Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Survived A Korean Enkai And All I Got Was This Lousy Hangover

Well, not really. I don't have much of a headache, but that's mostly due to copious amounts of Pocari Sweat (Japanese Gatorade) rather than the actual circumstances of the party, and I feel fortunate that the local office here isn't as nuts about after-hours drinking as the rest of the country appears to be.

Those who know Japanese know that an enkai isn't just any excuse for people who work together to get wasted; in this case, our install team got a machine built and accepted by the customer less than 7 days from the day the first crates showed up at their loading dock, which happens to be a world record -- at least for our firm, but given the nature and size of implanters, probably for the industry as well. So the team lead gets a spot bonus, and the whole office goes out for Korean sushi and a hell of a lot of soju. As any expat who has done time in East Asia will tell you, there are two functions to any enkai involving foreigners: first, the usual one of bullying any junior and/or female employees into getting ridiculously trashed, and second, to haze the Westerners with food that is usually uncooked and often still alive, and which usually comes from animals that people with roots west of the Ural-Caucasus line don't consider food sources. I had already passed the spicy-foods test of Korean cuisine the first time that I went out with the local manager, using my Italian racial bonus to stun him by consuming large amounts of raw garlic slices, so this was actually the easy part.

Of course, "easy" is a relative term, and for a lot of people it does not cover snacking on octopus tentacles that are still squirming on the plate, looking for all the world like maggots roiling a carcass, slugs, or any number of species of parasitic worms. Death metal racial bonus to the rescue! It's a lot easier to eat things that look like they're still alive with "Where The Slime Live" or "Beyond The Unholy Grave" playing in the back of your head. Also, once you actually start chewing it, the octopus stops squirming rapidly, and most of the sea-worm bits that are also on the menu (plenty of normal sashimi for normal eating, too, when the freakout part is done) basically taste like nothing. Like octopus, it's a lot like eating rubber bands, except it doesn't taste like rubber: you chew and chew and chew and there's no content.

PROTIP: Dunk your living octopus tentacles in the hot sauce provided and hold them up for your colleagues to see. The tentacle freaks out at the capsacin content and will turn into a mini-octopus boner. Laugh a lot, eat it, and drink more soju.

In Korea, as in most other places, it's bad form to get so trashed that you need assistance getting home, but given the Confucian social structure and the office culture enforced by a decade and more of military dictatorship in the '80s, it's even worse form to refuse a drink at an office gathering, especially from someone in the organization who is more senior than you. This means that survival at one of these shindigs is heavily dependent on having a liver of complete iron -- and outweighing the rest of the participants by around a hundred pounds certainly doesn't hurt either. I feel really sorry for the other juniors in the office, who don't have this advantage to fall back on and drank about as much as I did, but they're probably glad that they're not working in a normal Korean office, where drinking like this after work is the norm rather than the exception. There have been a series of articles in the IHT here recently on the theme of excessive drinking, and Korea basically leads the world in lost productivity due to alcohol consumption. I'd believe it, but the economy is so ridiculous around here that it's almost scary to contemplate what it would be like if Korea sobered up and started taking work seriously.

PROTIP: Soju is served in shots, but is about half the proof value that Westerners expect from shooting liquors (around 19 percent, which is closer to sake). This means that you can do twice as many shots as you would normally -- and, in a setting like this one, you will drink that much. At least. In an extremely compressed amount of time. I'm pretty sure that I had somewhere between 14 and 20 in the space of a little less than 4 hours, some with cola, which M.D., as the least senior guy at the table, was very happy about (blame him, not me, if you're in Korea and get half-soju, half-Coke when you ask for a SoCo, even if I did come up with the name), but most without, which is definitely not something to try at home unless you also mass north of 110 kilos and have a habit of casually drinking several beers with your dinner. And yes, this was on a Thursday night and we all have to go in to work, most of us on highly sensitive and expensive and dangerous industrial equipment, in the morning.

Octopus and suicidal drivers aside, Korea has been a fun, cool, place so far; beer comes in plastic bottles of the size and construction that you'd expect to see cola in in the US, the roads are a lot safer than Beijing and not much crazier than Boston (yes, that is what is called "damning with faint praise", but it's not so bad), raw garlic is on the menu rather than on the Geneva Convention's hitlist, the people are nice, the climate is livable, and unlike some other places I've been in the Far East, they've left a fair bit of the natural landscape up as well, in addition to the huge concrete apartment buildings. It's a nice country; I'd rather be home, but there are worse places to get extended four days in.

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