Interlude: Reading Chamiseul, and Revisiting Gin Lane

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Gin Lane & Soju-Ro

So I was in the cinema waiting for a movie to start, and I saw this advertisement for 참이슬 soju. I found it both interesting and depressing. If you watch it, I’ll be you can see why:

Basically, the ad suggests that all human social interactions that aren’t lubricated by alcohol suck.

Alcohol is, of course, what prevents dates from being boring and timid:


… and we all know office work is a true drudgery…


… though with one’s little invisible ethanolic friends to entertain one…


… it’s not so bad after all:


(Is this an argument for drinking on the job? Likely not, but I think it is an insinuation of the fact that soju has long been the drink of choice for the essentially mandatory workmate outings that are part of office workers’ lives here… outings which are supposedly believe to improve team spirit and smooth over office tensions and so on. More on that below.)

The advertisement also makes a couple of other insinuations which are particularly interesting: not only are dates and work hellishly unimaginable without the levity and mood that intoxication offer, but indeed, even family is hell:


… especially bringing one’s Mr. Boyfriend home to meet Mr. Dad. And especially if Mr. Dad is drinking green tea. It doesn’t matter how much Mr. Boyfriend stoops and supplicates, Dad isn’t going to relax, and neither is anyone else. But there is one substance with which Dad can let down his patriarchal judgmental uptightness, and that is… soju!


Thank goodness for hard liquor, or family interactions — supposedly the most natural in the world, in a society that prides itself on putting family ahead of everything else — would be hell!

And then there is friendship, the freest and easiest, and the least difficult and demanding, of relationships of all those depicted in this advertisement. But you know, being out with friends sucks. Nothing to talk about, nothing to smile about. You find yourself yawning openly, or avoiding friends’ gaze. Too much soberness makes friendship hell…


… but there is, of course, a solution.


What’s interesting about this moment is a couple of things. Besides the fact that it puts me in mind of what I’ve heard time and time again from students — especially female students, and especially those who’ve been abroad — the reason people go out drinking in mixed groups like this is because, well, what else are they going to do?

It’s hard to find an activity that everyone is going to enjoy, because circles of friends tend not to crop up around common interests (like, say, love of a certain genre of music or literature, or some sport), and because people tend to be less open to trying “new” forms of entertainment until they are already trendy. (Board games were not popular until board game cafes became trendy, a number of years ago.) Not everyone will want to see the same film, and guys tend to be less interested in going to cafes and talking about stuff generally — and my more thoughtful Korean friends say that most young men and women alike tend towards shutting down serious conversations for being, well, “too serious.”

Which brings me to the second point: Miss Jiwaku was talking recently about what happens when she tries to point out why her point of view is different from, say,  one that a slightly older Korean guy might present as “the mainstream opinion.” She’ll bring up her disagreement, and explain why just a tiny bit, and then people — even peers — will say, “What? You’re so serious!” or “Oh, let’s not talk seriously! Cheers!” and then it’s time for everyone to down their glasses. It’s a point of frustration for her, having had good conversations with people from all over the world, that it’s so hard to start them up so many of her own countrymen and countrywomen.

So I’d advance in fact the last image above dramatizes a fantasy, which is that drinking actually makes people relax and enjoy their time together. In fact, it seems rather to be a rather convenient braking tool for preventing social gatherings from becoming too, well, meaningful, to be blunt. Because, after all, meaningful relationships cause people to challenge one anothers’ thinking and behavior, and once they’re doing that, they start thinking about the world around them in the same way, and we all know what that leads to.

And indeed, in the same light, we can read the images above this way, too: if soju is what makes Koreans tolerate having the longest working hours in the developed world, serious imbalance between work and family time, and high rates of job dissatisfaction — as well as widening pay disparities that disfavor women (mentioned here, amid tidbits of “good news” — 8.1 million people have full time jobs, yay! — that only serve to highlight how bad the situation is for most workers in Korea… the pay disparity is, I repeat, now continuing to widen), and all kinds of other workplace sexism — then isn’t it really the bulwark that keeps people from demanding better work situations, an enabler of misery?

Parents who cannot relax and interact with the potential (or actual) spouse of their children — or their own children — have a problem. I don’t care how normative it is. I’m sorry, I’m not willing to accept it’s a cultural difference. We have bad in-law relationships in the West, we have protective fathers in the West, we have all that. But while it can be nice to sit down and have a beer or a glass of whiskey with your girlfriend’s dad, any man who cannot behave like a normal human being while meeting his daughter’s boyfriend — a guy she’s probably been dating for some time, since such introductions seem, for many, to portend some intention of marriage — has something seriously wrong with him.

And as for the implications this advertisement makes in terms of love, romance, and romantic relationships, well… I leave that as an exercise to the reader.

But what’s important to remember is: we needn’t take all those claims at face value. Now, I’m not saying they’re all completely false: a number of times I’ve observed that alcohol — particularly soju — has acted as a social lubricant for groups of people who gather but have nothing in particular in common, and no informal reason to socialize. (This is true in the West, too, of other alcohols, but I think it’s also less common in the West for groups of “friends” to form, consisting of people who have nothing in common and nothing to talk about.) The father of my former girlfriend was relaxed enough to hug me when we first met, but that doesn’t mean that potential (and actual) in-law relationships aren’t, for many people, plagued by awkwardness and discomfort. The way dating works in Korea — especially the blind date scene — makes for a very awkward kind of interaction, and work often is painful and dreary.

But the advertisement isn’t just noting those situations: it’s naturalizing them. That is to say, the advertisement is arguing that this is simply the way it is, the way it has been, the way it indeed will be. And as such, it articulates the purpose of soju, which is to alleviate the awkwardness and pain of social life as nothing else can do.

The implicit logic is that these things cannot be eased in other ways. Fathers cannot, say, work on their attitude and manage their anxiety about meeting their daughters’ boyfriends. Workplaces cannot and and should not be forced — by the demands of their workers, by legislative reforms, by simple common sense — to improve the conditions of their employees’ lives. People should not take their chips off the table from friendships that don’t fulfill them and seek out people with common interests, aspirations, and passions.

This may sound idealistic. I can see, before my eyes, the face of the current (reelected) mayor of Seoul, as he commented on the educational reforms proposed by

This brings to mind the comments I wrote on a feedback paper for an outstanding student, who wrote for my Pop Culture course a paper discussing the Silent Generation, the youth of America who were born from about 1925 till the end of World War II, and who were described this way in Time Magazine (in November 1951, as cited over at the good ol’ Wikipedia):

Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the “Silent Generation.”

She discussed the rise of the gangster film in terms of its function or purpose as a pressure-release valve for the Silent Generation, a way of vicariously experiencing rebellion while conforming in real life. She went so far as to parallel her own generation in Korea with that American generation, and in a way it makes sense: they were born too late to be part of the socioeconomic struggle to modernize Korea — and too early to really enjoy the fruits of its attendant cultural modernization in their youth. They are pressured to work hard, but the criteria for success seem to be detached from real fulfillment for many of them.

It’s a characterization that is not new to me, though I’ve never heard anyone parallel it with the Silent Generation — a group I’d not really even heard about until this student’s essay. But the sentiment is familiar: Miss Jiwaku herself thinks it’s a symptom of the whole living-in-the-shadow-of-success thing, where the older generation — the parents of people just entering the job market in this decade — simultaneously both credit themselves for the economic Miracle on the Han (consciously or unconsciously), and (also to varying degrees of self-awareness) look down on their kids who have never had to experience the kinds of privations they did… hence, the tendency of all too many parents to micromanage their kids’ educational, career, romantic, and other choices.

This brings me to something I want to discuss more when I review Joshua Zeitz’s book Flapper, but… I’ll just sort of spill the beans and say that I think most Westerners who compare Korea to America in the 1950s make several category errors. (Cultural difference, and all of that.) But I think there are certain processes in modernization that may replicate themselves, and Korea, far from lagging behind, may still be well ahead of schedule. The problem is, Westerners have very little sense of the time-scales involved in the modernization of Western culture… and they have very poor cultural and historical memory, else they would (and I would, much sooner) be readily aware of parallels in modernization between Korea today… and America in the decades following World War I.

I’d say that it’s no mistake that utopian entertainment — superhero comics, and American pulp science fiction — also exploded onto the popular cultural scene in America in precisely that time: a little utopian inspiration was just what the doctor ordered, I’d say, and that’s why I wrote this little personal note at the end of my response to her essay:

…. I want to comment on your final line in your essay: when you describe “unrealistic” dreams held by  young Korean people [and your hope that they keep them alive]: I feel I must point out that the world you live in — the Internet, the cellular phones, the long life expectancy, the huge numbers of people living in cities, the TVs and the advertising, the advances of women’s rights (frustratingly slow as they are even now) all were “unrealistic” in the world where my and your grandparents — and depending on their age, maybe even your parents, as mine — grew up. My point is that what we imagine as realistic is very sadly limited, but the problem for the Silent Generation — in America in the 30s, but even more frighteningly for young Koreans today — is that this limited imagination gets worse the older people get — because they are trapped in the way they learned to think about the world when they were young — while changes in society, culture, and technology continue to accelerate.

My point being that the changes from 1930 to 1950 or 1960 were sufficient that very smart, good-sounding plans designed for life in the 1930s were a recipe for disaster by 1960 — and the people who had planned their lives that way were very confused, frustrated, and often poor in the 1960s. But the rate of change for Korea today is even faster, so people of your parents’ generation are even less likely to have a good idea about where the future is headed than you do… because so much has changed  that they are even likelier not to really understand how things like careers and business work in the present day.

The point is that the most unrealistic idea of all is the idea that the world of tomorrow — meaning, of 5 or 10 or 20 years from now — will be anything like the world of today. The most realistic idea if that the future will be, largely, quite unrecognizable and quite confusing to most people over a certain age. So while the Silent Generation lived in frustration (and then were sent to die on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific in World War II), the similar young Koreans your describe face a looming disaster of following their parents’ “advice” or “expectations” and paying in the long run for planning a life based on an obsolete model of how to survive in a society.

Hmm. There’s probably a self-help book in there, somewhere, if you feel like writing one someday (and making huge piles of money, ha!). Or, at least, there’s some reason to pause and consider carefully: all the people who are making billions of won selling, designing, and programming games today in Korea would, if they’d asked their parents in the 1980s whether they should study computers and games, would have been told it was unrealistic to think someone could make a living making computer games. Yet there they are, making billions of won in a new industry that is also an important one in Korea!

Okay, well, enough of utopianism. I’m not quite finished with that ad, which I think is interesting for two other points as well, however. The first one is this:


If you look closely, among the first figures to emerge from the bottles is a little woman. She’s an important figure, if you pay attention to the narrative logic of the advertisement. After all, one of the first things we see is our heroine unscrewing a bottle of soju:


… an action which our small, cartoony woman repeats later on:


It’s not a man who introduces soju into these social situations: it’s a woman. In all cases, it’s a woman, and in several situations, the soju allows her a degree of (positive) control over the behavior of men — her date, her father, the awkward male half of her circle of bored friends.

This hearkens back to a lot of ads about soju that James Turnbull has blogged about in the past few years, but it goes, I think, beyond that. I began a series of posts a long, long time ago paralleling the situation for soju in Korea today and gin during the English Gin Craze.

(This here post is the second installment in that series. I’ll try get a third written by year’s end.)

One of the interesting points is that Gin was — and even now occasionally is — called Geneva, or “Madame Geneva.” Despite the histrionics over the effect of gin on mothers and their child-rearing abilities, gin was deeply, deeply linked in the popular consciousness with a feminine “folk identity” (as it’s called in one of the two books I managed to track down and read about the Gin Craze). And in fact, many gin vendors in London were women, as were many consumers. It’s an interesting parallel, and I’m not sure why it exists, though I bet a number of interesting possibilities lurk there — after all, women, like gin (or soju) were historically seen as something “for men,” and indeed both had some indelible link to sexual excess — perhaps, as a consequence of the lowering of inhibitions; but women, we’re often told, are also socialized to smooth over social relations, and it seems that’s one purpose gin served in London — in the sense of it being a very effective “opiate” for dealing with the pains of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization — all of which I discussed in that earlier post on the Gin Craze .

There may be other, subtler links as well; Mary Frances Wack’s text Lovesickness in the Middle Ages — of which I’ve finally gotten myself a copy, whee! — argued that in folk-mythology (of the poor, concerning witches; of the rich and “educated” of the Middle Ages, concerning the pseudo-medical condition of “love-sickness”) may have reflected dislocations within family structure; I think she’s all too Freudian in that, and that the real root of these anxieties about women is the difficulty of separating a man’s feelings for a woman (and the power those feelings have over him) from the problem of the uncontrollability of womens’ feelings for men in partiarchal societies founded on the notion of men controlling their lessers (including hierarchically inferior men, but also controlling women in general). Lovesickness is the nagging confrontation that no matter how rich and powerful you are, you cannot make a woman love you back — and the challenge this presents to the fundamentality of male power.

But I’ll leave that aside for the moment. In any case, the other interesting thing about our heroine’s invisible ethanol friends that I wanted to discuss is that, when they are visible, they have very specific qualities. Here’s a good close look at them:


Besides the clear nod to both nationalism and the current World Cup hysteria — the guy in the red shirt with “KOREA” emblazoned across the front, kicking a soccer ball around — it’s worth nothing that the little cartoon men outnumber the women not only in this picture, but even more profoundly throughout the advertisement.  Compare with the image directly above this one, and you’ll see only one character who is constant: the brown-haired woman in the purple dress. (Though the soccer ball guy seems pretty constant in other scenes, and other characters recur as well.)

Repetitions or not, I propose that the woman in the purple dress is an important figure, because of her relative prominence as emerging almost first, as the unscrewer of the soju bottle — while being hoisted aloft by a whole column of guys, and so on — unlike, say, the glasses-wearing guy in the bottom left of the second-last picture, who shows up at the end of the ad but is far from prominent anywhere. Why would she be important?

Well, for one thing, makgeolli is getting popular now. Whether or not it’s true, there seems to be a widespread belief among young people I know (like, yes, my students) that the reason for this surge in popularization is that women are driving the shift, since women are (a) watching their weight and (b) prefer something with lower alcohol and a milder flavor, while (c) wanting to join in on the fun of drinking with friends more, and more often.

(I’ll add that most of the women I’ve known well didn’t drink much, or as much as men, but that I’ve known some women who could drink most guys under the table. However, even they didn’t often do so. Maybe that’s changing, or maybe it’s part of the rhetoric of whatever cryptic, nascent [let’s-not-call-it-]feminism[-though-that’s-what-the-word-for-it-would-be] that may or may not be brewing among young women. I dunno.)

Anyway, it’s crucial here that soju is being presented not just as improving a woman’s life, but also as the very thing that, by introducing it into any awkward social situation, she can gain control and reap such benefits by — simply by specifically being the one to introduce soju into each situation. (For she is the heroine of this little tale, and if you look above you will see her sitting in the middle of her group of friends, as well as between her father and her boyfriend — the perfect intermediary both spatially, as well as in social terms.) If it’s true what I’ve heard a million times before, and women are indeed socialized to make peace, to try to manage social situations and minimize tensions and so on,  then this makes perfect sense: it’s a socialized role being conflated very cleverly with a consumer role — and specifically, a consumer role from which women were traditionally less expected (or supposed) to play.

Lastly, and I can’t help but point this out, the cartoon characters aren’t unusual in their neoteny (which is of course the scientific way of saying they’re childlike figures): they have oversized heads, and simple facial expressions. Yes, not unusual at all — neoteny is simply a part of most cartoons by design and convention.

Yet I daresay that here, the childlikeness is very prounounced, not just in physiology: their movements are precarious — not only moving like children, but also mostly running, the way a kid who hasn’t quite figured out balance but is learning to walk just the same seems to do. There is a clear suggestion: drinking can return us to childhood. Drinking can alleviate the crappy stresses of adulthood, so that you don’t need to confront the problems that cause those stresses and make your life actually better. Drink, and be a kid again.

Which is why this ad depresses me: it seems to say, “You know, most of your life really is unbearable…” — something alarming numbers of people seem to feel here such that they act upon it — “… but instead of doing something about it, why not just dull the pain?” Religion may be popular in this nation, but through this advertisement, Jinro’s Chamiseul inadvertently lays bare its claim to the title of the real “opium of the people” to a degree bordering on the stupefying. I daren’t cite Marx further, though I believe his phrase about “illusory happiness” is quite fitting to the joys modeled in this particular advertisement.

The next installment in this series will take some time, but I will get back to it eventually, I promise.

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