Tales of Savage Moderation in South Korea

by Ralph Karst


Our friend Mr. Motgol has a great, pithy summation of the relationship between South Korea and alcohol:  “This place is like Disneyland for alcoholics.” Ho ho—it’s funny because it’s true! No closing time for bars? Check. Beer, wine, soju and even scotch available 24 hours-a-day in convenience stores? Check. Ultra-cheap local swill (soju) that’ll get you royally hammered for a few bucks? Check. Cold beers sold on the trains? Hell yeah! Come to work with an atomic hangover, your pores oozing sour mash? No problem! Pass out drunk in a bar, sidewalk, park, taxi—and wake up still in possession of your wallet, smart phone, and both kidneys? Yup. Blue laws? HAHAHAHAHA! Korea may keep a tight clamp on pot, speed, narcotics, hallucinogens, prescription painkillers, even Valium and Xanax.  But liquor? Anyeong, Dionysus!

But I have a terrible confession to make. My name is Ralph, and I am a moderate drinker. [Hello, Ralph] Well, it happened again last Friday. My friends were all telling me, “C’mon, get drunk with us, Ralphie!” And I wanted to, man! I really really wanted to! But there I was at the bar, three or four Stellas in, and, I’m telling you, I totally intended to order another beer.  But it was like I opened my mouth and another voice came out, like I wasn’t even in control—it was my damn moderation that had taken over. And I heard myself say, Can I get a cranberry juice? And the bar girl said, “Cranberry juice and what?” So she was giving me an out, a second chance, but I pissed it away, just like so many other chances I’ve had to get rip-roaring drunk. Just cranberry juice, please, I said, and she rolled her eyes and went “Oh, okay,” and when I got my pathetic glass of juice and came back to where my friends were hanging out, they saw what I had in my hand—they knew it wasn’t a vodka-and-cranberry, they just knew—and I could see the disappointment in their faces, the shaking heads, the looks of pity, the looks of disgust.

Yes, sometimes the virtue of being a moderate drinker seems like not a virtue at all in South Korea.  It’s a useless virtue—like being the world’s best Betamax repairman, or an honest used-car salesman.  At best, nobody cares, and at worst, it works against you.  It seems women I date (both Korean and Western) gravitate to the extremes.  Either she’s a virtual teetotaler and thinks my drinking two bottles of Hite with our samgyeopsal is some sort of Leaving Las Vegas-style mega-bender, or I get Lil’ Miss Tipsy who pounds ten 500cc’s and then wants to hit the soju-bang at 4am for some C1 and raw octopus.

I know it can be far worse for Koreans—not drinking can literally hurt your career. I have a few Korean friends in low-level office jobs, mostly young women, who live in dread of the company’s  after-work “team building”. If you have a boss who judges you by your drinking “talent” (yes, that’s a phrase they use here), you can kiss promotions good-bye and say hello to lots of shit-work. Either find a “white knight” (a co-worker, usually a man, who will be willing to drink your drinks for you) or learn the skill of secretly dumping your soju shots in the potted plant next to your table. Thankfully the culture of enforced company piss-ups seems to be on the wane. An increasing number of women in white collar jobs has dampened the “old boys’ club” spirit, and a 2007 Seoul High Court case found that forcing employees to drink was illegal, awarding $32,000 to a woman who’s boss threatened her with “drink, or else!”

Now, I know there are lots of foreigners who don’t particularly dig the liquor-soaked social scene here and stay away from the bars. The thing is, I like beer. I like whiskey, tequila shots, and the occasional kamikaze. What’s more, I like bars. I like the energy, the good craic, live bands, stand-up comedy, and trivia nights. I like the possibility (kind of hypothetical, but still) that I could meet the love of my life, or pull a hot no-strings-attached one-nighter. But there inevitably comes a time when the night’s joie-de-vivre takes a turn for the ugly, the sloppy, the slurry, the repetitive, or even the violent and hateful. Mr. Motgol, on a recent sober stretch, likened it to running an Olympic marathon, and suddenly realizing that you’re competing in the Special Olympics.


I often find myself invoking my 2 a.m. rule—after 2 a.m. (give-or-take an hour or two on either side), I either want to be sleeping, or screwing. Exceptions can be made for a bar where there’s a good live band, or the occasional late-night casino run. But after 2 or 3 a.m., nothing good is going to happen at a bar. Conversations will be either incoherent or repetitive or both. You are not going meet someone new—or at least meet someone new in such a way that the meeting will be a positive one. True—I miss out on some truly spectacular human carnage. But really, you’ve seen one bar fight, one fat guy passed out in a toilet stall, one hot girl jump on the bar and do a striptease until her boyfriend drags her out the door, you’ve seen ‘em all.

This is not to brag. It’s not an issue of self-control. It’s not like I crave that next drink and I shut myself off with iron willpower. In fact, there’s evidence that suggests my craven moderation is more a result of genes than conscious decision-making.  My father’s side of the family is solidly Eastern European Jewish, and “Jews don’t booze” is a well-established cultural stereotype. However, this is a stereotype with some solid science behind it.  Just as studies have shown that the Irish and Native Americans are two ethnic groups that may be genetically predisposed to alcoholism, research suggests that the Ashkenazi (European) Jewish gene pool has a higher than average prevalence of the ADH2*2 gene, a gene associated with lower rates of heavy drinking.

It may also be as much nurture as nature. My mother’s side of the family was Polish-Catholic, and lived much closer to us, so we spent way more time among the goyim than among the tribe. Now I’m not saying that my mother’s relatives were total lushes, but weddings, birthday parties, Father’s Day reunions, etc. always featured a fair slice of tipsy aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., and once in a while someone would get rather blotto. My father would sometimes call me and my brother over, point out the stumbly uncle, screechy aunt, or belligerent cousin, and tsk tsk his disapproval. It’s a shonda, he said, using the Yiddish word for “a shame” or “a fool.” He told us that the reason why he seldom drank at all among his non-Jewish in-laws, and the reason why Jews everywhere drank very guardedly was that you didn’t want to be a “shonda for the goyim”—in other words, act shamefully in front of non-Jews, therefore shaming all Jews in general and fueling ancient hatreds.

But really, when I pull my 2 a.m. Saturday night disappearing act, bouncing out of the bar at the first signs of an impending meltdown, ass-out, or argy-bargy, I’m not thinking “don’t be a shonda for the goyim.”  I’m not thinking about anti-Semitism. Nor am I casting judgment on my friends who choose to keep hoisting into the wee-hours.  I’m actually trying actively to not judge. While moderation is indeed a virtue, smug superiority and arrogance is not. My father could be that way at times—I never get drunk so therefore I am  morally superior to you! I’ve got to be on my guard against adopting such a douche-baggy attitude. Judge not lest ye be judged. And if people do judge me to be a totally lightweight, a complete and utter pussy when it comes to drinking, so be it. L’ chaim, my friends! Really, I’m just thinking about getting some sleep. While I like bars and drinking, I probably like sleeping even more. I’ll hear about the late-late-night chaos I’ve missed the next day, or on Monday, or read about it on this blog. And is there anything more soul-crushing than during the winter, waking up the next day at 4 or 5 p.m. with it already dark outside? Morning comes twice a day or not at all—a great line from an Uncle Tupelo song and as pure a drinker’s lament as has ever been written. (Think about it.) My mornings come once a day and are usually in the morning. Not as sexy, but so what.




  1. I tried to have strong feelings about this piece, but I just kept feeling so neutral about it. Nice window into the world of a man neither fully ensconced in the bar scene and all its debauchery, nor totally on the outside looking in. Sounds like a pretty good place to me.

  2. Wowsa. I’m plugged all over this thing! Nice stuff, Ralph. I never knew about the concept of “shonda for the goyim.” Now it makes sense. Perhaps the lower incidence of savage boozing is one of the reasons Jewish folks have prospered in the New World.

  3. I’m with you, Ralph. Being married helps me get home a bit earlier these days, but what you say is true – nothing good ever comes out of hanging around the bar until 4 or 5 o c’clock. I wonder if you indulge what you might call the ‘British solution’ – since the pubs there close early (11 or 12 if I recall) people start getting their swerve on immediately after work, and are royally pissed well before midnight. Still some pain the next day, but much more tolerable.

  4. @Bocskay: I love getting hammered, but the late late nights are a thing of the past for me as well. Part of being married, part of getting old and not being able to function the next day ravaged by a hangover. So of late I’ve exercised the “British solution” with other, older married friends (primarily). Start at 4, 5, or 6 and go home by 12. Works much better than the “let’s drink ’til 4:30 on a weekmorning” mantra of my early days in Korea.

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