Work Hard, Play Harder

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When it comes to countries with the best work-life balance, Korea is not exactly at the top of list. Compared to the international average of 1,765 hours, Koreans spend 2,090 hours at work per year; which amounts to approximately 8 additional 40-hour work weeks. They log long hours, and vacations are few and far between. As a result, less time is spent each day on activities devoted to personal health and well-being, family, and leisure.

That being said, when Koreans do finally get the chance to break away from their desks and let loose, they don’t hold back.  A typical night out with friends or co-workers often involves 5+ hours of non-stop food, merry conversation, and a grand finale of glorious singing, all of which is fluidly connected by an endless stream of alcohol. Think of it this way: if a bar crawl and an all-you-can-eat buffet had a baby and named it Karaoke, you’d have yourself a standard Korean night on the town.

Starting in the early evening, the first order of business is to sit down for a hearty meal of grilled meat and more vegetable side dishes than you can shake a chopstick at. Then, in the same breathe, comes the request for 4 bottles of soju and beer. No, better make it 5. No, wait, 6. Yes. Six bottles of soju and 4 bottles of beer. At this point, it’s a good thing that you’re already sitting down (cross legged on the floor), because what you’re about to see would knock you off your feet. With the speed and nonchalance of professional athletes, and the skill and mystery of seasoned magicians, your Korean counterparts make shot after shot disappear before your very eyes. Now-you-see-6-full-bottles-of-soju, now-you-don’t. Waiter!

NomsThe next few hours are a beautiful blur of food, drinks and communicating in broken languages. Thin whisps of smoke rise from the grill in the center of the table, carrying with them the savory smell of freshly grilled meat. Every so often the heat from the coals blows in your direction, washing warmly over your face. The waitress, a small, middle-aged woman with short dark hair and a floral patterned apron, passes by on occasion and gently leans in to replace the charred grill top with a fresh one.  Chopsticks click softly in the silence that passes during momentary lapses in conversation. And almost imperceptibly, empty green and brown bottles begin to line the edges of the table like surprise guests.

As is customary, the eldest person at the table pays for the entire meal, despite any gestures of open wallets or friendly arguments in front of the waitress. Then, it’s onto the next place! Depending on the kind and quantity of food consumed at the first stop, additional dishes may be ordered. And, if not, at the very least another round (or 3) of soju and beer is called for. This pattern repeats itself with seemingly no end in sight, interrupted only by pitstops at street food carts or fried chicken joints along the way. Like neon-lit legos, restaurants and bars stack themselves one on top of the other, giving no shortage of answers to the question, “Where to next?”

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Taken the night of my overnight staff trip.

Finally, the night’s closing ceremonies arrive in the form of a karaoke room, rented by the hour. Before you even have a chance to comb through the list of American pop songs, one last large glass of beer magically appears in front of you. The lights dim, the tv screen turns on, and someone stumbles to grab the microphone. It takes you a while to find just the right song, one that you actually know all the words to; but your fellow Koreans don’t even need to look at the book—they’ve got the 5-digit numbers of their favorite songs memorized, all with all the lyrics, of course.

Depending on the people and your own personal stamina, good-byes are said anywhere between 11 PM and 4 AM. Most of your friends will make it home on their own. The odd one won’t. But no worries. Passing out on public benches, subways, the sidewalk, or anywhere else is perfectly acceptable and not uncommon in the land of soju and kimchi.

The next morning, it’s back to the grind with no regrets. People in other countries work hard to play hard. Koreans work hard to play harder. photo



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