Food culture here is massive. Eating out is expected of people, eating alone at home is frowned upon. A town the size of Taebaek (50,000) has hundreds and hundreds of restaurants. Within 100m of my small apartment block, I can count 24. Back home these restaurants would never be able to stay open. Expensive licensing laws alone would close them before they ever got started. But in Korea you don’t need a license to sell food and drink, you just open the doors and get going. And it’s lucrative too. One of the main reasons it is so is the culture of the 회식 (hweshik – working dinner).
Every company, school, club, study group, alumni group or anything that consists of a group of people working together will inevitably have a hweshik. It’s basically a gathering of co-workers to strengthen bonds, get to know eachother outside of the workplace and, most importantly, get hopelessly drunk together. Usually over dinner. Whereas at work the employees are uptight, formal and at times awkward amongst eachother, once the hweshik gets into full swing bonds are strengthened, relationships are formed, and colleagues become friends. My experiences from working in a high school where the teachers are all hell-bent on getting promoted and eventually working their way up to that coveted head-teacher or head-master’s position might be a little different from other peoples’, but our hweshiks were always rowdy. Beyond rowdy.
There’s always a reason for a hweshik. Whether that be the end of the school year, the start of the school year, the promotion of a teacher, the transferal of the janitor, the opening of a new building, the graduation of the science teacher’s daughter… there’s always a reason. Around 4.30pm on the day of the hweshik a message will be sent around on ‘Cool Messenger’, the Korean school intranet system, inviting teachers to meet, usually at 6.30pm, and usually at a 한우 (hanu – Korean beef barbeque) restaurant. A grumble will murmer around the office from those who had other plans for the evening. It’s OK to opt out, but it sort of loses you face, and if you’re looking for some good words or a good reference from the guy who invited you, you’re not going to opt out. By 6.30pm people will begin awkwardly arriving at the restaurant in dribs and drabs. This will be happening all over town. Each company will have a hweshik every couple of weeks. At my school it was usually once a week. Even if it’s just one department or a couple of lads who play tennis together in the evening, it still counts.
From the opening speech by the boss and clink of glasses it’s pretty much all downhill. The soju (Korean sake) is cracked open, further speeches are made, the meat is on the grill and people start getting drunk. A side note on soju – the Korean poison of choice. Made from burnt rice originally, but nowadays probably almost 100% chemically processed, it’s a little bottle of laughs. 20% alcohol so weak enough to not have a strong alcoholic punch but strong enough to get you drunk, it sells for the measly sum of $1 at your local mart. It’s so central to socializing in Korea that 3.5 billion bottles of it were consumed here last year. An average Korean drinks 90 bottles of it a year.
At the hweshik when the soju’s flowing suddenly people can speak English, and teachers are literally coming out of the woodwork to speak to me. I’ve gotten to know the majority of the teachers in my school not in the office at school or during sports or hikes or whatnot, but around the dinner table at the hweshik. To pour your own drink is against Korean table etiquette, so you first have to be offered a shot glass (which you receive with two hands), drink the drink that’s offered and then return the favour. This can become quite confusing if, early on, you offer your shot glass to a colleague who then gets another shot offered before drinking yours. In this case sometimes your shot glass can be lost, and for the rest of the hweshik you wander around the restaurant shot-glassless skiving off other people.
And so it goes for around 2 hours. Everybody sitting on the floor in their socks, chatting. Copious amounts of food is eaten, and copious amounts of alcohol is drunk. My principal’s favourite drink was a full glass of beer topped off with a generous slug of soju (called ‘somaek‘, a mixture of the words ‘soju‘ and ‘maekju‘ (beer)). Passed all around the table – everyone has to take a drink. Rocket fuel.
After it all the bill is generally paid for by one person. Korean beef is pretty expensive – 200g will cost $20 – and when you have 30+ people eating and drinking together it comes up quite a tally. Our final hweshik of the year cost 1.9 million won – around $1500. All bankrolled by the principal. Cheers guy.
What follows the ‘first round’ at the restaurant varies (usually depending on the physical state of the remaining attendees). Either it’s on to a bar crawl, to a ‘business room’, or to a noraebang where colleagues who 3 hours before were teaching kids maths and english and science fall around passionately singing their favourite ballads to each other. A successful hweshik would have at least 3 rounds – i’ve been to ones that started at midday and continued until 2am, 6 rounds. As the night gets later the tongues loosen and co-workers let flow their real feelings about each other. A seemingly national dislike for bosses and principals waits until the second or third rounds to be voiced, and from then on the nattering grows. I’ve sat for many a night in a dingy bar or fried chicken joint nodding in agreement as older colleagues told me in detail the failings of the principal.
The hweshik has been a big part of my experience in Korea. Many school nights have been followed by a day of horrifying hangovers experienced by all the school’s staff. It’s perfectly normal to students, who often wrinkle up their noses at their teachers and comment on the ‘soju naemsae’ (‘soju smell’) during morning classes following epic hweshiks. It may seem unprofessional and downright irresponsible to an outside observer, but just try sitting down to dinner with 30 seasoned hweshik professionals and not getting drunk – I’d put money on you failing in that regard.