It was my first day back at my internship since the hwaeshik (회식; a dinner get-together for employees that work in the same department of a company), and as I walked into the office, there was only one question on my mind: how did that night end? I remembered the dinner and going to a bar after, but I had no idea how I had gotten home. I sat down at my desk, and in just a few minutes, one of the assistant managers signaled me to follow her. My first thought was, “Ohhhh snap. She’s going to scold me for drinking too much that night. This isn’t going to be good”. I followed her and another co-worker to the elevator. While we were waiting for the elevator, she said, “we’re getting coffee, come join us”. She seemed chill. I remembered that she sat across from me at the hwaeshik. When we got to Starbucks, she treated me to coffee. In walks in the department head, making her morning starbucks run before heading into the office. She was also at the hwaeshik that night. Very eager to know how the night ended, I leaned over to the department head and asked if anything embarrassing happened that night. She looked at me and smiled. “Hmm, I wouldn’t say anything embarrassing happened...”, she said. Then, the assistant manager that treated me to coffee remarked, “It’s a good thing you don’t remember”. The department head giggled and said, “At the end of the night you carried her to the Taxi, American style”, pointing at the assistant manager. I asked her what that meant. She said, “You had both arms in front of you and you carried her to the taxi like a superhero.”
Then, piece by piece, it came back to me. By the end of the night, we were all decently intoxicated. It wasn’t just me, and apparently that’s totally normal for a hwaeshik. Part of me was able to relax, knowing that the extent of my intoxication was carrying my assistant manager to a taxi like a superhero, and another part of me felt a lot closer to my bosses and co-workers because I drank with them.
We returned to the office, and I walked in fashionably late with my bosses holding Starbucks coffees. I gotta admit, it felt cool. By 11am I got a message from one of my co-workers. She was one of the seniors right above me on the totem pole at our company. Since the co-worker I usually have lunch with was on vacation, she offered to grab lunch with me. We ate lunch together and reminisced about the hwaeshik over coffee. Once again, I returned to the office fashionably late with a cup of coffee in my hands. I set it down next to the first unfinished Starbucks coffee cup and thought to myself, “Wow, the things alcohol can do…”.
Hwaeshik are still an integral part of company culture in Korea. These events are usually scheduled in advance once a month and take place about an hour after work ends on a weekday. Hwaeshiks follow a simple formula: dinner and alcohol. The atmosphere at our company before and after my hwaeshik experience was pretty black and white for me. Beforehand, I didn’t know anyone except for the people with cubicles directly to my left and right as well as two seniors directly above me. After the hwaeshik, I had been introduced to everyone, and we all had a mutual memory together drinking alcohol and enjoying each other’s not-so-sober company. Did I mention that I felt like more people are comfortable talking to me now? I’m the only foreigner at the company; every other worker is Korean. I think most of them assumed there would be a big language barrier, but lemme tell you when there is alcohol in my system Korean just flows out of my mouth like water flows through the Han river.
I had heard about hwaeshik before coming to Korea, but it wasn’t until I interned at a Korean company and experienced it for myself that I really understood the culture behind it. I owe a lot of my progress in relationship-building among co-workers to hwaeshik. Hwaeshiks bring everyone together, allow people to open up to each other, and perhaps, most importantly, they create memories that everyone can share.
I will never forget that night. Especially the time when I tried to stop drinking. Everyone raised their glasses for a cheers and I just took a sip while most of my co-workers finished their soju shot in one gulp. The assistant department head next to me spoon-fed me the remaining alcohol saying “drink your medicine!” as I gulped down each spoonful. Everyone was laughing and having a great time as they watched me slowly finish the shot glass of soju. The following day I talked to my program director about this experience and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Great! That means they like you.” “But wait, they got me pretty drunk that night”, I replied. “That's how they give you a warm welcome to the company”, he said. And that’s when it clicked for me.
“Wow, the things alcohol can do.”