There is a tradition common to most (all?) Korean companies of going out for a “work dinner” with the other members of your staff and getting completely obliterated; it’s called 회식 (pronounced hway sheek). While eating dinner, the office staff goes through several bottles of beer and soju, toasting over and over — and everyone is expected to participate. Sometimes the evening happens in rounds — dinner, drinks (as if you didn’t already drink enough with dinner), noraebang (singing room).
While this happens most often in corporations, school staffs are not excused. My first four years in Korea, I worked with Christian bosses who didn’t drink, so I was lucky in that I mostly escaped the 회식. Over the past couple of years, I’ve gone out for some school dinners, but there were students there, so we never got too drunk (as mentioned before in this blog, drinking with students is not only acceptable here, but encouraged at times).
A few weeks ago, I went out for my first proper 회식 in Korea. We started with pork barbecue and flavored soju (I can’t believe it’s taken this long for soju companies to introduce flavored soju); a professor a lot of us had never met before paid for dinner and drinks for everyone — and there were about twenty people there. Next, we moved on to a pub, where we all downed a few pints. Afterward, we all moseyed over to a huge noraebang down the street — but not before stopping into a convenience store and stuffing our bags and pockets with more bottles of beer and soju. The same professor who had paid for dinner paid for five hours up front for the singing room! Five hours! Who was this mysterious man? It should be noted here that we arrived at the noraebang around midnight.
By 2:30 am, several teachers had stumbled out into the night to catch a taxi home; some were drunkenly flirting with each other while looking through song books; a small group was still standing, singing every song together; and my boss was passed out on a bench at the back of the room, fast asleep after exhausting all available Bon Jovi songs.
I left without saying goodbye and walked through the refreshing summer night air to my bike parked a few blocks away. As I was riding home, I started really listening to the lyrics of the song that was playing on my iPod (YES, YES, I know I shouldn’t be riding a bike while listening to music). You know how sometimes you can hear a song several times but never really listen to it, but then at some point you DO listen, and you have an epiphany about how good the song is? This happened to me while listening to — and I’m going to ask for your forgiveness here — a Taylor Swift song on the way home from my drunk evening out with coworkers. I listened to all the words and thought, “Taylor Swift! How do you know my life?!” I rode my bike through empty back alleys for the next forty minutes listening to the same song over and over and feeling this special bond with Taylor Swift (or her lyricist, I guess) that comes from someone else totally getting it. I rode my bike as fast as I could up and down tiny hills until I could sing that song at the top of my lungs. It was a long night, but a lovely one, and completely worth the kind of hangover you can only get from hours of drinking flavored soju.