The memories are vivid, even as I sit here in the spring of 2013, four years later.
Part I: "A Pig Virus Delays My Arrival" and Part II: "Into the Wild Neon Yonder" and
Part III: "Meeting the Boss" and Part IV: "Meeting New Coworkers"
[Simple synopsis of Part II: From the airport to my new workplace; observations along the way]
[Simple synopsis of Part III: I meet my new boss (whose personal history I relate); we depart for the restaurant]
[Simple synopsis of Part IV: Meeting new Korean coworkers at the restaurant]
Hwe-shik (회식), eating and drinking with coworkers as coworkers, outside work, and during which the boss (who pays) is present, is a vital part of the work experience in Korea, it seems to me. In my experience in Ilsan, hwe-shik events principally involved the consumption of barbecued-at-the-table meat and alcohol.
Some more information, as I understand it:
Who Is Invited
Those not invited to hwe-shik are not considered actual coworkers. Part-time workers or lowly-assistants are often not invited. Those who are invited to hwe-shik and refuse to go are doing something strange, offensive, and faux-pas, perhaps comparable to not saluting a superior in the military at the proper time. (In my current job, we foreign teachers, in theory the equals of the Korean teachers, have not been invited to a single after-work hwe-shik in my 20 months of employment, which really distresses me.)
Hwe-shik are the initiative of the boss. They are led by the charisma of the boss, and endured (with varying levels of actual enjoyment) by those co-workers who are invited. In the case of my job in Ilsan, this usually included the "desk-teachers" and even the assistant (조교), the lowliest job of all. My closest Korean friend, C.B.W., was the sole assistant for a few months in 2009, and we first got to talking at a hwe-shik in August or September of 2009. Without hwe-shik, we never would've been friends.
The Purpose of Hwe-Shik
Students were frequently discussed at hwe-shik, it's true, but "work" was never the purpose. Although the best short English translation possible may be "work-dinner", that translation is seriously weak. "Work", as such, was not the point. Usually these hwe-shik were just held "for the heck of it" without any pretext like a holiday or someone's last day (though those were also sometimes used to justify them). The purpose was more chit-chat and to enjoy a big meal paid for by the boss. More deeply, there was something else going on, though:
The Effect of Hwe-Shik (Juhng Building)
When push comes to shove, hwe-shik was/is a chance for building the emotion Koreans call Juhng (정), which I learned to be a special kind of bond formed with those with whom one has undergone mutual hardships, like the bond of soldiers who've served together. As I understand it, Juhng doesn't necessarily mean friendship or even necessarily admiration, but a kind of recognition of, and appreciation of, shared-experience itself, "we are [were] all in this together". It's especially true for emotionally-important experiences, like (again) combat, or working together at a such-and-such company in difficult conditions. The harder the situation, the stronger the Juhng.
Benefits of Hwe-Shik
There are good things and bad things I can say about my one year in Ilsan. Looking back now, fours years after that first hwe-shik I began describing in Part IV, and three years after I finished my contract and left Ilsan, I can say that these attempts to build rapport, to sow the seeds of Juhng, were terrific for me. I felt included (in a way), and valued, proud. I got a lot of Juhng "points" with those coworkers for always being there, plus I was able to try all manner of new foods, I picked up some Korean language on those nights, I learned more about my coworkers, and observed Koreans functioning purely within their own culture. And, not least, it was a lot of free food!
Anyway, the hwe-shik at my job in Ilsan were all the initiative of the boss, Mrs. Y. I owe her a debt of gratitude, as I imply above. That's not to say I enjoyed them: Typically, the others spoke only in Korean, and I was left alone eating what I could find in front of me and trying not to look too uncomfortable. In this context, focusing too much on "enjoyment" is silly, though. The gladness I feel for having had those experiences is not connected with 'enjoyment'.
A Terrible Attitude
I pity any foreigner who comes here, works with Koreans, and never does hwe-shik. They are missing something. Worse than missing out, though, is willingly missing out. Few things have annoyed me more, within the context of working in Korea, than when some of the other foreigners who are employed in the family of hagwon at which I presently work have said how glad they are that we haven't had work-dinners. They don't "want to". The people I am thinking of have never worked anywhere else in Korea, so have never actually experienced hwe-shik at all. This attitude is terrible. Worse, it is foolish. Why are they in Korea? It's like going to Hawaii for a year but never making it to the beach, then shrugging it off with a "I'm glad I never went to the beach -- Who needs the sunburn?" ....Argh.
Synopsis of My Hwe-Shik in 2009-2010
We had hwe-shik approximately once a month in my year in Ilsan. Maybe twice Western food was involved (including the Christmas one), but otherwise it was barbecued meat, typically the fatty pork sam-gyup-sal. Alcohol was always involved. There were several instances of the boss buying lunch or a late dinner for all or some of us, which we ate in the language-institute itself -- including one instance of some unidentified ultra-spicy Chinese food that affected my tongue and mouth so strongly that it brought tears to my eyes. I spent five minutes in the institute's bathroom running water over my tongue after finishing.
I'm not sure whether to consider such meals consumed at work true hwe-shik or not. Some (of my arbitrary) criteria are met, but a true hwe-shik, to me, need be outside the premises of work.
Only once was one organized not by the boss but by another senior teacher, a woman who made up for in force-of-will and loudness-of-voice what she lacked in stature (being not much over 5'0"), and whose name sounded very similar to North Korea's now-dead second president.
In November of 2009, we also had what could be called a 24-hour-long hwe-shik, in which all the teachers (and the shy desk-teacher I mentioned in Part III) went to a pension on Ganghwa Island after work on one Saturday. Again, paid for in full by the boss. Barbecue pork and beef was had, a lot of talking was done, and then sleep. People left by noon Sunday. As, again, with most hwe-shik, there was no actual reason for going to Ganghwa Island overnight. I recall some flimsy lip-service being given to the idea that it would be a "training", but lip service is all it was.
Back in the 11 o'clock hour of April 29th, 2009 (Korea time), in that cozy-but-noisy restaurant in Ilsan, the "reason" for the hwe-shik underway was clear, though: a farewell and a welcome. The 'welcome' was directed at me, of course. The 'farewell' was for B, the American man in his 30s whom I was replacing. I was now sitting next to him, and soon became amazed at one particular ability he had. . . .
[Next: Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII]
[Previous: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV]