Have you ever wondered about the fact that every drama has at least one scene where a main character gets ragingly drunk? Or how routinely alcohol is mentioned in many Korean songs? This constant presence of the subject may lead some readers to make inferences about the importance of alcohol in South-Korean society.
Of course, such conclusions should not merely be based on the select media foreign fans consume. But even a little bit of research will quickly direct the reader to many articles about the drinking etiquette in South Korea, as well as articles about its importance in society (particularly in the work environment).
A study that was conducted this year even claims that South Koreans drink the most substantial amounts of hard liquor in the whole world — with Koreans drinking about twice as much as citizens of the second country on the list, Russia. That would mean many Koreans don’t just get tipsy when they drink; they get down-right wasted.
Such an intense presence of alcohol in people’s lives has also led to the creation of many songs about the subject. These songs also give the listener some idea as to why Koreans choose to drink, especially when they do so alone or with friends.
One of the main reasons for the consumption of hard liquor under such circumstances seems to be to forget. The speaker may wish to forget a past lover, a painful memory, or they may want to escape their daily life in general.
A good example of this is Eddy Kim’s “Sober Up” from his first mini-album The Manual. The jazzy song depicts its speaker after a break-up. Though aware that drinking is not good for them, the alcohol seems to be the only way to escape the pain of being alone:
“I gotta sober up
I discover you again after I sober up
So once again, bottoms up
Until this pain deep inside disappears
Oh baby stop
Please be forgotten after the next drink is empty”
In comparison, B1A4’s “물 한잔” (“Glass of Water”) off their latest mini-album Solo Day depicts a more general annoyance with everyday life. Jinyoung and Baro have penned the story of someone stressed by work, who simply wants to escape the pressures which weigh on them daily. Don’t be fooled by the little euphemism the band uses to make this song acceptable for their younger audience — they are absolutely talking about getting smashed:
“Far away, a wonderful world
What I need right now is a glass of water
Restless, dizzy, in a daze
You can’t control your body, what’s wrong?”
But such alcohol consumption is not a new phenomenon, as one can also see a similar theme in trot singer Nam-jin’s “빈잔” (“Empty Glass”) from 1982. Here too, the listener can detect a general world weariness:
“Anyway, isn’t life just holding up your empty glass and getting drunk?
Just pour your sorrows and fill my empty glass“
This quest for oblivion among some vocal people may also encourage others to start drinking, but for a very different reason. The near guarantee that everyone present will forget what happened “last night” might give some people the strength to finally honestly speak their minds.
Leessang’s Gary released a song in this vain on his first solo mini-album Mr. Gae, “술 취한 밤의 노래” (“Drunken Night Tune”). Though alcohol is only mentioned marginally, it is the prerequisite for his outpouring of honest (sometimes painful) opinions about his own life and where he sees himself at the moment:
“Sometimes, shitty things give me pain but then I just suck in the alcohol
I have to sell my emotions to live anyway, fighting hardships, going up and down in life …
I went through a lot but only one thing remains
I’m gonna throw it all away and leave this damn place some day”
Finally, Dynamic Duo’s song “가끔씩 오래 보자“ (“Meet Sometimes for a Long Time”) from their 2013 album Luckynumbers is a combination of the afore-mentioned themes. Yet, it also introduces a new concept. It is that of the consolation one might receive from drinking, especially when doing so with friends:
“Why do we fall even though we know we’ll get hurt?
Let’s try to endure through it as we fill our glasses
The jokes are harmless but I’m thankful for tonight for sewing up the holes in my heart
I’ll take the courage and comfort with my steps on this cold cement“
In the end, you can see that the reasons for alcohol consumption are pretty much the same all over the world. People drink to forget everyday troubles, to gain strength for honest confessions, and to gain comfort. More often than not, alcohol is consumed with friends – or specifically in South Korea, co-workers — since it loosens one’s tongue and may spark conversation.
Dear readers, how is alcohol consumed in your country? Are any specific practices associated with it?