2.25.2007

A splash of culture

I will admit that what passes for foreigner culture in Korea -- especially the smaller cities, such as mine -- is drinking. We drink a lot, and the teachers who DON'T drink have essentially no social life around here. But you actually learn a lot in the bars, and cultural exchange via alcohol can be the best kind, so here are a few of the things we tend to find continually amusing, no matter how long we're here:

1. Soju. The official alcoholic beverage of Korea, this stuff is essentially vodka's weak little brother. It's made of rice (shock.) and tastes like diet lighter fluid, but it's only about 40 proof. We shoot it most of the time, but a lot of places make sawa, flavored soju, with fresh strawberry, kiwi, grape, etc., and that stuff is good.
2. Side dish. This isn't even just a drinking thing. When you go in a restaurant or bar, you are immediately showered with side dish (note: this is never plural), and I think it could be a federal law that kimchi be served with every meal. In bars, side dish tends to be the normal pretzel-peanut-salty fish combo. In some you have to order side dish with your alcohol, fruit, sausage, soups, omelette, that sort of thing. In soju tents and maccoli houses, side dish comes with your drinks and ranges from shrimp to squid to egg to veggies...
3. Soju tents. Open-air (in nice weather) permanent tent-thingies with plastic tables and chairs, usually a projection TV with soccer on, cheap-ass soju and good side dish. These places are wonderful.
4. The soju drinking game. So you know when you open a bottled drink, the circle of plastic that the cap seperates itself from on the initial twist? Well, on soju that circle is aluminum and breaks upon opening the bottle, but one end stays attached to the cap. You twist it tight and pass it around the table, with everyone taking a turn flicking it. The people on either side of the eventual person who flicks it off take shots. Then the winner looks at the number that's indented on the underside of the cap. It's always between 1 and 100, and you go around the table again guessing numbers (so if the number is 37 and the first person guesses 50, the caller will say "lower" and the next contestant's range is 1-50). Whoever gets the number takes a shot. Simple and elegant, as drinking games go, and built right into the bottle.
5. The two-hand thing. Ok, so, it's actually impolite not to do this when handing ANYTHING to anybody else, but especially money and alcoholic beverages. The basics, for drinking: a) always pour with your right hand. b) the left hand should either be on the bottle, on your right wrist, on your right elbow, or on your chest. c) always hold your glass with the same two-handed grip when someone is pouring for you. d) never pour your own drink. e) never let someone else's glass remain empty. Not following these rules results in bad luck for the people across from you, so says tradition.
6. Kombae! "Cheers" in Korean.
7. Nore bong. A fairly common post-bar/tent destination, the nore bong translates as "music (or song) room" and it's private karaoke. For like $15 you and all your friends can go croon drunkenly in your very own room. And you can bring beer.

So now you know a bit about how to drink in Korea, which I'm sure will come in handy. I know that when I go home in five months (speaking of which, I was accepted to UAH for a second degree last week) I'll be pouring with two hands for months.

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