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Working, Drinking for Long Hours in Korea
By Conor Purcell
Senior Writer
Koreans often eat and drink together as a part of their work after office hours.
In August of 2003, Hyundai executive, Chung Mong-Hun, jumped from the window of his 12th floor office and fell to his death. His suicide illustrated some of the main problems with Korea today: corruption and the desire to save face at all costs. Before his death, Chung Mong-Hun had undergone 42 hours of questioning, spanning three days, concerning the illicit transfer of $400 million to North Korea. The underhanded nature of some of the transactions was under scrutiny and the beleaguered Chong obviously could not take any more.

While his case was an extreme one, the pressures of Korea can get to those from all walks of life, both Koreans and foreigners. The "nod and wink" culture here claimed another victim, and a particularly high profile one at that. However, the symptoms of these problems run deep and while the local media has scratched the surface of the issues, massive changes in social norms would have to take place for any real changes to be made. Judging from my experiences in the past month or so, this does not look likely to happen anytime soon ...

Having left teaching, I joined a Korean company in a non-teaching capacity. Working in an office and not a classroom was something that I was looking forward to. No more screaming kids, fights over pencils, timetables or humiliating open days. No more, "How's the weather today? It's sunny." No more inane, childish remarks, embarrassed giggles, or breathtaking ignorance. For now I was leaving the twilight zone of the Korean classroom and walking into the altogether more civilized office space. I should have known better.

The work itself was challenging and in a field I am interested in. But soon the office politics began to get wearing. As did the garbled conversations in Korean the rest of the office employees would have, interspersed with "waygook" and followed by glances in my direction and staccato giggling. One day, one of my co-workers started pointing at my face and laughing. "So red, so red," he exclaimed. He bounded over and started rubbing my face with the back of his hand. "Ooooaaaahhhhhh!" he shouted and soon the whole office was laughing at the poor waygookin (foreigner) who couldn't stand the 86 degrees Fahrenheit the office is normally at.

To stop this farce I literally had to grab his hand and tell him to stop. "Stop, stop," he mimicked and bounded off as happy as Larry. These moments of juvenility were to be expected and I usually laughed them off, knowing that these people really did not know any better. I often wondered how Korea managed to become the economic powerhouse it was before the IMF crisis. I had visions of Chaebol chairmen rubbing U.S. congressmen's faces in Capitol Hill boardrooms.

More eye opening was the discrepancy between the amount of hours at the office and the amount of actual work done. Our hours were officially ten to seven, but every night everyone would stay later, often until ten or eleven. Add on a 90 minute commute both ways and that's a long day. However I soon began to realize that when people were in the office, not much actual work was being done. Five minutes was about the longest that anyone sat in their seats before they were up wandering around, making tea, looking out the window or aimlessly chitchatting.

Michael Breen, in his book "The Koreans," writes about the farmer mentality that the Koreans have. This seemingly counter-productive work ethic would seem to part of that phenomenon. Part of the reason for the long hours goes back to the pressure to get ahead and not lose face. For most office workers, leaving before the boss does is a no-no, even if it entails three hours of chatting on messenger. I used to leave when I had my work done, and I relished the look of barely concealed contempt on the rest of the office as I strolled out.

These long hours are only part of the extreme nature of much of Korean society. Once the boss does leave, he will often invite the staff out for drinks. This does not mean a swift half in the local but half a dozen bottles of soju, until everyone is rat-arsed. At this point, who the boss is, is immaterial. Under the influence all is forgiven, and soju can be a very effective venting process where the stresses of conformity can be blown away for a few hours. Unfortunately these nights out take their toll, and the sheer amount of public sleeping that goes on in Korea is a testament to that.

Naturally, soon after I joined the job I was dragged along to one of these nights out. We went to an extremely expensive Japanese restaurant where everyone got shit-faced. I was on antibiotics at the time so could not drink alcohol. Trying to explain that to my bosses was like trying to tell them I was a hermaphrodite. Blank looks were followed by concerned nods as they poured another drink into my glass.

"If I drink one glass of alcohol, my intestines will melt and my testicles will dissolve."

"Really? That's terrible. Cheers!"

Luckily I escaped further promptings due mainly to my foreignness. The other staff members weren't so lucky. One of the other lads turned red. Vomited. Came back and started drinking again. He admitted he hates drinking, but Koreans judge their staff and their potential business partners by the amount of booze they can hold. They will not choose the company that has the best offer or service, but the company whose representatives make them feel the most comfortable on a night out. Drinking is seen as a test of manhood rather than something to be enjoyed. As my co-worker wiped regurgitated kimchi from his face, I couldn't help but feel relieved I had been born thousands of miles away.

Noraebang or Singing Room
While Koreans pride themselves on being a member of the group, part of the problem with the group culture is that it leaves little time for themselves. The sheer stress of constantly living up to other people's expectations means that Koreans frequently need to blow off steam. Now, of course, that in itself is causing the problems. The drinking culture here is so extreme that earlier in the year the Korean government introduced a moderate drinking night. Once a month. On a Monday. On this day Korean's were advised to drink "moderately." This can plainly illustrate the extent of the booze problem in this country.

A recent article in a local vernacular daily pointed out that the binge-drinking phenomena was due to the strict hierarchical nature of Korean's lives. Under the influence, Korean's are allowed to say and do things that would never be tolerated in a normal situation. Another reason for the binge culture is the limited time Koreans have for leisure activities. Byte-size entertainment is the order of the day, whether it be a noraebang, PC room, barber shop or soju tent, Korean's like to get to the point.

While this might seem convenient in theory, in practice it's another story. The Confucianist nature of Korean society, far from harmonizing relationships, seems to further complicate things. Who are you most answerable too? Your boss? Your parents? Your wife? Confucianism may have worked thousands of years ago, but into today's intertwined society, its tenets seem to be holding Koreans back. And this medieval streak running through Korean society will have to changed if Korea is too live up to it's much vaunted potential.

Other Articles by Conor Purcell
    Foreigners Fear for Safety in South Korea
    "Me Want Talk to You, 2 Minutes, Come Baby"
    The Good, the Bad, and the Talented
    Lost in Racism?
    Impeachment Makes Korea Laughing Stock

Conor Purcell, an honor graduate from Griffth College in Dublin, Ireland, is currently working as staff writer for The Seoul Times. More writings from Conor can be seen at






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