Confessions

I Gave Up Drinking in One of the World’s Heaviest Drinking Nations

In South Korea – where how much you drink can determine if you get a job, or people get kicked out of a bar for not drinking – staying sober is an even bigger challenge.

by Junhyup Kwon
22 May 2020, 2:57pm

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

Confessions is a series of essays on personal experiences and intimate issues, many of which have been kept secret for so long. By sharing these previously confidential accounts, we explore our own mental health without judgment and the various ways we cope, with the hope that it makes it a little lighter of a burden for us to carry. It's also a reminder that no matter how odd or unique these experiences can be, someone can relate to it – and we are not alone.

About 10 years ago, a friend told me he didn't drink alcohol. I scoffed inside and thought with condescension that he had no idea what he was missing. I would never have imagined then that a few years later, I would stop drinking alcohol myself.

It started off simply as a personal challenge: could I survive a year without alcohol? It might sound straightforward, but in a country where your personal worth is largely influenced by how many shots you can down, it's anything but. In South Korea, one of the world's heaviest-drinking nations, no longer drinking also means the risk of losing friends.

In the beginning, when people asked me why I stopped drinking, I dodged the questions and laughed it off. I told them it was just another challenge for fun, largely because I wasn't sure myself whether I could make it. The truth was, I wanted to be fully in control of my own life.

There were many times I almost quit. I got kicked out of multiple bars by staff not because I was a rowdy patron, but because I had ordered juice or a non-alcoholic beverage. Here, that's considered shameful. I had to constantly apologise to my friends, to whom the bar staff would repeatedly make snark side comments, about my choice of beverage.

I had to miss numerous events and parties where I would have had to drink. Sure enough, I started to lose friends who had been my drinking buddies and my abstinence was affecting my social relationships. I also didn't know how to fully have fun with people while sober and, quite honestly, didn't know how to cope with sadness without drinking either.

I had been drinking regularly since I graduated highschool. But it was only in later years that I realised, I had accepted drinking wholeheartedly more because of a cultural norm than my own preference or decision.

As a South Korean, I'd never thought anything of the very common question: "How much alcohol can you drink?" I have been asked this my entire adult life and was a question I tossed around casually myself.

As a freshman, my college seniors asked me about my "drinking capacity" or alcohol tolerance, right after asking my name during a freshman orientation. This was absolutely normal since we would frequently stay up all night drinking, showing off our tolerance. Even though news about students from other colleges passing out or even dying due to binge-drinking were pervasive, we didn't give our own alcohol consumption a second thought.

According to a study published in 2018 by Yonsei University and the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), 31.7 percent of South Korean college students had been made to drink alcohol on the recommendations of others, even when they didn't want to, and 34.3 percent of students had passed out from alcohol within the last 12 months. This was reflective of my own experiences as a student.

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Soju. Photo by VICE Media

But even after graduation, the pressure to drink didn't stop.

While interviewing for jobs, I was commonly asked about my alcohol tolerance. I confidently responded that I could drink three bottles of soju in one sitting. Sometimes, I had to include it on my written job application because online systems didn't allow me to submit if I didn't fill in that blank. While I never experienced it, friends have had to drink somaek, a cocktail made with soju and beer during job interviews, to prove their drinking etiquette and tolerance, even when the companies that they applied to had nothing to do with alcohol. "The person who drinks more works better" is a common phrase we would often say and hear.

Obviously, my society's obsession with alcohol had its own consequences.

When I became a junior reporter and made my rounds in Seoul's police stations, I found that most incidents and crimes – violence, car accidents, sexual assault – were often because alcohol was present. I remember police officers saying that there would be no incidents or crime if we didn't have any alcohol in the country.

Fast forward to today: this May marked my one year anniversary of sobriety.

Yes, I've managed to stop drinking for an entire year. I haven't had a drop of alcohol since May 1st of 2019.

For the last year, I never woke up with a hangover… or drinking-induced regrets. I seem to have improved my memory. I have had more free time to enjoy random things in life. I learned that I don’t have to be afraid of losing people because I know that I can make friends who will allow me to be as I am. I've felt free.

Most importantly, I learned that I have so many other options to heighten my mood that don’t involve drinking, such as meditation, earthing (grounding), hiking, and reading. Through these habits, I learned how to be with my own thoughts and how to better process my emotions. I’ve taken full control of my life, unswayed by social pressures or other people.

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The author meditating. Photo by Junhyup Kwon

What we accept under societal pressure doesn't have to be the right answer. Before I got out of my box, there seemed to be only one way. But I learned there are always other ways.

"The problem is that some people heavily rely on one way to relieve stress and that's drinking, not knowing other options to bring their mood up," Dr. Park Jong-ik told me. He is also the professor of Mental Health at Kangwon National University and the director of Chuncheon Mental Health Center. "Drinking is very closely connected to depression. Many people drink when they're down. Drinking seems the easiest and the most effective way to pick you up. But it's only momentary and decreases brain function and causes depression."

"If you have a look at one of the world's best selling books, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, there are all the answers," Park said.

In it, The Little Prince asks the drunkard, "Why are you drinking?" He responds, "To forget." The prince asks, "To forget what?" "To forget that I'm ashamed," says the drunkard. "Ashamed of what?," asks the prince. "Ashamed of drinking," said the drunkard.

"The prince doesn't understand the drunkard and thinks grown-ups are odd," said Park. Perhaps we are.

Sure, sometimes I miss the taste of soju, or getting rowdy with friends. But the payoffs of not drinking have outweighed those of drinking, at least for now. So I'll keep at it. If I do drink again, I am content knowing that this experience of sobriety will change my relationship with alcohol, to a healthier one, forever.

When I started this journey, I had no idea if I would find happiness or even be able to keep going the full year. But here I am, proud to say that I was successful, and I found parts of myself I didn't even know were there. At the beginning I had nothing but a desire to make a change, and today, I feel more myself than I thought was possible in my adult life.

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mental health
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