Expats and Pubs: A Love Story

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Expats like to drink, but it’s about more than the alcohol. John Bocskay discusses the role of the pub in the expat social and cultural scene.

If you’ve been around Korea for any length of time, you may have noticed that the expats here like to drink. (Full disclosure: Yoo hoo!) It’s not unique to Korea, nor is it a recent phenomenon. In the Roaring ‘20s, Ernest Hemingway propped up Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, where Ezra pounded absinthe in the corner. A generation earlier, Rudyard Kipling shed his white man’s burden with the help of Singapore Slings at The Long Bar in Singapore. During his 1784-89 sojourn in France, Thomas Jefferson amassed an epic collection of wine and was known as an enthusiastic and gracious connoisseur.

I’ve often wondered if the expat tendency to hang around bars all night doesn’t spring from the same urge that led you to move abroad in the first place: that nagging feeling that if you don’t, you’re going to miss something. Of course there are other reasons. For the English-teaching crowd, many of whom are fresh out of university, drinking in Korea is sometimes an extension of the free-swilling culture of college life. For those in the business world, drinking can be a feature of their very jobs here to keep the wheels greased, the gears turning and the road smooth.

Regardless of one’s occupation or age, we also drink for the reasons that people everywhere drink: life is tough sometimes and for expats often more so. Outside of your element, the early weeks, months and years present a myriad of challenges, snafus, snags and hurdles that must be grasped and dealt with. Commiserating over a cold one has long been a way of solving or mitigating life’s troubles, or when all else fails, of drowning them in pleasant company.

Drinking also serves as the first window many of us have into Korea. Excepting the Muslim countries and the dry counties of the American South, drinking is a universal human occupation and thus often functions as the great bridge spanning even the greatest cultural divides. Language barriers melt away, cultural differences collapse, and we find ourselves on common (if slightly wobbly) ground with people we have otherwise struggled to understand.

But drinking isn’t nearly the whole story. For those of us living overseas, the pub itself serves as a vital institution. In Korean cities, expats tend not to cluster in the same neighborhoods – there are no Canadatowns or Little Englands – so we rally around other institutions, like churches and bars (and very occasionally both), as the locus of our new communities. Much as the writer Samuel Pepys considered pubs “the heart of England,” many local watering holes are now the heart of the expat scene, and as such, the attraction goes far beyond food, beer and darts. Pubs host poetry readings, book swaps, craft markets, live comedy, open mics, fundraisers, film screenings and writers’ workshops and provide venues for everything from performance art to punk rock.

Pubs are now also one of the ways that expats are pressing their cultural stamp on Korea, as their unique food offerings and eclectic brews both excite the palates of locals while pushing local publicans to expand their palettes. Like the Koreans in my hometown who planted their stake with dry cleaners and grocery stores, pubs are the obvious beachhead for this new class of expat-cum-immigrants dreaming of bigger things for themselves and their young families in their adopted home.

That said, I would be remiss not to emphasize one of things I love most about the pub scene in Korea in the year 2015. I leave you with the words of the immortal Homer Simpson:

Mmmmm. Beer.

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