SEOUL — A seedy pub in the heart of Seoul wasn't exactly booming on a recent Thursday night. But that made no difference to one rowdy group.
Amid the pink sofas, dusty framed photographs hanging from the walls and a menu featuring three dishes for 10,000 won ($7), a dozen college students sat down for a long night of drinking.
“Don’t eat the food and drink more,” one of the sophomores shouted to his friends, who were busily slurping hot stew and other spicy dishes.
“Come on guys, why don’t we all have a drink,” the leader interjected every few minutes, prompting all present to refill their glasses before clinking them with a loud cheer.
Gatherings like these are rituals carried out by freshmen and sophomores at the beginning of the academic year in March, widely considered a month of endless drinking. These "welcome ceremony" outings create a sense of group identity and order among Korean students.
Of course, college-aged drinking is common throughout the world. But in South Korea there is a particular, and sometimes dangerous, cultural element at work. And this phenomenon exists not only in colleges, but prevails throughout Korean society.
Members of a group are pressured to drink when others do, instead of at their own individual pace, especially in the presence of older members with higher status.
“Let’s all have a drink,” coming from a senior member most often means “bottoms up.” Those who are good at drinking empty their glasses, indirectly forcing others to cave in to the pressure.
But there is a dark side to these rituals: they can produce alcohol-related accidents and deaths.
So far this year, two freshmen fell to their deaths from balconies after drinking at a welcoming ceremony. Almost every year, one or two deaths occur.
Those who take part in the rituals are aware of the dangers.
“I don’t think there’s a problem with making the freshmen drink, if they are willing to. But those who make them drink have to take responsibility for them,” said sophomore Kim Myung-in, the class president of the dozen students squeezed together on the pink sofas.
The 20-year-old admits there is pressure to conform, but said they try to respect the younger students’ opinions, as much as possible. “They’ll probably be the ones forcing us to drink later on,” Kim laughed.
By college student standards, Kim’s group was imbibing at a moderate pace. Over a one-hour period they consumed 6.5 pints of beer and six bottles of soju, the cheap traditional distilled beverage that tastes similar to vodka, but comes with a wicked kick.
Most were downing random concoctions called Poktanju — “bomb drink” in Korean — that kills the strong smell of soju, but speeds the intoxication process. In other words, it's a cheap and efficient way of drinking.
There is a reason why Korea's heavy drinking culture doesn't wither away so easily, despite massive hangovers, throwing up on the streets, and the frequent loss of cell phones, backpacks and purses.
Here's how Chun Sungsoo, a professor at Sahmyook University's department of health management, explains it:
“Korean students are treated like children until they graduate high school. They’re in a very stressful environment because of studying, and then are suddenly considered adults once they get into university. This stirs up a great sense of liberation, and students start expressing this through their drinking culture."
Chun said 10 percent of freshmen experience serious alcohol poisoning during the early drinking season, sometimes leading to intoxication levels close to a state of unconsciousness.
In response to the problem, South Korea's Ministry of Health recently sent letters to student councils nationwide, asking them to refrain from excessive drinking parties.
But alcohol-related problems aren't limited to colleges. According to a study conducted by Chun’s research team, 16 percent of all deaths in Korea in 2005 were caused by alcohol. Meanwhile, productivity losses related to booze costs the Korean economy some $14 billion a year.
Back on college campuses, there is one bright side: most agree student drinking culture isn't as bad as it used to be.
In previous decades it was a normal for older students to force freshmen to use sneakers (not new of course) or even buckets as their “glasses” during welcoming parties. More freshmen now understand they have a right to say no, and the culture of respecting those rights is developing, but slowly.
So until then, it's still bottoms up in Seoul.
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