Whether you’re working in Korea or just passing through, if you spend some time with the locals there’s a good chance you’ll hear the phrase “Korean Style” proudly exclaimed on more than one occasion. At times, the phrase pops up when something is too difficult to explain, be it due in part to the language barrier or solely because what seems abnormal to a foreign set of eyes is simply common practice on the peninsula.
Other times, usually most of the time, “Korean Style” means that the locals want to introduce a foreign friend to a fun way of experiencing something the Korean way. While there are many scenarios that could warrant this phrase: be it last minute schedule changes; spending hours at a café with one cup of coffee; or wearing matching couple’s outfits; one of the most discernable applications of the phrase comes with spending a night out with Korean friends.
In the west, most people grab a bite to eat before heading for their favorite watering hole to meet and chat with friends. Usually, eating and drinking are separate acts, unless the bar serves food, in which case every member of the group orders their own meal, ingests it, and then switches to a steady liquid intake.
In Korea, a social outing is much different, each consisting of five rounds, or cha. While eating and drinking are still the primary goals, each round takes place in a different locale and each round only concludes after someone has secretly footed the bill. You’ll be able to tell when it’s time to go because whoever decided to cover that particular round will “use the restroom” before returning to the group and bellowing: “Gapshidah” or “Let’s go!”
Partaking on a Korean night out is an essential experience during your time working abroad in South Korea, however before you dive right in there are some important things to keep in mind. First and foremost, pace yourself, not only with drink but also with food. There will be copious amounts of both and your participation is not suggested as much as it is required. Second, the ability to count the five rounds in Korean will undoubtedly impress your new cohorts and the first five Korean numbers are as follows: Round 1 – ill cha, Round 2 – ee cha, Round 3 – sahm cha, Round 4 – sah cha, and Round 5 – oh cha.
Round 1: Ill Cha
The night always begins with dinner. Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) is a favorite choice for communal dining and many a social gathering will begin sitting cross legged on the floor of a BBQ joint salivating over thick cuts of grilled pork belly. Top off each small piece of meat with some kimchi before wrapping it up in a sesame leaf. In true Korean fashion, shove the entire morsel into your mouth in one bite, and then wash it all down with a swig of Hite, Korea’s most popular beer.
Round 2: Ee Cha
Although large quantities of meat were consumed in the previous round, Round 2 will bring with it more food, or anju (안주), small table dishes similar to tapas, along with multiple small green bottles of soju. If kimchi is the national dish of Korea, soju is unquestionably the national drink. “anju” means food served with alcohol so be prepared to chase mouthfuls of jeon (전)--or small omelets usually made with seafood, green onions, or various vegetables--with shots of the clear liquid.
In true Korean Style, always accept a pour of soju by holding your glass with your right hand while clutching your wrist your left hand. Likewise, if someone pours you a drink immediately procure the bottle and return the favor, using the same hand placements as before. There are three more things to remember when drinking soju: Never pour your own drink. Never let someone else pour theirs. Always drink with the group.
Round 3: Sahm Cha
Hopefully your vocal chords weren’t too damaged from shouting “Geonbae,” or cheers, while gulping down shots of soju during the last round because Round 3 typically means a trip to the norebang, or singing room. There are singing rooms on every corner of every Korean street and there is no shame when it comes to belting out songs regardless of one’s vocal range and/or abilities. Prepare yourself for fog machines, tambourines, and plenty of reverb while you choose a song from the English section of the catalog.
English options range anywhere from Elvis to Iron Maiden so there is no backing out of singing at least once. Don’t be ashamed if you’re tone deaf or can’t recall the melody, singing together is about letting loose as a group more than being about impressing your pals. With that in mind, don’t be surprised if every Korean present has one song that they can execute with acute precision. Do your best, clap along on the tambourine, and when the lights come on and the music stops, get ready to vacate.
Round 4: Sah Cha
You’re almost finished! Only two more rounds to go…
Though the table in the singing room was probably topped with a spread of fresh fruit, all of the singing and gyrating has probably reignited everyone’s appetite. Luckily, there is food available at all hours in Korea. Dalkbal (닭발), or chicken feet, is a popular late night snack and once again it usually pairs with soju. Soju alone will do nothing to extinguish the fire set in your mouth by the spicy feet, so make yourself and your friends some glasses of somaek instead. Somaek is a mixture of soju and beer, usually three parts beer and one part soju, but this will also prove futile in the efforts to calm your burning palate, so after chasing the food with somaek, chase it all again with the white pickled radish that accompanies every spicy Korean dish. By the time this round is finished you’ll not want to eat or drink anything else and in your case that’s a good thing because…
Round 5: Oh Cha
You’ve made it! It’s the final round of the evening or more than likely, the wee hours of the morning. By now your stomach is full, your voice is strained, and you’re probably walking a bit crooked. Fear not, the final round is one of rest, relaxation, and recuperation. Jjimjilbangs (찜질방), are an important part of Korean life. On the weekends, groups of friends and families flock to these communal bath houses for some quiet bonding time away from the fast paced lifestyle that dominates Korean culture. This is the perfect chance to take some time out from your job in South Korea. Purchase a locker at the front desk and head to your assigned floor, which are separated by gender, and try not to be too coy when it comes time to disrobe. Rinse off in the showers before taking a plunge in one of the hot baths.
After a few minutes you’ll forget that you’re sitting naked among strangers as the steam and the hot water wash away a long night of over consumption. The bathing area will have several tubs, each slightly cooler than the next. Start with the highest temperature and slowly make your way to the cold bath. Rinse off in the showers again and change into the lounging clothes that were provided upon arrival. The main floor is unisex and equipped with various hot and cold steam rooms. The hot rooms are a nice way to decompress before finding a spot to stretch out on the heated floor. Close your eyes and get some rest, you’ve had a long and eventful evening.