae) means song, 방 (bahng) means room).

I have never witnessed such silence in such a large crowd before, other than at a funeral. At the restaurant, the loudness of the restaurant itself helped get us through the awkward moments. The sizzling of the grills, the waitresses running to and fro and telling us things, various dinner companions ordering more food or drink- all that noise masked the underlying quiet. In a noraebang (the common English spelling, though it's misleading for pronunciation), if no one's singing, it's very, very quiet. And very cold.

There was a strange, long lull where people didn't do anything at all. We sat there, around an enormous table, nobody talking. I think if the drinks had arrived sooner, we might have been okay, but the food came first (Koreans eat constantly while they drink, it dumbfounds me completely) and the drinks took their sweet, sweet time. It felt like an eternity of sitting in silence, some of the guys smoking (oh, smoking indoors, when will it stop??), some people silently nibbling on bar food.

That mood stayed with us for a good ... hour? One of the vfx supervisors finally took it upon himself to lift us out of the doldrums and forced everyone to drink by continually making us clink glasses, cheers, and down our booze. One of the guys was convinced to sing, and then things finally picked up. I think four people ended up singing (the first guy sang "Diana," by Paul Anka, and he was pretty awesome), then we were off to the next bar.

The next (and, thankfully, last) bar was literally right across the hall from the karaoke place (both on the third floor of a building filled with bars and restaurants). It was a fusion Japanese bar, which means they had lots of sake and a better selection of bar food. I don't know why, but it was much less awkward at this bar. (Though I was immediately put off by the Corona beer flag they had hanging on the wall. I got over it eventually.)

We stumbled out of the bar around 2:30 in the morning. All three locations were between work and home, so I walked home in about three minutes, trusting that everyone would make it back to their respective beds safe and sound.

This morning was pretty telling. I walked into our office (production management and the assistant supervisors all sit in a big bullpen together) and there were ... two people. Some folks are out on set, but two is still a very small number compared to how many people there normally are. It's been quiet all day, with nary a peep from the eight or so folks that eventually tiptoed in. (There are usually about 15 - 20 people in here, depending on the day.)

I'm tired. I think I'm too old to be partying on school nights- I used to be able to do it without any problems at all when I was in my early twenties, but those days are far behind me now. I can't seem to shake the fatigue today, so I'm probably going to conk out early tonight and try to catch up on sleep. I'm just thankful that I don't feel wretched. Combining soju, beer, (cheap) whiskey, and sake was probably the worst idea I've had in a long time. (Hi, 엄마 and 아빠! Poor parents, reading about their daughter's terrible drinking habits.)

I took some photos on my phone last night, but in the cold (and rainy) light of day, they are truly crap photos. Besides, I don't really know these people well enough to be posting pictures of them in a bar. So no photos. At least, not this time. I'm sure there will be another chance to document Korean drinking culture at some other point.

Last night was the first time that I've really actually talked to people at work about anything other than work (or niceties). It made me feel strange- I feel so American here, but I also see that I belong, in a weird sense. All the things that made me feel out of place in the States are perfectly acceptable here, but the things that I take for granted in the States are bizarre here. I felt off-balance all night, but people were quite nice (and drunk) and more willing to talk and put me at ease.

I could also perceptibly FEEL the cultural differences between my equals and myself in dealing with the supervisors. My peers are obedient and a bit terrorized by the supervisors, whereas I am most definitely not. I have no problem talking back to them and making fun of them, something that I feel wouldn't be as well-tolerated from one of the Koreans. Being American does give me some (small) amount of liberty. Of course, I'm generally pretty good with people (I can say that about myself because I worked really hard to get this way and I know what it was like when I was not good with people at all) and people do not usually take offense to what I say or do, as I'm pretty good at gauging limits.

I had a great (alcohol-fueled) conversation with one of the supervisors, whom I genuinely like as a person, though we have our differences at work. I got some of the guys to try out their English. They got me to try dried squid (which I love) dipped in mayonnaise and soy sauce (not so much).

I can see why these outings are a necessary evil. With the passive-aggressiveness that is so pervasive in the Korean work culture, this is the only outlet that people have in expressing any negative emotions. What happens during a 회식 doesn't count in real life (unless you punch your boss or something), and it's an opportunity to live big for a few hours on the company's dime. With the rumored salaries of some of the newer kids here, I wouldn't think that they really get to go out and party up very often.

Vitamin Water (the restore flavor), a small bowlful of rice for breakfast, and some pretty good pork ramen for lunch have mostly restored my brain cells. If only it would stop raining so I wouldn't have to worry about my shoes anymore...


Amanda August 4, 2011 at 5:25 AM  

You got two day's notice? That's good planning by Korean standards.

Anonymous,  August 4, 2011 at 7:38 AM  

random reader here! I like reading about your experiences in s korea! I had no idea there was that sort of drinking/company culture there, when I worked in Hong Kong (ever so briefly) there was nothing like that. But maybe there's less passive-aggressiveness?

jeanny August 4, 2011 at 6:59 PM  

Amanda- I had a rule in LA: always plan at least a week ahead. Man, I miss those days!

Hello, random reader! I'm not quite sure what the drinking culture in Hong Kong is, I've never been there. It seems like it would be a fun place to go. Just based off assumptions, I would think folks from Korea and Hong Kong would have pretty similar attitudes, as the cultures aren't that different (as compared to Korea and the U.S., anyway). Thanks for stopping by!

Amanda August 5, 2011 at 8:31 AM  

Somewhere on my blog there's an excellent example of Korean planning and face saving (11/24/07).

Essentially, someone double-booked a room and we had to stop something smack in the middle, stand around, and wait for the second thing to get done so we could get back to the first thing.

That is the Korean "planning" I got used to.

jeanny August 7, 2011 at 7:14 PM  

That's awful, Amanda. I would have been livid and probably poked someone with a pen.

The planning's been pretty good, generally, since I've been here. I have a feeling that if there's money at stake, plans are a little less dicey. And while there's not much money in film here, I'm betting there's more money in films than in education, no matter how much importance Koreans place on schooling.

Hopefully, I know what to expect now and won't get caught off-kilter....