Basic Survival Rules For Drinking in Korea
The basic game plan for any night out among Koreans is to last five rounds which cover five different locations and often cover multiple alcoholic beverages and food across a spectrum of delicacies. It may sound like a basic bar hop from the college days of yore but for many, they’re no longer in college and still the need to “hop” from place to place persists. For anyone new to Korea, if you don’t know what the expectations are, you could go hard and fast and end up home in bed before the night has even gotten started by Korean standards. The rounds can be flexible in order, but do not doubt that there will be multiple rounds with lots of food and drink. Here are the basics before you head out for the first time or for the next time.
Round 1 (eel cha/ 일차):
Dinner and soju. Friends often gather around tables with built in grills to cook up some pork or beef while enjoying the numerous vegetable side-dishes. Taking shots of soju to get the night started is not unheard of and really should be expected. If you haven’t had soju most foreigners would describe it as similar to vodka or Japanese sake. Signs that round one is starting off with a bang include the sight of people with a soju shot glasses held upside down over their heads indicating they have taken a shot and finished it in one fell swoop. Round one may also include games to make those shots go down a bit faster.
Round 2 (ee cha/ 이차):
After dinner, many groups will head to a nearby hof to enjoy some brewskies. Don’t be surprised when the waiter waits around for you to order some food as well. Though you’ve just enjoyed a meat heavy meal, many hofs often require patrons to order food from large fruit platters to dishes of fried chicken. Drink up and be prepared to continue to dine. Remember, do not pour your own drink and be prepared for lots of group “cheers”, or rather “gunbae” (건배) in Korean, to keep everyone on the same drinking pace.
Round 3 (sam cha/ 삼차):
A second hof or bar that doesn’t enforce food orders is next up where the party will likely get very merry and very raucous. During round three, groups may start playing some fun games if they haven’t already. Soju and beer (maekju 맥주) , or somaek (소맥) when enjoyed together, may be enjoyed during this round and somaek bombs may be introduced to the party to really get you lit.
Round 4 (sa cha/ 사차):
Koreans love to sing and it doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune or not, round 4 will bring on the noraebong (karaoke bar). Private singing rooms are all the rage for everyone from the young to the old and are rented by the hour. Have some songs in mind when you walk in because you won’t be walking out without singing at least one loud anthem.
Round 5 (oh cha/ 오차):
By round 5 perhaps half of the merry group has left, but the go-getters are looking for one last thing to end the night. Options for those hoping to end the night intimately with friends includes tented street carts with alcohol or another hof/bar while those wishing to make the most of the night may drag you to a nearby dance club until the sun is once again shining.
If you’re hoping to last all night with a fun group of Koreans or you’re just out with your foreign friends but going Korean style, here are some basic survival rules:
Because you cannot pour your own drink in Korea, you may feel like you’re constantly being pushed to overindulge. Every time your glass is emptied someone will top it off again so, the first rule to keep in mind is to take it slow and have a glass of water nearby. Rather than refusing a drink, which is considered rude, take sips of your soju or beer and drink water. Remember, a night out in Korea will last the entire night because establishments don’t close. Also important to remember when receiving a top off from a friend, hold your glass with both hands or one hand with your other hand atop your wrist. This will indicate that you’re politely accepting the drink. You should also use these motions when you pour for your friend in response as well.
One basic mistake made by foreigners is to fill the belly at the first location not realizing that there will be food to enjoy during almost every round of the night. Unlike westerners who eat and then drink, Koreans eat and drink continuously. The second rule is not to eat too much early on. Pace yourself.
Do you want to leave early? Is your bed calling? You do not have to get overly intoxicated so that someone will put you in a taxi but, it is polite and generally easier to leave between rounds. When the group is en-route to the next location, that is the time to quickly say your goodbyes. Wave your hands to indicate you’re leaving and back away between bows. It will be much more difficult to leave mid-round while everyone is seated around a table so plan accordingly.
Forgive and forget and don’t bring it up again. Anyone from those having their first acquaintance with the Korean drinking culture to those that go out again and again can end up passed out at a table needing to be poured into a nearby taxi. Don’t hold it against them. It happens to the best of us and it happens to everyone at some point while they’re in Korea.