Seoul, Korea — I never understood the touching relationship between Korean people and their soju.
Its presence is ubiquitous, from billboards and night clubs to funerals.
Soju is an alcoholic beverage that looks like vodka, but tastes a little sweeter. If every nation could be identified by an alcoholic beverage, soju would be synonymous to what it means to be a Korean.
The truth is, soju contains every bitter and existentialist experience of being an average Korean in one shot.
It’s cheaper than beer, wine, vodka, or any other better-known foreign alcohols. Like a reliable friend, this affordability makes it very approachable for most Koreans.
It is the drink that has always stood by your side, during the IMF, International Monetary Funds, crisis, the night before your high school entrance exam, the countless family reunions and weddings, and during that pensive and lonely moment after being fired. It has been the most attentive listener of your soliloquy during the loneliest and the most embarrassing of nights.
You would always remember soju for the times you would stare at yourself through its emptied shot glass, expecting an answer or even just a fuzzy image of who you have become.
“It’s only distilled grains,” you would think. “It’s only 2 a.m.,” you would reply.
I never understood why my uncle would drink continuously even though he would turn horribly red. I never understood why my dad could only be openly honest after a couple shots.
In a way, it is a hilarious affair of transforming an ordinary Korean into an extraordinarily blunt extrovert.
Other alcohols might have the same effect, but only soju can form the understanding bond with the hunched-shouldered sentimentalists known to me as Koreans.
After dealing with one another in this tiny, competitive country of ours, being able to drink is a stress reliever. I smile about it with a bit of uneasiness and sadness.
One would assume that the bluntness of our people would lead to less deciphering of codes, but somehow it leads to a chaotic organization of the Korean psyche.
We remember too much, we feel too much, we read inspirational novels too much, and so sometimes we are afraid to breathe freely because this land that we call home seems to be too small to contain all of our pride and dreams.
So we share our stories to each other and ourselves of what we could be and what we could have been, freely, with a drunken swagger of the twilight that only soju seems to understand.
Minha Lee is a Correspondent for Youth Journalism International.