Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Korean Art of Hwe-shik

Oh, I am tired. My two sweet, rambunctious boys are in bed, but it was only me here tonight, so I am tired. Hubby, you see, had what Koreans call a "hwe-shik." Roughly, this translates as a business dinner, which one would think is an understandable practice that can also happen on occasion in the West. But thinking that means you do not understand the way the Koreans do it. Oh no, they take it to the Next Level; they are the Evel Knievels of business dinners. It is a finely-honed art here.

The first difference is the frequency. A Korean man often has to attend hweshik several times a week. (Fortunately, hubby's company is quite progressive and understands how to keep its expat employees' wives happy, so his colleagues only make him go twice a month or so.)

The second difference is that hwe-shik are mandatory. Korean society is still very collective in nature, so if the boss says "hey, let's get some kalbi (Korean barbecued beef)" then the WHOLE office attends. It's akin to the "face-time" concept that is still important in some Western places of employment (wherein being visibly present at the office for long stretches of time counts more toward advancement than being visibly productive).

The third difference is that hwe-shik are ALCOHOLIC as heck. It starts at dinner with copious amounts of soju with dinner, which one is hierarchically obligated to drink unless one has true health or religious reasons for abstention (and by that I mean, such as being a liver transplant survivor or being Mormon, where it is on the books that you may not consume alcohol). Then it continues at a bar after dinner with beer (there, hubby says, one may be able to get away with nursing one drink for long periods). THEN, it continues at, maybe a karaoke place, where I'm not sure what is consumed, or how many are left standing at that point to a) get to the karaoke place and b) hold breakable containers of any beverage.

Which brings me to the fourth difference: hwe-shik are LONG. Western business dinners are just that: dinner. As described above, a hwe-shik typically involves three locations, thus extending into the wee hours of the night. I am told by female friends that husbands often stagger in at 3 am and such. (Hubby, fortunately, is sent home by his progressive colleagues by 10 pm most times, and by midnight if there was a big occasion to celebrate, so fortunately I have been spared this.)

(And I haven't even mentioned the fact that some companies' hwe-shik are not exactly G-rated once you get past dinner. Hubby's company is NOT like that, to either of our knowledge. And yes, Hubby would a) tell me and b) likely quit in disgust the very next day, if not on the spot. Because, ladies and gents, my hubby ROCKS.)

Then the next day, all are expected to show up at the regular time and act as if they aren't hung-over and exhausted after only 3-ish hours of sleep. I am told that along with hwe-shik drinking comes a suspension of the normally-stringent Confucian behavioral standards and so it is no longer taboo to discuss things with one's superiors and colleagues that would normally be off-limits. Or so I am told. And then the next day, all is forgiven and forgotten (assuming anyone remembers anything at all) and it is back to business as usual. Productive way to run a business, eh?

I'll tell you what, it's a difficult way to be a wife. I have nothing to complain about, since hubby only goes infrequently, but I can't even begin to imagine the poor Korean wife, staying at home raising two young kids and literally only having her husband present to help on the weekend. Not because he likes going out, but because he has to if he wants a future at his company. The only good thing I can say about hwe-shik is that you get a break from that nagging question of what should I make for dinner tonight. We Westerners just don't know how good we have it sometimes, with these workplaces that take family into consideration. Korea is getting there, but I'm sure it could take a while to change a 5,000 year-old culture.


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