Sunday 2 May 2010. I had secretly been hoping, before my schedule was finalised, that after the Jongmyo rituals I would be able to go to an authentic Buddhist dance performance by my friend Yi Chuljin. In a marathon exercise supported by the Jogye temple, he is in the middle of a 100-day run of performances of the traditional Seungmu monk’s dance. Seungmu is one of Korea’s intangible cultural properties, and Yi Chuljin has studied Seungmu with the holder of that property. While nothing in this world is certain, Yi is one of the candidates for being the next holder of the property.
But instead of attending his performance, I ended up experiencing the fusion Korean musical, Miso, a different though not unpleasant experience entirely. Instead, I join Yi and his friends for drinks after his performance, in a small theatre around the corner from Sungkyukmung University. I know it’s a dangerous thing to do, because every time I go drinking with Yi Chuljin I wake up wishing I hadn’t.
When I arrive, the party is in full swing. Beer, soju and red wine bottles are all open on the table, with various stews and side dishes on the go. Koreans don’t really understand the British culture of just drinking. In Korea, drink always has to be accompanied by food. But somehow, people seem to get just as drunk, or even drunker.
The partygoers immediately make room for me at the table, and start struggling to use their rusty English on me. It’s not necessary, because alcohol is a universal language. But before I know it I am buried in business cards (impressive, seeing as most of the drinkers are doing postgraduate studies at university), and have several recommendations for the best places to visit in Jeollanam-do next time I’m in the country.
I make my daily call home to my wife, who wisely counsels me not to get drunk tonight. I know it’s sensible advice, and I have half an intention of following it. But back at the table they’re mixing a cocktail of soju, baekseju and beer, which is crying out to be sampled. More stews are ordered to dilute the new brew, together with side orders of more soju.
Then it’s time for yicha, the second stop on the drinking odyssey for the evening. Fortunately, a few sojus and stews later, people decide not to go for samcha (the third stop). Somehow I make it back to the hotel, and do not want to remember how.