One thing I could never get over in Korea was that alcohol was sold in convenience stores and that those 24-hour stores were everywhere. The area of Canada I had always lived in did not have alcohol in corner stores at all. We had to go to special government-run stores to buy alcohol and the opening hours were limited. Other foreign teachers I knew could not get over that a bottle of the main Korean liquor was cheaper to buy than a bottle of water. The most popular Korean ‘wine’ made with rice, called “soju”, was common and cheap. It was true about the cost of the wine and water- if you were in a corner store, you could check prices and see an individual bottle of water cost perhaps ₩2200 but when you’d check a bottle of soju it would cost something like ₩1900.
I didn’t like soju because to me, it tasted like vodka and I didn’t want what I call ‘hard liquor’ or ‘spirits’. Vodka and other spirits like rum and whiskey were always too strong for me . Even though soju is technically a Korean wine, not a hard liquor, soju has a higher alcohol content than most western-style wines. It is made from fermented rice and is very strong for a wine, as it has 16 to 20% alcohol in it. And western wines are made from fermented grapes. A western wine usually has 7% or 11% alcohol content and is usually sipped from a fancy glass with fine food. In Korea, soju was treated more like North American whiskey, which is a ‘spirit’ liquor. Koreans had customary ways to consume their soju, like drinking it quickly and ‘straight’ from a small glass, like North Americans do with “shots” of whiskey. I found it strange and still do, that there is such strict control over Korean society by their government, with many ideas and music and movies, etc, not allowed or strictly censored, but yet the alcohol was so affordable and accessible to everybody.
Some Thoughts on Korean Society…
All societies have different views and feelings about alcohol. For several hundred years, Canada had many people living in it who were of European descent. They had strong Christian beliefs and values and some of these people frowned upon any alcohol consumption at all. Mostly everyone in Canadian society is supposed to be careful of how much he or she drinks, even now. These types of attitudes linger in the consciousness of many Canadians today, still. This is why I find it strange that if no Korean citizens are allowed to hear the Beatles, or to see certain western movies, then why are they allowed to go in a convenience store at any time of the day or night and purchase a bottle of strong liquor that costs less than a bottle of water?
Being from a society in North America that is “freer” than theirs, I tend to think that the censorship imposed upon the Korean people is unecessary and quite confining. I can’t imagine never having heard most rock music or never having seen the movie Goodfellas, for example. That being said, I do find many of the ways in Korea are highly sensible and they certainly work well for them. Everyone has his or her place. l could pick out most blue collar workers when I took the subway because they all wore similar jackets. Blue collar workers all made the same amount of money and lived a certain way. No surprises. White collar workers were called “office workers” and they all had their own similar salaries. Also, all salaries in Korea, no matter what the job was, were similar back then. There was no diversity and huge differences in salaries like there are in Canada so no one was looking down on someone else. That is wonderful.
Another example of the predictability of groups is that middle aged women all had basically the same hairstyles. All of the women had their hair cut shorter once they reached a certain age. And so on and so forth. If you were a top salesman or a shop owner or a taxi driver, there wasn’t much difference in your incomes or lifestyles, regardless of how much ‘better’ your job might be. You still had an apartment to live in like millions of others there and ate the same food and for leisure, you all would watch Korean baseball and hike in the mountains. Furthermore, you would all like and listen to the same music, regardless of what your job was or even what your age was.
Strangers were not thought of in a suspicious way at all, since their society was so homogenous. If a Korean citizen asked another Korean a question in the bank, they were very familiar with eachother and acted friendly with eachother, as though they were close neighbours or cousins. I witnessed this situation often. One time Sail Lee from my LG class was trying to drive my husband and me to see Seoul Tower in January of 1998. He stopped his car to ask a man for help with the roads and it seemed to me that Sail and the stranger were like long-lost friends or old buddies. I remember thinking how remarkable that was, as even then, Seoul was a huge international city of over 10 million people. Unfortunately, Canada is not as ‘free’ as they are in these ways where everybody lives in a similar way and everybody is familiar with eachother. These customs are taken for granted by the Korean people and they can’t imagine it being any other way.
I was pleasantly surprised by their beer. It was very, very good. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because products fabricated in Korea were always consistently of a high quality. I bought Hite beer once I discovered it, and the bottles of beer were usually much bigger than the 341ml-sized bottles of beer sold in Canada. My small hometown in my out-of-the way province in Canada only got its first digital billboard for modern advertising recently, but in Seoul in the late 90’s there were many, many of these billboards that looked like huge computer monitors. They were on the tops and sides of buildings in the old downtown of Seoul and oftentimes they advertised Korean beer, I recall.
I’ve mentioned in a former blog about how in Korea, some product logos were similar to western ones and some ideas and policies were very simlar to western ones, like how they called 119 instead of 911, or how a type of coffee was called Maxim, like Maxwell House. Well, right before 2020, a big American beer company, Miller Lite sued Hite for copying it’s name and logo. There are presently no results on the internet about this lawsuit that began in 2018.
There were other types of alcohol made using rice besides soju. A milky-looking, sweet old-fashioned wine was called Magkeoli and I loved it. I liked that it wasn’t strong and its effect was potent. After you’d had a few glasses you were feeling really good. It was like getting drunk on sweet, whitish soda. I did find some in a Korean restaurant in Toronto recently. I could not believe I could actually have it once more after not being able to get it for 20 years, but it was not like the wonderful magkeoli I had in Korea, unfortunately. I was so frustrated. Back in the late 90’s the magkeoli (I always pronounced it “makkolli”) was sold in large, light green plastic bottles around the size of a liter or a quart. The same way I loved the Korean yogourt-flavoured soda called Milkis, I absolutely loved their sweet, cloudy magkeoli.
Along with there being small cans of juice with chunks of fruit in them, some small cans had a traditional rice drink in them. The Koreans told me this was a drink that was made in rural areas in the past. I found it was very nice and so very different from anything I had ever drunk before. There were cans of cinnamon-flavoured shighye too.
As far as pop goes, there was a lot of Coca-Cola in Korea when I lived there. It was the only western soda company that had made headroads into the market there. Now I see they have Pepsi available today, but back then, everywhere I went, I only saw the ‘Classic Coke’ cans on offer. Everyone in Korea preferred their own Korean food, though, to anything to eat or drink that was western.
The western fast food restaurants always had a separate Korean-style menu posted on their walls. The KFC and McDonald’s and others always made “bulgogi burgers’ for Korean people, and these ‘burgers’ were really gross to people like me, as they had what I thought of as a pork-like patty with a sweet, soya-sauce-like dressing on them. Sometimes bulgogi burgers had coleslaw or shredded lettuce on them as well. They weren’t like our beef burgers at all. But at tourist spots like Gyeongboekgung Palace and Olympic Park, when I stopped at a food stand they had bulgogi burgers for sale as well as western food. There was even a unique, Korean-style fast food place that had outlets in many areas, called Lotteria, and it offered all kinds of variations of bulgogi burgers and other dishes that were unique foods that didn’t seem to be very palatable to me. Lotteria is still operating. The name ‘bulgogi’ burger comes from their world-famous beef or pork ribs in sweet, soya-sauce based marinade, called bulgogi. Someone decided years ago they should merge this dish with the idea of a western hamburger and it has remained popular with Korean people.
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