Friday, May 27, 2011

How To Avoid Getting Forced To Drink, Without Becoming a Social Pariah With Your Korean Friends

After taking issue with "12 Rules for Expats," and disagreeing with the assertion that you NEED to drink like a fish to survive in Korea, I've been asked in the comments to specify: what ARE the strategies that can be used to avoid drinking like a fish, without ending up socially stunted?

Good question. I've put the question out on Twitter, Facebook, and at AFEK, and as answers come in, I'll add them to the post here.

If you have a good strategy, let me know in the comments, or by e-mail roboseyo at gmail.

A. Drinking culture in Korea is, like every other part of the culture, constantly changing, and it's starting to become a little easier to decline, or say no, than it used to be. It's still easy to find anecdotes and articles saying that things are really bad... but (anecdotally, I once heard) it used to be impossible, back in the '80s, to decline if your boss said "I'm gonna buy a girl for you tonight!" whereas now, it's socially awkward to decline another shot. Group coercion is getting easier.

B. If you're not born and raised Korean, you have the golden ticket: the foreigner card. It's SO much easier for you if you haven't grown up pickled in Korea-juice, to utilize one of these escape-routes. Be grateful for it.

C. While I do like getting a bit tipsy from time to time, I'm not crazy about getting bombed. The day-after cost has steadily increased for me as I get farther from my 24-year-old prime. That's life.

D. Going along with it and getting bombed with everyone else, if you don't mind the hangover, IS a valid option, and it'll get you a rep as a fun one to be around. Even as I ask around about this one, some peoples' response is "Don't be a baby. Just enjoy the ride." On the other hand, if Bad Things happen when you get drunk, be they medical, vomit or hangover-related, or bad decision-related, or if you just don't feel safe when you're out of control, it's time to explore other options.

So. Here are the strategies I use, or have seen used, to avoid getting overly drunk in social, and office dinner settings. If I'm off base, tell me in the comments. If you have better advice than I've given here, let me know, and I'll thank you and add it to the list.

The best tip I've seen so far, which I'm giving pole position, is this one, from Twitter:
Be proactive, and be the "drink giver" pouring drinks for everyone else, and people won't notice you aren't drinking yourself. (follow @Jurimyoo)

For all of these: learn, and practice, expressing yourself with tact and grace. Avoid making it into a "thing" or a scene if you can.
Also: All of these strategies will be easier to execute in a group that has mixed males and females, mixed Koreans and non-Koreans, than a group that is all-Korean and all-male. I can't speak for an all-female group. Duh. Also, the bigger the age gap between you and the person telling you to drink (if they're older), the harder it is to pull these off. An all-male group where the ringleader is much older than you (and old-school) is your worst possible situation. If the group is moving to the "next place" and you see that all the females and/or all the other non-Koreans are going home, bear in mind the kind of hard-drinking situation you're probably heading into.

Korean drinking manners. More. Further reading. Article from 2002. Yes, it's a problem.

Roboseyo's Tips:
(image source)
1. Be up-front. For all of the tips that follow, if you level with your colleagues or friends and explain to them honestly that you are susceptible to really bad hangovers, or that you don't like getting drunk, that you're not a strong drinker, or that your husband/wife hates it when you come home drunk, if your friends respect you, they'll respect that. For the most part.

You might catch a little ribbing for it (after all, you're hanging out with drunk people) but you're man/woman enough not to take that bait, aren't you?

or conversely:

2. Lie through your teeth. Tell them you have an allergy to alcohol (it happens), that you're driving home, or that you get red-face, or that you projectile vomit uncontrollably when you drink, or that you are very religious and that your religion forbids any alcohol consumption. Be aware that this means you can NEVER drink with these people, and you have to keep your lie straight. Religions that do not allow drinking: (from wikipedia) some Hindus, some Buddhists, Islam, Jainism, Rastafari, Baha'i, some Methodists, most Latter-day Saints, and Seventh Day Adventists. Be able to answer three or four basic questions about the faith if it's your reason not to drink.

Or just lie that your tolerance is way lower than it actually is. Or that you're on medication, or that you have an early appointment the next day, or that you need to take the subway home. 

If you've said you can't drink, don't be a wet blanket, though. Participate in the fun, sing some songs at the noraebang, do a toast, play the games (drinking cider) and be ready to help carry some people to their taxis if need be. You can also watch the restaurant owners and count the soju bottles, to make sure your bill doesn't get overcharged, as some restauranteurs have been known to do, once everyone at the table is sloshed.

3. Respect their choice to drink. Don't make them feel judged for choosing to tipple.

4. Drink something different than everybody else. This is where the foreigner card comes in handy. Explain politely that you can't drink boilermakers, or somec, or soju, and ask to just drink beer. 

5. Don't finish your glass. Somebody will refill it. That's the custom in Korea. Once it gets less than a third full, people will start wanting to refill your glass, so nurse your drink.

6. Alternate alcohol with cider or cola. You need to have something in your glass to partake in the toasts, but it doesn't necessarily NEED to be alcoholic, as long as you're clinking your glass with everyone else.

7. Pretend (or just let it be known) that you REALLY hate mixed drinks. (this is my most common strategy, because I do) - make a big deal out of somebody trying to put a little soju or whiskey in your beer, or in your cider, because you prefer it straight. This gives you a little more control of what you're consuming.

8. When it's time to go home, go while everybody's moving between places - don't leave in the middle of the proceedings at one watering hole, because then (thanks to the group feeling thing), everybody will feel like it's time to go. Part of the reason Koreans go to a second and third and fourth place when they drink is so that people have a time when they can leave the party without wrecking the vibe.

9. Plan an escape route - set your phone alarm for 10:30, pretend it's a phone call and you have to go. Say you have to take the subway home before it closes. Say you have an early appointment.

10. Even if YOU don't drink, know a thing or two about Korean drinking customs, so that you know when to fill people's glasses, how to pour a drink, how full to fill a beer mug, what to say during a toast, and things like that, and basically how to fit in, even if you aren't imbibing. Fitting in with the group is important in Korea, even if you aren't participating in the one-shot showdown.

(image source)

For tips from others, I've bolded the ones I think are particularly helpful.

Funniest suggestion from AFEK goes first:

"Event 1: Drink as much as you can until you puke - on the table, preferably. Be sure to insult a few people, challenge the boss to a wrestling match, ogle women shamelessly. Talk about the joys of interracial sex.

Event 2: Don't worry about it at all because no one will be pressuring you to drink this time."

More advice from the long-term and lifers on AFEK (where you can ask your own questions on the open board):

1. buy your own drinks.

2. excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, and disappear into the night.

3. if it's not family, I hide a bottle of cider and fill my glass under the table. My family understands that I don't drink much.

4. If you think the beer is crap here, just say "I don't like beer"... but be warned that you might then get pushed to drink soju.

5. My wife says some Korean women use (hide behind) the fact they're Christians to get out of drinking at work gatherings. I used to try to sit with the non-drinking Ajumma teachers at school dinners.

6. I kept a small package of b-complex to consume before I started drinking. It kept my body flushed with vitamins and water during the beer/soju ordeal.

7. As a non-drinker (recovering, dry for XX years), I tell the truth to those I trust, and with those I don't, I pretend to be Mormon. My mormon co-worker gives me tips on how to appear Mormon (don't drink coffee at work, etc). Convoluted? Yes. Effective? Undoubtedly.

8. I usually do a few one-shots at the beginning, and then slow down to sipping. When I feel it go to my head, I revert to pretend-sipping, and let it slosh out of my glass so that they refill me from time to time. Usually everybody's too wasted to notice.

9. I'd also drink a liter or two of water while at the table to help stay hydrated.

10. Tell them alcoholism is in my family, so I avoid it to be safe.

11. These are good, but I don't like the cider-under-the-table. That has the potential for being extremely embarrassing. Honesty is just the best policy all around. People might kid around at you not drinking but if you are being social they won't care. If you try to "pull a fast one" on people, they WILL care.

12. Gain some weight... being a giant helps me hold my own against any Korean dude.... Honestly though, drink water between shots.

13. Play up being 'Western,' take a shot of soju and then stick with beer.

14. Slosh some out of your glass when you set it down, and only take shots when you're directly toasted.

15. Eat a lot while you drink, and chug some gatorade if you've drunk too much.

16. Establish your out in advance - "I have to get home by __ because of __." -it's easier to cancel an 'out' because you want to stay longer, than to create one on the fly.

17. Say you're on antibiotics, or stick with beer. It's weak as vicar's piss, anyway.
image source

From Twitter:
"Best way is to be a proactive "drink giver" - move around seats to keep giving drinks to people"
"I rely on weekly 'build your tolerance' binge sessions to keep my cool at 희식."
"I'm going back to work after this." 
"My condition is bad." 
"I have 몸살" (I'm sick.)
Stealthily pour the makkeolli back into the bowl.
Keep a bottle of water in your bag.
Excuse yourself to make a phone-call to replenish your water supply if need be.
Avoid hoe-shik. Don't drink soju.

(btw: you should totally follow @soniassi, @DTZ247, @HubofErik and @ChrisinSeoulSK on Twitter)

From Facebook:
Don't finish the glass.
Tell them I'm pregnant.
I'm taking medicine.
I have an allergy to drinking.
Bring a dongsaeng (younger friend) to drink for you.
Most effective is claiming the genetic condition which leads to flushed skin and is common for Asians (aka Redface). It's actually dangerous for them to drink because their bodies literally can't process alcohol. Lawsuits have been known to work as well.
With students/friends I just say I don't like getting drunk. It ruins the following day. With a boss, I would frame it as being for religious/spiritual reasons.
Have a partner-in-crime at the table who can, upon receiving the secret signal, distract the goup while you pour your drink out/on the ground/back into the pitcher/into someone else's glass/somewhere.
Sit near a potted plant and dump your soju there (don't worry: the plant's probably used to it)...refill your glass with water, and make a big show of downing it in one shot.
Be an optimist: leave your cup half full.
Always go out with a friend who knows your feelings about over-drinking, and will have your back when you need to activate one of these strategies.

If none of these strategies work, and they're your friends...
reconsider your choice of friends, if they're so thoughtless that they don't care about how you feel, or if getting you drunk is their way of exercising social power over you.

If they're your coworkers...I'm sorry. People have won lawsuits where their boss forced them to drink... but then you've clearly made yourself the office social pariah. Better to dodge before that headbutt comes along.

Thanks to everyone who contributed on Facebook, at AFEK, and on Twitter.


Anonymous said...

I have to say, hands down the most effective way to get out of drinking is to be visibly pregnant. Even so, I still sometimes get asked if I'd like a beer, and a co-worker gave me a bottle of wine as a gift when he transferred to a different school, but I'm pretty sure his wife just bought a bunch of bottles for him to hand out, as he seemed a little sheepish when handing it to me.

Roboseyo said...

I'll definitely do that next time I'm out, ShotgunKorea. :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I saw the AFEK post only after you had already posted to your site. My husband works for a heavy-drinking-can't-refuse company, and his strategy of late is to take of the vomiting people. It's a gross job, but some hits on the back, holding some guy's tie out of the way, being the person to lean on...these are the ways to be both at the party, but also leave the table frequently or for long periods in a respectable manner (especially if it is your boss doing the vomiting). As for me, it's a bit different as a woman I think, but if I am forced by older men to drink, I usually put my hand around the soju glass and sip instead of doing shots. If the others around you are drunk, and if your hand is covering most of the glass, most people don't even realize that you haven't downed the whole thing.

얀프렐 said...

Thanks for the enlightning article. As I havn't drunk any alcohol for almost half a year now (except for the one produced by apple juice in the sun etc.) Korea will be quite challenging for me, coming back in September. I will make use of your advices for sure.

Staying in Germany right now, one last question: I've never seen alcohol-free beer in Korea. Has anybody of you seen something like this on the peninsula?
I know that alcohol is low in many Korean beers and some pubs even mix beer with water for pitchers. But is there any alcohol-free version?

Jo said...

Well, I usually have a few drinks, and when I am done I turn the alcohol glass over. The people I spend time with usually know that I get migraines, so I always have a coke glass as well. I continue the party with the coke, until I am sobering up, and then I turn the alcohol glass back over. If anyone asks I just tell them that I am done drinking (blank) for now. For the long parties it becomes funny to the Koreans in the group. (glass right side up, glass upside down, glass right side up...)
Really you just have to be honest with them. Believe it or not, Koreans do have a heart. Stop thinking they are all mean.
And if that does not work, drink slow, have two glasses (one for water) and try not to call attention to which glass you are drinking from more.

Roboseyo said...

I have seen alcohol free beer in my university's convenience store.

Gisela Verdin said...

I've only had drinks with Koreans just a couple of times...but I usually state that even thou I do like Soju it's too strong for me and prefer makgeolli (let's strong and better if mixed with lime soda)... :) ...and once you say yo do like Soju (being a foreigner) most people will agree that is "too strong" for non-Koreans ;)

SJ said...

The only excuse I've ever seen work is the religion card, and like you pointed out, once you play it, you'll never be able to drink with them again. Everything else tried by native Koreans didn't work: fatigue, sickness, etc. No pregnant women in that group, so I didn't get to see if that worked.

Shmuberry said...

I've never been to Korea (yet) but when my Korean friends go out in Montreal, it can be quite crazy. I have 2 Oppas who know about my epilepsy and make sure that no one pressures me into drinking as results can be quite devastating for me... well that's what I told them at least :P I actually have very high tolerance but I just don't like to get too drunk, I like to be tipsy and enjoy watching the drunks.

Whenever these 2 oppas aren't there, I flash my medic-alert bracelet to the person pressuring me: that usually makes them feel horrible and they usually don't offer me drinks anymore :)

Roboseyo said...

Shmuberry: having a few oppas who understand your situation and will back you up is one of the best safety nets you can have.

chiam said...

It's 2011. You're not going to get fired for refusing to drink. If you drink, drink. If you only drink a little, drink a little. If you don't drink at all, don't drink at all.

All of these suggestions boil down to cheating and lying; both of which are far worse.

For the love of Christ people, stick up for yourselves!

Shmuberry said...

Robo: Definitely! They got me out of uncomfortable situations, I'm glad I'll be with them when I'll be in Korea this summer!!

ejorpin said...

Interesting post and interesting to read through the comments too.

I'm not sure I'm qualified to comment as a) I don't work in Korea (I'm an expat spouse); b) I'm a woman; c) most of my experience of Korea's drinking culture comes through my husband; and d) he is the boss! But not being qualified has never really stopped me before so...

Three cheers for kicking off with the fact that Korean culture is constantly changing. Indeed it is, and fast, it's what makes it such an intriguing place to live. And yes, I think being a foreigner means you can pretty much do whatever you feel is appropriate in these situations (with respect and dignity, of course)!

From what I've seen, leaving at the change of 'stations' is highly acceptable, and most do. Plus, compared to the aggressive drinking cultures like the one back home (in Australia), I think there is much more of an atmosphere of looking out for each other in Korea than is acknowledged.

I've seen many chicken and beer evenings where Koreans have helped monitor and control their (Korean) friends drinking if they know they are particularly susceptible, or not feeling well etc. On the surface it might appear that everyone is joining in 'one shot' after 'one shot', but if you pay close attention you might find there's much more going on than you think. I've seen (Korean) people pour water shots (in place of soju), shuffle glasses, take sips instead of shots, openly switch to water - all kinds of stuff that goes against the typical view of what the drinking culture is meant to be.

Jure said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

As someone who loves the drinking culture in Korea, I don't have much to add with regards to how to avoid it. But I will say this - Roboseyo's number one pick for getting out of drinking (pouring drinks for others) is also my number one pick for getting drunk. Any time you pour a drink for a Korean, he will feel obligated to return the favor. So just a word of caution, for those who don't eagerly anticipate a return shot the way I do, you may want to try another strategy.

Jun said...

Even I'm korean. I can't enjoy that kind of frocing people to drink atmosphere. haha.
Quite tough for me too.
But when it comes to social meeting hard to decline.
Especially for male! Just pour your drink into near water glass, when others are distracted. That's the best! Or asking your closest korean friend to cover yours is also good option!