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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Is the only way to make Korean friends at the bottom of a bottle?

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“Are you going to the next MT?,” my friend asked one day during lunch.

Curious, I asked what “MT” stands for, and my friend explained that it’s short for “Membership Training” — a well-known tradition in Korean universities where students gather for a retreat led by a student organization, usually a student council or club.

While the name “training” might sound academic or educational, MTs are really all about having a good time and bonding with fellow students. As my friend put it, it is “a chance for college students to let loose and party with their peers, usually involving a lot of alcohol.”

When I first heard about MTs, I was confused. Of course, drinking in college is nothing new, but organized drinking getaways in Korea arranged by student institutions seemed like a whole new level of formality. The copious number of soju bottles consumed at MTs and student parties is also surprising, and perhaps even quite scary to me. It definitely gave me pause and made me consider the role of alcohol in Korean college life, and whether this is a surprising phenomenon to others as well.

Vu Doc Toan
Vu Doc Toan

I brought up the subject with another friend, Nguyen Anh, a 20-year-old Vietnamese student at Yonsei University, who helped me realize that I was not the only one thinking like this.

Anh said Korean students tend to “consume more alcohol” compared to their Vietnamese counterparts. There is no overt pressure to drink and seniors typically step in when necessary, but the fact that the majority of students drink at MTs can make non-drinkers feel excluded, Anh said.

“It is hard to get close to Korean students if you don’t drink,” Anh added.

My theory was confirmed when I came across a report by Rennie Moon, a professor at the Underwood International College of Yonsei University, which states that the drinking culture in Korean universities is a significant barrier to interaction.

“The finding that many foreign students dislike Korea’s drinking culture is not new, but it shows that this also has direct consequences for levels of interaction between foreign and domestic students,” Moon said.

“Foreign students thought Korean students simply drank at extreme levels instead of in moderation, which in turn led them to interact less with their Korean peers.”

Many international students are hesitant to participate in MTs and other drinking events, which leads to reduced interaction with their Korean peers. Additionally, students who are not fond of the drinking culture or have dietary restrictions feel that this creates distance between them and their friends, making it difficult to form close friendships in Korea.

Students celebrate at a university festival at Hanyang University in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, on May 25, 2022. [YONHAP]
Students celebrate at a university festival at Hanyang University in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, on May 25, 2022. [YONHAP]

But not all international students are skeptical of the drinking culture.

“Games involving drinking are a big part of the MT, but no one was forced to drink if they weren’t comfortable, and very few people even drank that much,” said Dominic Phillips, a 20-year-old American student at Yonsei University,

In contrast to the United States, where drinking in college is not a public activity due to the legal drinking age, Phillips believes that “due to there being no need to do it in secret [in Korea], it’s a lot safer, and people learn how to be safe quite early.”

Similarly, Assylzhan, a 20-year-old halal student at Yonsei University, does not believe that drinking is the most important prerequisite for socializing in Korea.

Although she does not drink and go to MTs, she is “totally fine” and thinks that there are other ways to get to know people. While she acknowledges that drinking is a part of socializing in Korea, she does not believe that it is “a thing you must do in order to have Korean friends.”

BY STUDENT REPORTER VU DUC TOAN [kjd.kcampus@joongang.co.kr]