Culture in a Cup

By Biju Sukumaran

A handful of Korean restaurants in India serve pints of soju, sans the rituals of consumption followed in South Korea. It is generally paired with platters of seared beef teppanyaki. [Lee Jae-Won/Reuters]
“Eat pig! Drink soju!” As a foreigner only just beginning a year-long contract teaching English in Seoul, I had largely been ignored by my fellow faculty members. So when I was told I’d be required to participate in the Sangdo Middle School “Man Club” one evening, I had no idea what to expect. Until the P.E. teacher, the school’s head disciplinarian (and lead social organiser), described the plan of action in those four succinct words.

 

I was already familiar with these twin passions of the Korean people. When night arrived, restaurants in Bucheon, our small satellite city within the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area, came alive with the babble of voices as friends and co-workers met up to eat samgyeopsal (pork belly) and galbi (beef short ribs) on outdoor tables set with charcoal grills. An older person would periodically rise to his feet amongst the sea of revelry to raise a toast, cheeks flushed bright red, and to the clink of tiny glasses call out, “One shot!” At this, the participants would down their soju in a single gulp.

Soju literally means “burned liquor”.  Created during the Mongol invasions of Korea in the 13th century, it is traditionally distilled from rice. But in recent times, the drink has been made from sweet potatoes and tapioca, giving it a milder flavour. Though the original, more potent variety is still available, it’s expensive. The more popular versions with lower alcohol content, like Jinro’s Chamisul, are sold cheaply in medium-sized green bottles at every corner store. Advertisements featuring K-Pop stars like Lee Hyo-Ri and her toned midriff are a testament to how the liquor industry is pushing soju as a healthy drink of choice.

The foreigners I had met treated soju like any other alcohol; clear, slightly sweet, toasted in small glasses—it was easy to forget that it wasn’t vodka. But as the green bottles made an appearance at the meeting of the Sangdo Middle School Man Club, I realised that soju was more than a drink: the rituals of pouring and drinking were actually a reflection of the subtle Confucianism that permeates Korean culture. 

Seated on the floor, as was custom in the traditional restaurant, my colleagues first showed me how to pour the clear liquor. I learned that by holding the bottle in both hands, I would be showing respect, and by turning and covering my mouth while imbibing, I was displaying even greater regard for older or higher-ranking colleagues. The ceremonies around soju drinking embodied Korea’s complicated power structures. I noticed that when a science teacher offered soju to our vice-principal, he rose from sitting on crossed legs to the more formal kneeling position before pouring. 

But in Korea, respect runs both ways. While those lower on the rung must accede to a superior’s demands, the boss is also expected to be attuned to the needs of his subordinates. Teetotallers, for instance, participate in the rituals by bringing the glass to their mouths, if only to wet their lips out of respect. The elder is expected to notice this, and order a soft drink for the non-drinker. After dinner, my principal, the undisputed ruler of his fiefdom, got the bill and there was no discussion—it was his duty to pay it. We then made our way to a hof, a Korean-style pub serving beer, soju, and anju, salty snacks that include dried sardines and nuts. It was late on a Tuesday night but the streets were crowded. 

The next day, everyone was a bit bleary-eyed at school. But in the months that followed, I grew closer to my fellow teachers, in part lubricated by that one night of fun, but more likely because of
 the lessons I had learned. I became far more attuned to the chain of command, and it showed not only in how I deferred to others, but also in how I was treated in return. 

At the end of that year, I gave a brief farewell speech to mark my last day of school. What seemed to hit home with my colleagues was not my expressions of thanks but rather my statement that no matter where I might travel, I’d take a bit of Korea with me. It’s funny how an evening of drinking can extend far past the moment to encompass a culture. 

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