Korean courage and karaoke

Almost every self-respecting country in the world produces at least one type of ‘national drink’. Though more often than not these drinks are really nothing but some awful commercial concoction with a vaguely touristy label. If the locals don’t drink the stuff themselves, it’s NOT a national drink, sorry.

On the other hand, if a drink is really ONLY drunk by locals and shunned by the tourists, and as good as unavailable in the rest of the world, then you really have found a national tipple. One such famous drinks is the notorious Makgeolli from South Korea. They probably have it in North Korea as well, but I wasn’t fortunate -or interested- enough to travel in that forbidden country.

In 1995 I was given the opportunity to travel to South Korea, as a guest of Hyundai who were launching a new car. And on the first evening I was one of the jetlagged guests at a giant banquet in the gardens of the sumptuous Cheju Shilla resort on Jeju Island, Korea’s version of Hawaii. There, I was surprised to receive a welcome drink of murky slop from a gourd. It looked like watery milk with a slightly cream-coloured tinge, and it gave off a fresh yeasty scent. I remembered that scent all too well from tapé, the fermented and slightly alcoholic rice desert my Chinese-Javanese grandma used to make, and that kept us nice and quiet as children. So I did not hesitate to have a drink. I also did not want to offend our Korean hosts like some of my less civilized Dutch colleagues did. I will never cease to cringe at the Dutch inability to travel without trampling toes, but that is another topic that shall be dealt with another time.

The fermented rice-wine Makgeolli should be served with a gourd.

The taste was pleasantly refreshing, slightly sour and not too alcoholic, or at least so it seemed. There was a definite hint of sake, the more famous and commercial rice wine from Japan. I liked this ‘mokkalie’ as we called it. Korean is a notoriously hard language to transcribe and unlike the Chinese who standardized matters by forcing the Pinyin transcription rules onto the entire world (hence Canton became Guangzhou), you can basically spell Korean any way you fancy. Makgeolli seems to be the common English form though. Whatever.

Unlike most colleagues, who after a first polite taste (or rude refusal) switched to their boring imported European lager, I decided to stick with Makgeolli for the rest of the evening. I actually really grew to like the drink, more and more, and that made a very favorable impression on the Korean hosts with whom I shared a table. Was it Korean courage, that prompted me to grab the karaoke microphone a little later, and warble ‘Careless whisper’? I have no idea, I do remember scornful looks from the lager-drinking Dutch and even more so from the Germans who were terribly shy. Then, the opening bars of ‘La Bamba’ started, and there was no way I was going to leave the stage. Instead, a Korean gentleman from our table jumped on the stage beside me, and together we duetted what must have been the worst version of La Bamba ever. The other Koreans present went ballistic over our performance and afterwards my Korean duet partner and I hugged and abandoned the stage to make room for a large crowd that insisted on singing ‘We are the world’.

Five days later things were very, very different. The colossal headache I woke up with after the Makgeolli-fueled karaoke-spectacle had left me after a day, the embarrasment was still very much alive, and my Dutch colleagues made little effort to hide their disdain. We were visiting the Hyundai headquarters that day and were all in our suits and ties. One colleague was boasting that he was going to interview the second-in-command at Hyundai, who in a hierarchical society like the Korean one was something like the left hand of God.

Things turned out very, very different indeed.

When we greeted the Hyundai high-and-mighty, politely bowing and handing over our calling cards with both hands, as we had been taught, I was scrutinized by a middle-aged Korean man with titanium glasses and an expensive suit. ‘You have a very nice voice’, he said, out of the blue. I was confused and looked at the vice-president of Hyundai… and suddenly recognized my duetting partner from he karaoke night! Let me just end this long story by saying that I ended up getting that exclusive interview, and my arrogant colleague who had felt too good for Korean booze and karaoke, was politely sent packing.

See? When in Rome -or Seoul- drink as the Romans do. And sing like a bird!

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