It’s the end of the year, which means that hwaeshik (회식) abounds in Korea. If you’re not familiar with what hwaeshik is, let me explain.
Hwaeshik when you go out and get more wrecked than a fratboy during his third week of college with your colleagues. It isn’t really an optional thing; it’s more like forced fun where you can’t say no, much like when your grandma asks if you want some food she made. Hwaeshik normally has several rounds. You first go to dinner, then hit some bars. If things nosedive, you might even end up at karaoke and watch your middle-aged, potbellied coworker drunkenly bellowing the latest k-pop hits.
My first hwaeshik was a little more than two years ago, only a few months after I started working at my school. Through an orientation program I had completed upon my arrival in Korea, I knew what to expect. We would eat and drink and be merry and I would use my very best Korean table manners: wait until the most senior person had their first bite to begin eating, pour drinks with both hands, not use a spoon and chopsticks at the same time. I was also told if I didn’t want to drink too much that I should just leave some soju (Korean rice liquor) in my glass and I would not receive more.
My colleagues and I went to a barbecue restaurant at eleven thirty in the morning – a bit early for lunch, but exams had just finished and everyone was ready to leave the office. I sat down next to one of the older teachers, a man in his mid-fifties whom I liked well. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t speak much Korean at that time, but he made up for the language barrier in unbridled enthusiasm.
“Autumn! Do you know soju?” he half-yelled at me in Korean shortly after we sat down.
Deciding not to recount any half-remembered nights fueled by the stuff, I smiled timidly. “A little.”
Apparently, “a little” is synonymous with “let’s rage.”
I poured him a glass of soju with both hands as I had been taught to do, and set the bottle back on the table. He grunted and looked pointedly at the glass, where I had left approximately half a centimeter unfilled.
I can take a hint. I topped him off, and he poured me an equally-full glass.
“Cheers!” he shouted, and downed his glass.
I drank half of mine and set my glass down.
If you’ve never had soju tastes a little like weak vodka, only made with rice instead of the humble potato. It’s not hard to drink, and at a dollar a bottle (three or four dollars at a restaurant), your burgeoning alcoholism doesn’t have to break the bank.
“No!” he said, pointing at my glass. “One shot!”
One shot is the Konglish term meaning “bottoms up.” I one shot-ed my drink, and was immediately poured more. And politely, I filled his glass as well.
It was a slippery sort of rabbit hole after that. Lunch lasted a little over an hour and a half before the principal thankfully decided it was time to break camp.
I stood up from the table clumsily (being a traditional barbecue joint, we were sitting on the floor, shoeless). I jerked on my boots, parka, and a single glove and stumbled out the sliding door. The other teachers piled into cars. I stumbled home on foot and I drunk dialed a friends and shouted that I wanted to watch Lord of the Rings.
He was duly impressed that I had managed to get sloshed before one, as it was a new (and rather impressive) personal record for me.
Needless to say, I did not make it through much of Lord of the Rings. I instead took a very heavy three-hour afternoon nap, which was interrupted by a call from my coteacher, wanting to know why I wasn’t at school.
Pausing only briefly to wonder if she hadn’t noticed that I had consumed roughly one-third of my body weight in soju, I told her that I had gone home.
She sighed. “I guess that’s okay. You didn’t have any classes this afternoon.”
That wasn’t entirely true. I had gotten schooled.
Have you ever gone to hwaeshik? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments below!