Friday, April 20, 2012

Hanging Out at the 편의점: A Defense

The weather is finally warm enough for my favorite Korean past time: drinks and 안주 in front of the local 편의점. In my case, it's a FamilyMart.

Arguably, it's not the classiest of past times, but I think patronizing the 편의점 gets an unnecessarily bad rap. Perhaps I am too much of an apologist, as Jong-min insists I enjoy it more than Koreans do. If that's the case, my rebuttal is that obviously Koreans don't enjoy it enough, because there are plenty of reasons to loiter in front of the GS25 instead of throwing your money into the shadowy recesses of a bar!

1. Economics

It's just cheaper. I can go to a bar and pay six thousand won for one cocktail, or I can go the FamilyMart and use that six thousand won to get two bottles of soju and a bag of chips. One drink? Or fourteen drinks plus snacks?

2. Why waste the weather?

So many Korean bars are either basement affairs, or up on the third, fourth, etc floors without so much as a good view, never mind a balcony or outdoor dining and drinking area, it seems a waste to spend mild evening boxed inside after you've been cooped up in school or work for the better part of eight hours.

3. Save your lungs.

Korean smoking laws are not as strict as American ones. Any time I go to a bar, I have to be prepared to spend it around clouds of cigarette smoke. Nothing against my smoker friends (I have been known to indulge), but it seems as I age my asthma only gets worse. My lungs will not quickly forget a night in a smoky bar (though my liver certainly will!).

Of course, points 2 and 3 are irrelevant if you're patronizing the rare drinking establishment that's either rooftop or first floor. They do exist.

4. Narrow your focus.

At a bar, there's a lot going on: there's loud music, there's other patrons, there's dart games, there's the bartenders, and so on. It's a really overstimulating atmosphere. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, and sometimes you need to be overstimulated. If I don't have a drinking buddy lined up but I still want to have a few beers, I head straight to the bar to get that need for stimulation out of my system.

But more often than not I'm with a friend or two. When that's the case, it's not stimulation (or a near-fatal BAC level) that I want, it's meaningful exchange. Drinking at the 편의점 has all the essentials (drinks, snacks) at a good price, without any frills that might detract from the experience.

5. Zoom out.

Granted, this is kind of the opposite of the above point, but in a nutshell: the people-watching is better outside the MiniStop than it is in the bar, most of the time. Instead of just the bartenders and the bar patrons, you can spy on anyone who happens to be walking by. Maybe this isn't important to everybody, but I guess I'm too much of a writer to pass up a good people-watching opportunity.

There are downsides, of course. Going for an all-out bender at a 편의점 is just in poor taste. They're often in residential areas; if you act like a hooligan in a bar, you're not really bothering anyone who hasn't, to some extent, agreed that they don't mind being bothered. If they are bothered, they can leave. But act like a hooligan outside the MiniStop? Best case scenario: you reinforce all of the negative stereotypes about foreign English teachers in Korea. Worst case: someone calls the police.

After all, the 편의점 is not for your "trying to recapture my college years" bender, it's for a quiet night out with friends.

Which do you prefer? A bar? A restaurant? A 편의점?

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