It’s just after 7 o’clock in the morning and I’m on my way to the bus stop. I pass a few vendors setting up shop next to the road under multi-coloured umbrellas. The smell of apples, Asian pears, cucumbers and bananas fills the crisp morning air. Old women with hunchbacks crouch over their goods while they neatly arrange fruit in a Korean pyramid. Their wrinkled faces reveal decades’ stories of hard work and dedication. The dirt under fingernails is a permanent stain of backbreaking labour. The smell of their breath reeks of rubbing alcohol, but it’s normal.
There is a particular smell unique to Korea – it’s not the smell of fermented Kimchi, it’s not something fishy, it’s not the stuffy smell of rice cakes or silkworms and it’s not the drains or the smell of a student farting in your class. It’s the smell of Soju, but it’s normal.
Just like the Russians have their Vodka, the Japanese their Sake, the Balinese their Arak, the Chinese their Baijiu… the Koreans have their Soju – a dirt cheap, distilled rice liquor that usually comes in a little green bottle filled with promises of a miserable tomorrow.
Soju is the highest selling drink in the world. A bottle of Soju is cheaper than a decent cup of coffee. South Koreans drink twice as much liquor as Russians and more than four times as much as Americans, but it’s normal.
There is a website dedicated to photos of people passed out all over South Korea, a website where you can submit your winning snap of a random stranger passed out on the pavement, in the subway or on a park bench, but it’s normal.
It is common to see people drink Soju from paper cups at the crack of dawn in the markets – if you don’t see the Soju, you’ll definitely smell it. In my three years in Gyeongju I’ve seen some pretty random events in the name of Soju.
It’s not even been two months since I’ve moved to Andong and in such a short time I’ve witnessed even more random events. Andong is the “capital of the Korean spirit”, full of glorious doctrines of the Confucian and Buddhist cultures, boasting a 5000 year history… but I’m pretty sure it really is the capital of the Korean Soju Spirit – it’s home to the Soju Exhibition Hall, home to the potent Andong-45%-Soju and home to more vigorous alcohol consumption, but it’s normal.
One early evening; a man and woman in their early twenties came out of a building. The woman was acting like a girl throwing a tantrum – she kicked, slapped, moaned and screamed. In her heels she ran with arms swinging in all directions while the guy tried to calm her down. I walked my friend to the bus stop and we could still hear the click-clack of her heels. On my way back I saw a woman – it looked like the same woman-in-heels, but it was not – even though she was also running, she was not wearing heels. Seconds later a man appeared with heels – click-clack-click-clack he ran after her. It turned out it was in fact the same woman and the same man; they just switched shoes. That is the power of Soju, it gets a grown man to wear heels that are three sizes too small for his feet, but it’s normal.
A week ago I heard someone outside my apartment at 5 o’clock in the morning. It went on and on – it went from talking, to shouting, to whining to crying and back to talking. I got out of bed and she was still whining. I got out of the shower and she was still shouting. I made coffee and she was still crying. It dawned on me that she was definitely alone – talking to herself or on her phone, but she was definitely alone. My conscience bothered me so I slowly opened my door and took a peek – and there, two apartments from mine the woman sat on the floor. Drunk. About an hour later I heard voices in the street – the police came to fetch the woman. She stumbled while talking, shouting, whining and crying to the police car, but it’s normal.
At a Korean barbeque buffet the other day the notorious green Soju bottles stood tall and proud on almost every table. At the table across from me, two men finished about six bottles of Soju and a young girl, not older than 10, sat next to her father. Her father whispered something in her ear, but she pulled away. Her father gestured that she should come closer again and as he whispered with his Soju breath, the girl covered her nose with her fingers, but it’s normal.
The other day I walked home from the Supermarket and passed a bus stop where three old Korean ladies, probably grandmothers, pulled out a bottle of Soju to fill their paper cups, but it’s normal.
In downtown I saw a girl hanging on for dear life to a guy. I thought to myself that it is strange; you don’t see public affection like that in Korea. My thought didn’t even make it out of my mind when the girl suddenly passed out as if someone hypnotised her and her dead-weight body hung almost lifeless on to the guy, but it’s normal.
In the streets you often see splatters of orange on the pavement; it’s kimchi and it’s vomit from someone’s drunken escapades the previous night, but it’s normal.
In the business districts, you see men staggering out of love motels; it’s your average working man, suited up, probably married with the wife at home, but it’s normal.
I’ve seen these things in South Korea over and over again – the women get loud and unstable on their feet, the men swing from left to right on the street and get red in the face. Someone will always pass out, someone will always vomit and someone will always have no recollection of the previous night. That is just the power of Soju. It’s the Korean spirit. It’s everywhere. It’s normal. Or so they say.