Psy's Drinking 'Problem' Is Nothing More Than A Cultural Misunderstanding

In America there is a lot of negativity associated with heavy drinking. People who enjoy drinking frequently are often labeled as 'having a drinking problem' or worse, an alcoholic.

When "Gangnam Style" superstar Psy gave a recent interview with the UK's Sunday Times, he was very open and candid about his drinking habits - going as far as to say that soju (the Korean equivalent of vodka) is his "best friend."

A few other notable quotes such as, "If I'm happy, I'm drinking. If I'm sad, I'm drinking. If it's raining, I'm drinking. If it's sunny, I'm drinking. If it's hot, I'm drinking. If it's cold, I'm drinking," have raised more than a few eyebrows in the past couple of days.

But why would a man whose fame and success depend on his likable personality admit to the world that he is a raging alcoholic?

Simple. He didn't.

It is at times like this when cultural context is of the utmost importance.

Given his status as an international entertainer, it is sometimes easy to forget that Psy is a Korean man, and a very proud one at that.

Throughout his career he has been rather outspoken about his patriotism and undying love for his motherland. This also means that Psy embraces all aspects of his heritage and culture - and yes, that includes excessive drinking.

With a growing number of fans and the majority of media outlets reporting on the singer's activities in the past year coming from abroad, cultural understanding has gone away with the wind.

Frankly speaking, Psy is probably the only Korean celebrity most Americans are familiar with, and while he might not be the best example of a 'typical Korean' he is certainly not atypical either.

According to a 2012 World Health Organization report, outside of the former Soviet states, South Korea boasts the highest rate of alcohol consumption, at nearly 15 liters per capita yearly. To put this in perspective, the United States comes in at just over 9 liters and Russia is pushing 16 liters each year.

As anyone who has ever lived or worked in South Korea can attest to, Koreans (particularly the men) drink for just about every occasion, and often times without a specific reason at all.

It is a social activity, a way to do business and forge bonds - and it's cheap. The price of one bottle of soju costs anywhere from one to three dollars and it is not uncommon to down multiple over the course of a night.

Bosses routinely take their employees out for impromptu work parties (hwoeshik), university students gather near campus to enjoy round after round, and as Psy pointed out, even rainy weather is reason enough to grab a drink (although at that time soju is often traded out for traditional rice wine known as makkeoli).

In fact, a question frequently asked when making a new acquaintance is "How many bottles of soju can you drink?" as if the higher the number, the more credibility a person has.

This is not to say that life in South Korea is like a constant kegger. In fact, it's rather the opposite.

Korean drinking culture is very rigid and follows many strict guidelines of respect. There are more rules than one can imagine - hand placement, when and how to fill a glass, who pays - all with the purpose of strengthening ties between individuals.

The context of Korean drinking habits goes a step further when history is taken into consideration.

Now one of the strongest economies in the world, it should not be forgotten that merely a generation ago, South Korea was floundering in the third world. Along with financial stability comes a host of other things - among them, leisure activities and increased socializing - of which drinking goes hand in hand.

And before that, during the Japanese occupation of the country in the early 20th century, revolutionaries and anti-colonialists would gather at pop-up street bars to strategize and drink, a tradition that continues to this day (pojang-macha, or 'soju tents' are a common sight in the Korean nightlife year-round).

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean drinking customs. Alcohol consumption is as ubiquitous to the culture as is kimchi or tae kwon do - and celebrated just as much.

So when Psy, a world-famous entertainer, seems proud, even boastful, about his drinking habits - that's because he is. He is proud of his hertitage and culture - the history, politics, economy, and all the soju that goes along with all of it.

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