How to Survive a Korean Workplace Dinner
It’s the end of the school year for us, which means plenty of pomp, circumstance, ceremonies broadcasted from the office, and workplace dinners.
The workplace dinner is a unique aspect of Korean office culture. At least once a semester, educators and school staff get together to share a meal. Some of my colleagues have referred to it as a “meeting,” which is a misleading term. The word calls to mind a long table, paperwork, and presentations.
Ideally, a Korean teachers’ dinner should look more like this:
Just with more hard liquor and fewer white people. (Picture source.)
Being fond of neither heavy drinking nor large portions of meat, and lacking the ability to have long, contemplative conversations with my colleagues in Korean, I spend a lot of time observing the dinners I attend. For those of you who’d like to arrive at school in better shape than your colleagues the morning after, this is my guide to the Korean teachers’ dinner.
Phase 1: The Arrival
This part is peculiar because you never know when or how you’re going to get there. If you’re lucky, the dinner will be held at a restaurant somewhere within a short distance of school. Special occasions might take you to a different part of town (if your town is big enough to have different parts). Usually there’s a bit of a gap between the end of school and the start of dinner. I suppose this is to allow teachers to arrive at the dinner on time, but I usually find myself wedged in this space where there’s not enough time to go home before dinner and also not enough time to do anything productive in the office while I wait for a ride or an appropriate time to leave.
Upon arrival at the restaurant, try to seat yourself near an English-speaking co-teacher who will be willing to make small talk with you for most of the night.
Phase 2: In Which the Alcohol Flows
To be honest, this happens in every phase, but it starts almost before the dinner does. It won’t take long for peoples’ faces get red and their laughter to grow louder. The older male teachers almost race to consume as much alcohol as possible throughout the meal. The fact that the school pays for these meals (taking a bit of it out of the teachers’ paychecks) probably has something to do with that.
When you first start working in Korea, you’ll have to make the decision about how much drinking you plan to do at school social events. As a foreign woman, I can usually get away with saying that I don’t like to drink very much, and replace my alcoholic toasting beverage with water or soda. Men seem to have a harder time getting out of this.
If you find yourself being poured alcohol and you don’t want to get into a drinking contest with your colleagues, keep your glass a little bit full to prevent having it refilled every time you look away. You can also keep an unused water cup nearby and slip your soju into that cup when you think no one is looking. (N.B.: If you are an obvious foreigner, someone is always looking.)
When you get offered a soju shot, the offerer will pour the glass for you. You take the shot (turning away out of politeness) and then hand over the same cup to the former offerer, for whom you will pour. Then he or she will take the shot. This gesture is a symbol of bonding, and should not be ignored.
Phase 3: The Food
The most common food for a teachers’ dinner is barbeque. Samgyeopsal (pork belly) or kalbi (pork rib) are popular choices. Hanu (Korean beef) is a pricey specialty. It’s easy to feed a group with this menu, and the meat is believed to go well with copious amounts of alcohol (see phase 2).
Since my English department is mostly young women, we’ve had some pretty uncommon meals for teachers’ dinners: Italian cuisine, duck, and shabu-shabu. The above meats are more common. No matter how hungry you are or how good everything tastes, I recommend that you pace yourself because of…
Phase 4: More Food
If you’re foolish enough to politely finish the food that’s set in front of you, someone is going to order a whole new plate. The tables are generally set to feed four adult human beings per grill. It’s a generous serving, to say the least.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, meat—and food in general—became scarce. I think food has such a significant place in contemporary Korean culture because that memory of hunger lingers in the collective consciousness. Although Korea has become a safe, economically stable, and developed nation, most of its people eat like they’re still recovering from a war.
Phase 5: In Which Everyone Starts Practicing English
Once people have had their fill of meat, they sink deeper into their shot glasses. With liquid courage comes a sudden willingness to speak that second language that everyone is supposed to have studied. It’s too bad I can’t serve alcohol to my students.
To say that I’ve heard some strange things around this point in the night would be an understatement. Usually the older men gather the courage to break social taboos and speak to the young foreign woman. Thankfully, most of my colleagues have been professional. When they come over drunk, it’s usually to express appreciation for my work in the office or the banana bread that I brought to school that one time. Sometimes I get asked to teach them English*, and sometimes I get told that I remind them of their daughters or the Statue of Liberty.
Because there’s nothing more American than a French woman in a toga. (Picture source.)
* “Of course!” I say. Without fail, they forget by the next morning. (Except one time.)
At some point in this phase, someone will check in with me and make sure I’m socially OK. Not because I’m at a party where I’m the single ethnic outlier, but in general. I often get asked if I’m lonely living in Korea, or if I’m not writhing in agony at being separated from my family as the result of a conscious life decision. In a country where many adult children live with their parents well into their thirties, the idea of a twenty-something on her own in another country must seem strange. Of course I miss my family—the fact that I live half a world away from them doesn’t mean I love them any less—but I rather like not having my parents pick me up from work.
This is also the point at which I’m likely to be advised on the course of my life and what I ought to do while I’m living in Korea.
“You should stay here a long time,” an older teacher told me. “You can get many ideas for your writing here.”
Phase 6: Seriously, My Stomach is Going to Explode
Because no Korean meal is complete without starchy rice products, there will usually be a final “dessert” round of noodles or rice—or, in some cases, both. If you’re lucky, the host staff might feel generous enough to offer a plate of fruit.
Even if you protest, your colleagues will insist that you eat your rice. It’s healthy for you.
Phase 7: Departure / Round 2?
Once the dinner has started to wind down, the principal or head teacher will make an announcement ending the official dinner and allowing people to leave. At this point, the younger teachers and people with children to supervise will spring up from their floor cushions and start putting on their shoes. The older teachers often dawdle for a while, and if you do, you’ll be left to drink more with them. If you manage to get away, there’s usually the question of how to get home. Teachers with cars will pause to take count of the people who need a ride. That is, assuming the dinner is actually over.
Even after a big meal, there might still be the threat of more food or drinks. Male teachers often go out for fried chicken, whereas groups with more than two women will visit a coffee shop. Your likelihood of going out for round two is inversely proportional to the number of people in your party.
(In the spirit of right-wing U.S. politics, I invented these figures.)
Normally this is a chance to chat in a place that’s smaller or quieter than a barbecue restaurant. Sometimes a whole-school affair might branch off into smaller groups for a little more social time before the return home. On one occasion, my school went out to a karaoke room, which is the opposite of quiet social time.
This one is much nicer than average. (Picture source.)
In other cases, especially at the end of the semester, teachers haul away into their cars faster than our students at the end of the school day.
Regardless of whether the dinner continues or not, I always wind up safely at home, grateful for the company of my colleagues and nursing a bloated stomach.