Park near the Hotel Swarming with Dragonflies
My visit to Seoul is quickly coming to an end. I leave for the airport in a few hours, to fly on to Hong Kong. But is was not without memories. Last night’s dinner was a classic evening of Asian business entertainment. I have experienced similar nights in China and Japan before, so I had some idea what to expect. We were meeting 4 gentlemen from one of our good customers out for dinner. For the purposes of this story, we shall refer to them as the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Dinner was at a Chinese restaurant. Why? I have no idea. Seems like they’d want to take the round eyed devil out to a Korean place, but for some reason we ended up at a Chinese restaurant. After the usual business card exchange, and polite introductions of the Four Horsemen and myself, they quickly asked if I liked to drink. They also inquired if the Pope was Catholic.
A round of beers was quickly ordered up, but I knew they had bigger plans than that. Some background first. The Four Horseman, and our local Distributor and Country Manager are very close. They meet monthly to do this. My being in town was merely an excuse for another night on the town. As I said before, I’ve had similar dinners in Asia and China before, and these nights always follow the same routine.
1.) Introductions, and some serious talking to get to know a little bit about each other.
2.) A round of beer, and some formal toasting.
3.) Explanation of the significance of their custom of getting together once a month to drink, and how important it is to maintain close relationships.
4.) Ordering of food, and inquiry into whether the round eyed foreign devil (me) has any particular food hang ups. (I do not. I eat anything. ANYTHING. Just to prove I can)
5.) The introduction of the local drink. In this case I was surprised it was not Korean Soju, a clear vodka like 80 proof liquor. Oddly, my last trip to Japan involved a similar night of drinking, and the Japanese insisted on drinking Korean Soju. This night however, my Korean Four Horsemen insisted on ordering Chinese Mao Tai.
Some back ground on Mao Tai. It is perhaps the most foul tasting liqour I have ever had. And I have had the unfortunate experience of having it several times. The taste can best be described as “Old Bicycle Tire”. Seriously, like drinking latex paint. And the taste lingers, and lingers. You can burp it up the next morning. God knows what the Chinese use to make the stuff, but I suspect its a refinery by product (Fermented Sorghum according to Wikipedia)
Anyhow, they asked if I had had Mao Tai, and I responded “Is that the liquor that tastes like a Bicycle tire?”. No offense was taken, but they laughed hard over that one.
Chinese Lighter Fluid
Then the drinking began. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here is the official Korean Drinking Etiquette, pretty standard for Korea, and Japan.
“It is against traditional custom in Korea to fill one’s own glass. Instead, it must be filled by someone else at the table. This promotes a spirit of thoughtfulness and camaraderie.
In Korean culture, using two hands to offer and accept items is considered an act of respect. Accordingly, if one’s glass is going to be filled by a superior, one should hold the glass with both hands. Similarly, when pouring soju for an elder, one holds the bottle with both hands.
To pour a drink, hold the bottle in the right hand with the left hand touching the right forearm or elbow; this peculiar arm position originated from the practice of holding back the sleeve of the hanbok so that it wouldn’t touch the table or the food.
Similarly, when receiving a drink, rest the glass in the left palm and hold it with the right hand, perhaps bowing the head slightly to show additional respect. You can also hold the glass using the same hand positions as when pouring. Pouring and receiving with just the right hand by a senior, or between equals, is common in normal situations.
Koreans often say “one shot“, a challenge to everyone in the group to down their glass in one gulp.”
A glass should not be refilled unless completely empty and should be promptly refilled once empty; it is considered rude to not fill someone else’s glass when empty.
The Four Horseman were very proud to explain it to me, including the significance of where you placed your hands when holding out your cup, to show the proper amount of respect to your drinking partner. Start near the hand and work your way back toward the elbow the drunker you get.
Note of caution. Asians like to think they can drink Westerners under the table. Unless you really enjoy hangovers, its best to let them “win”. The fact is, most of the Asians I have drank with tend to get sloshed really, really quickly. It goes right to their head. However, once drunk, they will continue to drink themselves into oblivion without a second thought.
My advice, down the first few shots with them to show them you can keep up. Once they are starting to get visible drunk, usually after about 3-4 shots, you can stop emptying your glass. They will notice, and begin to beam with pride. At this point, you can continue with smaller and smaller sips. They won’t refill your glass until it is empty. However, remember an empty glass is always refilled so long as their is liquor on the table. They will continue to empty their glasses. During this period they will enter phase 2 of the evening.
This is when the older gentlemen at the table will begin to get emotional and offer you advice, and their personal philosophy on life, business, etc. By this time you are sobering up, but they are continuing in a downward spiral. You can now relax, and know that you have made it. Little is expected of you from this point on, except your attention. Listen to the stories, and nod thoughtfully. Agree with their advice and insights.
Eventually, the signal that the night is ending comes when they start making profound speeches to you about the closeness of your relationship and how we need each other. Promises are made, and invitations extended to drink again during your next visit, or to take them out when they come to the states. It is polite to extend these invitations, even though they seldom are fulfilled. No problem.
The goodbyes are long. You shake hands at least 3 – 4 times, and then wave to each other as you part. Time to return to the hotel, drink lots of water and get some sleep. Take 2 apsirin in the morning, and chew gum to get the taste of the Mao Tai out of your mouth.
Congratulations. You have made friends with people from the other side of the earth. The human family has now become a little smaller. You have increased the understanding between two cultures, and connected in a personal way that no amount of email, or video conferencing can ever do. You will never be a stranger to each other again. And you are now, officially, an international businessman.
Farewell to Seoul