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A university transition ritual: Drink until you retch

Mar 17,2003
“To drink or not to drink!” A traditional drinking song of Korea University students shakes Anam-dong in the evening chill of March as masses of Korea University students cheer on incoming freshmen to drink a full bucket of makkeoli, a rice wine. That’s 2 liters, over half a gallon, in one chug-a-lug.
University freshmen are exposed to this drinking custom all around Korea, but it’s not only makkeoli. At Yonsei University, the ceremony demands a draught of soju, a stronger liquor, from a bow. From the prestigious Seoul National University down to the least known institutions, the story is much the same. But the Korea University students say their ceremony is not like what they call “copycat distortions” at other schools.
Lee Ho-moon, a Korea University sophomore in business administration, said solemnly, “This is a ceremony that has been part our school heritage since the Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Back then, students drank makkeoli in order to throw it up again. Some say it is madness, but the objective is symbolic ― to rid ourselves of the standard education imposed by the Japanese.” He was addressing the incoming freshmen in a solemn tone just before the roar of singing, cheering and guzzling began. “This is the true sabalshik, the drinking ceremony of our university. The vomiting obliterates all traces of the past and you are reborn.”
As might be expected, the tradition has its cost in human life. During the last five years, 10 incoming freshmen have died nationwide in such initiation ceremonies. Last month, a freshmen who had not yet set foot in a university classroom, died after drinking a concoction of several liquors with upperclassmen. Many of the deaths reportedly stemmed from the omission of the vomiting after the drinks, resulting in alcohol poisoning.
Many students are rebelling, and upperclassmen no longer put as much pressure on newcomers as their predecessors did. But tradition dies hard, and there is still an appreciation for the symbolism of the practice.
Kim Tae-joon, a student who spent his early university years in the Netherlands, said he feared the amount of liquor in front of him. He said he drank with his eyes closed and just wanted to get it over with.
“Seniors ordered freshmen to cross-dress for a week on campus in the Netherlands. This is different, but after finishing the drink, I felt more part of this university. I feel the bonding; I am now confident of the trust among my classmates and of the upperclassmen,” he said, adding, “Yes, I liked it. I want my successors to share this great experience.”
Many female students at first chose not to drink, but watching other women participate, they jumped out to face the cheers and the singing.
“I am scared, but I am sure I can do it and be part of the culture. I think it would be cool!” said Park Young-min, a freshman, as she stepped up to take her gulps. The cheers turned into a roar. “I did it!” she cried. “Words can’t explain it, but I feel I finally have become a student at this university and part of its camaraderie.”
The cheers will go on throughout March all over the nation. Too much drinking leads to accidents and drunken rowdiness, certainly; but peer pressure and tradition combine with good intentions to try to cement students’ friendships and their new status.
“Much has changed since my days,” said Han Sam-sik of the class of 1988. “But trust like no other is born through this ceremony. It is part of all of us now,” he concluded amid the cheers as Ju Ha-young, 13 years his junior at Korea University, pours him a drink in respect. “None of us believe that we or our successors will abandon this tradition.”

by Kim Young-il <012yeyo@joins.com>