Drink up, you're in college

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Drink up, you're in college

If you're walking the narrow streets of Sinchon in the early morning hours, keep your eyes to the ground and be careful where you step. At the epicenter of nightlife for three of Seoul's big universities, especially in March, lies a minefield of vestiges of what countless young revelers consumed the night before.

During March, when universities roll out the welcome mats for incoming freshmen and corresponding ceremonies take place every evening, the morning modern art exhibits scattered about the pavement are worse than usual. The welcoming ceremonies usually involve binge-drinking events, which generally take the form of all-night sessions in a bar downing boilermaker "bombs." It can also mean a sabalsik, or a ceremony at which new students drink from large bowls. Now, the legal drinking age in Korea is 20, and students usually begin university studies at 19. So the law is essentially ignored for the sake of ritual and tradition.

Yu Jae-rim, 19, who just entered Sejong University, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition: "I've been cramped in a classroom following the same study routines for 17 hours to achieve one goal. Now, don't I at least have the right to enjoy what life has to offer?" Evidently he does. He's been through two welcoming ceremonies so far, and drank a large bowl of soju each time. "It wasn't that bad and I was able to go back home safe and sound," he said with a proud smile.

Mr. Yu either had good luck or a strong constitution. Over the past several years, the welcoming ceremony drinking rituals - either in bars or a sabalsik - have claimed victims, at least one college student dying of alcohol poisoning a year. In 1996, a freshman who drank a bowl of soju promptly passed out and never woke up. The following year, another student died from drinking round after round of "bombs." According to Chang Ji-hyun, a member of an anti-drinking organization, ironically named BACCHUS (Boosting Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students), there are many more unrevealed cases. BACCHUS was established in 1997 by a group of university professors.

The forerunner of the welcoming ceremonies was Korea University, which is considered one of Korea's three elite universities along with Seoul National and Yonsei. Korea University has always had an ardently nationalistic spirit, and reportedly started the welcoming ceremony tradition in the Japanese colonial times. The symbolism of the binging and purging was to expel the remains of the standard education imposed by the Japanese. Upperclassmen filled bowls with rice wine and forced the freshmen to guzzle and vomit to obliterate all traces of the past and be reborn a new person.

"If you follow the rule of the real sabalsik, it's nearly impossible to die from alcohol poisoning," said Park Bo-young, 25, a Korea University grad student majoring in sociology. "For one thing, makgeolli is relatively mild; also, the point of the whole ritual is to throw it back up." Mr. Park is an unabashed proponent of the ceremonies, and boasted that he's participated in more than he can count.

Hong Hye-gul, a general practitioner and journalist, warns against the idea of sabalsik, however. Dr. Hong told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition that any kind of binge drinking or guzzling is dangerous. It can rupture the esophagus and forceful vomiting can critically shock the lungs.

The original intention of sabalsik, whether good or bad, has been changed and made more dangerous at many universities, where students fill bowls not with makgeolli but with soju, a much stronger liquor. Making it worse, soju binge drinkers skip the most important part - getting rid of it.

Cheon Seong-su, a professor of the department of social welfare at Seoul's Samyuk University, echoed Mr. Hong's concern. "Considering that 25 percent of Asians cannot tolerate alcohol, it is a highly dangerous practice," he said.

Some people wonder if these benders under the guise of college initiations catapult students into a lifestyle of hard drinking. According to reliable studies, the average Korean man last year drank 80 bottles of soju, 2 bottles of whiskey and 130 bottles of beer. Is the national craze embodied in terms like one-shot and bottoms-up rooted in the welcoming ceremonies?

Half of Korea's college students drink at least once a week, according to a survey of more than 1,000 students Mr. Cheon conducted two years ago. Of that group, a little more than 1 percent showed clear symptoms of alcoholism, while more than 13 percent showed incipient symptoms.

Opposition to the drinking parties is growing on college campuses. Freshmen are now less pressured to drink, especially after the academic system began to allow students to study for two years without choosing a major. Some freshmen just drink nonalcoholic drinks at the ceremonies, said Shin Yong-shik, a sophomore at Korea University. "That display of nonconformity would have been unthinkable until just a few years ago," he said.

Kim Gwan-woo, 24, a junior at Hongik University and active member of BACCHUS, said, "Nowadays, I see some improvement. Freshmen do have more of a right to choose whether and what they want to drink."

But judging by the wanton activities at the nightlife districts of Seoul's universities, the drink-until-you-vomit tradition shows no sign of disappearing. On a recent evening, Korea University's party area, Anam-dong, was crowded with freshmen and upperclassmen, all shouting and singing and swaying - blind drunk. That sight would please Mr. Park, the grad student at Korea University, who says some things are better left unchanged, particularly traditions.

But if you're out for a night of drinking to excess, whether voluntary in involuntary, you'd do well to heed the warning of Samyuk University's Mr. Cheon: "If you drink too much, it's not you drinking the alcohol; it's the alcohol drinking you."

Woozily, I staggered to the trash cans and deposited my 'past.'

I thought I had it made. What on earth could a 19-year-old freshman at an elite Korean university be afraid of? Plenty, as it turns out. After three years of high school, when I kept telling myself "the hard work will pay off," I passed the college entrance exam, enrolled at Korea University, and everything was rosy. That is, until the day of the "welcoming reception" thrown by the English department's student association.

If you're picturing a cocktail party and formal introductions, think again. We freshmen were told bluntly that we would each have to down a punchbowl of makgeolli, Korea's thick rice wine, at the ceremony. The bowl, or sabal, would be filled with 1 liter of the wine.

Leading up to the dreaded date with the bowl, sophomores called to admonish me that I should be on time, properly dressed and ?most important ?eat a big lunch. I have to admit that I usually find drinking agreeable; I feel it helps me socialize. But this rite of passage filled me with horror. But alas, I had no choice. I was told I'd be an outcast during my college years if I bowed out.

The day came. At 6 p.m., half an hour before the ceremony started, I and about 50 other freshmen went to the school cafeteria to face my fate. At a nearby table, several cases of makgeolli were stacked beside a row of seven big bowls. Just outside the cafeteria were three huge plastic trash cans, all suspiciously empty.

At 6:30 p.m., senior alumni, a couple of professors and some 200 upperclassmen poured in to the room. The president of the student association gave a speech, stressing the significance of the ritual. "Today our freshmen will be reborn as true Korea University students by ridding themselves of the harmful traces of their past," he said. A sophomore got up to demonstrate the ridding process. He hoisted a full bowl, cried out his name and year and emptied the bowl in 30 seconds. Everybody sang a special song, aptly titled "Paean for Makgeolli."

Next it was our turn. Seven freshmen at a time were to step up to the table, cry out their names one by one, then down the wine together. The first group went up and guzzled. Then they were forced to "rid themselves of the past." They were led to the big trash buckets where they stuck their fingers down their throats and spewed out the "traces."

I was in the third group of seven. For me, the shouting-out-loud part was easy. Then I got through the guzzling part, though it took me more than a minute - shameful. Woozily, I staggered to the trash cans and deposited my "past." One student in my group couldn't drink because of health reasons, so he poured the makgeolli over his head instead. After the last student had reversed the flow of makgeolli, the spectators gave us a standing ovation.

The next day, I walked around nursing a massive headache and fell asleep in my English Phonetics class. When I awoke, I was glad that I survived but wished there was another way to start college. -- Chun Su-jin

by Chun Su-jin

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