They told me I was going to Boseong 보성군. I did not sign up for what happened next.
Since covid, the Korean Hoesik 회식 has been canceled. Hoesik is really any gathering of people to eat, get drunk, and marry; however, it has become synonymous with workplace culture in Korea. Pre-covid, you were expedited to go out once to several times a week with your coworkers to eat and drink till you could barely function, rolling yourself home to pass out and sober up before showing up to work the next day. Now that Korea has moved into living with COVID regarding social distancing measures, Hoesik is back.
My workplace decided that for our first Hoesik, a nice trip to Boseong 보성군 to see the green tea fields was a great way to raise morale and boost camaraderie. I was naive to think this would involve a nice dinner walking through the green tea plantations and maybe partaking in a traditional tea ceremony. I had forgotten entirely about Hoesik culture. My friend Sam reminded me 3 days before to pace myself, and I had an “oh, shit moment.” Hoesiks are famous for getting the younger employees shit-faced because they can’t stop drinking till the boss stops drinking. I’m the second youngest teacher at the school. Having come from the theater work culture, I know a thing or two about drinking for hours on end. I knew I could survive my initiation into this culture by drinking plenty of water and eating lots of food.
As I hopped into my coworker’s car on Friday, I would have never been able to imagine what my next twenty-four hours word bring. At some point in our drive, I started to suspect that I was not headed to Boseong. When we stopped at a temple, I looked and confirmed on a map that we were at Baengnyeonsa Temple 백련사 in Gangjin 강진군, not in Boseong.
We posed for pictures and wandered around this temple that dates back to the Joseon Dynasty 대조선국. I said hello to some very excited college students who wanted to practice their English with me.
Reflecting on our stop at the Buddhist temple, I feel like my coworkers brought me here to center myself and pray to survive what was coming next.
We got back in the car and wound our way to Gaundo 가우도 or Cow Island. On our way there, I hear my coworkers say my name several times. They suddenly look at me and say, “You skydive?” Me “yes, I have been skydiving before. It was fun.” Then they talked in Korean, leaving me clueless as to why the subject was brought up.
As we drove up to the parking lot to the walking bridge that led to the island, I noticed a zip line company in the parking lot, but I thought nothing of it. My coworkers range In age from late 20’s to early 60’s so I assumed that zip lining was not on the agenda because, like my friend Sam says, “America could never.” Meaning Americans would never do this on a work trip, especially with the older crowd; it’s just not something that most people at an older age like to participate in (excluding myself and my former coworker who went skydiving for his 40th).
Oh, how I was wrong. Halfway over the bridge, I hear screaming and see two people flying down the zip line, and my coworkers turned to me, asking, “zip line?” Me “ok.” Let me tell you Koreans are wild and crazy. The best kind of wild and crazy. I was astonished that all but one of my coworkers geared up and zip-lined across the ocean.
When It was my turn to take the leap, they attached me to another coworker who was very nervous about the whole situation even though this was apparently her idea. She asked me if I was anxious about going, and honestly, I was too excited to be nervous. Maybe not dying while scuba diving or climbing various mountains has broken me. I felt none of the usual anxiety and fear I had before I did slightly terrifying things, too downright scary and dangerous. I felt none of that as I squatted down and leaned back before the floor lowered, and I went careening down the line across the ocean to the mainland. It was quite the rush to check one more thing off my bucket list.
We got back in the car on an adrenalin high, driving an hour to our seaside hotel in Boseong. After checking in to our rooms, we then went to a conference room where we hung up a sign translated to Happy School Conference, and my principal gave a 5min speech that everyone laughed through posing for pictures. Here is where an audible record scratch went off in my head. My internal monologue went like this “Wait… is this all a ruse?” “Are we just doing this speech thing to legitimize this trip” “wait, wait, wait…. I only paid 20,000KRW. Did the school flip the bill for all this, and we are pretending it’s a teaching development conference” “OMG, Koreans are the best kind of crazy” “America could never” “This is wild… Is this really my life?”
The answer to all these questions Is Yes. The wild ride of this trip was yet to be over. Nothing could mentally prepare me for what happened next.
My first Hoesik was one for the record books. After the speech, we all filed into a small private dining area in the hotel where some of the food was already laid out on the table alongside liters of maekju 맥주 (beer) and soju 소주.
I went to a sit-down, but my principal rearranged us by age, making sure every table had a mix of younger and older teachers as is customary at traditional gatherings in Korea, especially when alcohol is involved. Sitting down at the table, my principal passes out bottles of plum wine with gold flakes in them. We poured the wine into shot glasses and toast to the health and happiness of our school. That was the start of a wild night of chaos and copious amounts of alcohol.
With our first drink down, waiters filed in, bringing dish after dish throughout the night. My coworkers made me try everything from the stingray to the horrid skunk fish wrapped in pork and kimchi. All My coworkers watched to see my reaction to each dish that was served. My favorite was abalone, the clams, the pork ribs, the raw beef, and the deep sea white fish that starts with the letter M but I have no idea what its name is. The Skunk fish, however, is vial and tastes precisely how shit smells. My face turned red as I tried to chew it as fast as humanly possible.
In-between dishes and mouthfuls of food, the drinks kept coming. Some came with toast, some were just refills, but one thing was for sure when the eldest person at the table told me to finish my drink, I had to down it and get ready for my next one.
At some point in the night, we sang Happy Birthday in English to everyone in the room before the soju bombs and Somaek 소맥 (soju and beer) began to pour. Drink after drink, there was no end to the party. At one point, a manager or another hotel guest came in with a beer glass asking for a soju bomb which we gladly provided. At another, someone started showing off by balancing a shot glass between two beer glasses and making the shot glass fall into a drink by pounding their hand once on the table. After seeing this, I can only assume my principal said, “I can do better” because he proceeded to create the exact same setup before he hit the table with his head, successfully dunking the shot glass of beer into the soju. After drinking his first success, he proceeded to do this a second time with equal success.
After what felt like an eternity of drinking, we all went back up to our rooms for what I thought was a nice long night’s sleep, but the party was not over yet. Everyone piled back into my hotel room with gin, plum wine, beer, and fried chicken for round two of drinking. This wild and crazy evening was not complete without one of my coworkers crawling across the room to puke. To say the least, “America could never.”
Hours later, in the early morning, we finally called it a night. The following day I awoke with a pounding headache partially due to drinking and partially the continuation of the one that had started before I left work the day before. However, it was nothing that hangover soup, coffee, Tylenol, and emptying the contents of my stomach into the toilet couldn’t fix.
By the time we got into the cars to go to the tea fields, I was fine, tired but ready to take on the day. We spent the next couple of hours taking selfies, eating ice cream, and wondering around Daehan Dawon 대한다원 Green Tea Plantation. Let me tell you, the Korean photo game is on point. I don’t think I’ve had this many photos taken of me in a single day since I was on vacation with my family as a kid.
By 1pm, I was at home and curled up in bed, ready for a long day recovering from possibly the most beautifully wild and crazy 24 hours of my life.
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