One of the most peculiar rituals in Korean corporate culture has got to be the hwishik (회식). It’s when the office or department go out together for a meal (dinner, usually) which… just gets stranger and stranger as more and more alcohol is applied to the proceedings. And trust me, a lot is poured on.
Back in the United States, I would never get this drunk in front of my work colleagues. It would be unprofessional and unbelievably embarrassing. In Korea, it’s normal. My language exchange partner is pulled into hwishiks so often, I hardly see him to work on our languages anymore. He says his department heads keep going out to eat and drink to avoid going home to their wives. And as someone lower in the pecking order, you can’t say no and get out of it. That’s what’s seen as unprofessional.
We’ve been lucky at my school because we are rarely invited to hwishiks. We’ve been to three total now: once at the beginning of the year, a lunch for Christmas, and the last one here at the end of the year. We think there might have been others, but since we have an afterschool program that doesn’t end until 6, we are largely left alone.
The Christmas meal was fairly low key. The English department went to a shabu shabu restaurant to eat heartily with administrative people. There wasn’t a lot of drinking because it was only lunch.
But the hwishik to open the year was sheer chaos. We ate samgyeopsal (grilled pig) and drank plenty of soju. Once drunk enough, the men from the other school departments (and invariably it was the men) would come over and use up all their English on us. They would bring soju and pour us drinks. At some point, I was “Black Knighted” which meant that I was too drunk to continue. I was allowed to elect someone to drink the rest of my shots for me in exchange for a favor. Upon learning there was a favor involved, I downed the shot anyway to indicate that I was not that drunk after all. (It totally makes sense to get more drunk to show how not drunk you are. It makes sense when you’re drunk anyway.)
And then we went to noraebang.
Usually, I love noraebang and singing with my friends, but it’s just awkward to do with your coworkers. They’re singing songs that we don’t recognize or understand, we’re singing songs they don’t recognize or understand– we might as well be in two different rooms. But we’re not, we’re awkwardly tucked into the same small room… while one of the teachers stands on the couch and grinds the wall. And the principal just blinks at all of this. We beg off at some point and only the intervention of the head teacher gets us free enough to stumble home.
So we prepared for our last hwishik with some measure of trepidation. Spoilers: it wasn’t as bad as the first one.
We ate a random meat platter with duck, samgyeopsal, ribs and sausages. (You would be right in being alarmed at this part of the Korean diet, but all the other food Koreans eat is so healthy and organic, they’re still not as unhealthy as the US about these things.) That was fun. My friend and I stuck to our English department table where we mostly drank soda. There were a few toasts for departing teachers that we drank a few shots of soju for but on the whole, our table steered clear of the alcohol.
The other teachers did not. On the one hand, it’s always amusing to watch as people get redder and redder. And on the other, there’s having to deal with drunk teachers.
I was just commenting to my friend that we had lost our novelty as the foreigners and no one was coming to talk with us when someone plonked down between us. I couldn’t remember seeing him before at all, to be honest, but the director of our department seemed to know him so that was all right. He knew I was leaving and asked me why that was. The only explanation I could give in Korean was that I wanted to become a diplomat and was going to the US to study. It’s sort of true. How do you explain that you want to bring people from different backgrounds together to do cool art projects for the sake of world peace in Korean? Anyway, he was quite sweet in asking me not to go, this strange teacher/admin worker person.
There was more chatting and more drinking and it was very bizarre. Eventually, the party moved to noraebang again. We had somehow lucked out in that we were not required to go. However, some of the male teachers tried to trap our English department at the table to start our own private drinking party. The head teacher saved us again, by pulling them in the direction of the noraebang.
My friend and I left the party to grab cake at a nearby dessert cafe. Sweet, sweet ending to a strange and fun night.