The Norebang, Or How Koreans Do Business Meetings

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Last Thursday, we had a schoolwide dinner meeting.  Unlike the American public schools I’ve worked for, our employers at the hagwon usually spring for a pretty elaborate dinner at a fairly nice restaurant.  And, as anyone who has ever eaten at any Korean restaurant knows, if you leave hungry, it’s your own fault.  Thursday’s selections, spicy beef and pork ribs, did not disappoint.

Last Thursday, we had a schoolwide dinner meeting.  Unlike the American public schools I’ve worked for, our employers at the hagwon usually spring for a pretty elaborate dinner at a fairly nice restaurant.  And, as anyone who has ever eaten at any Korean restaurant knows, if you leave hungry, it’s your own fault.  Thursday’s selections, spicy beef and pork ribs, did not disappoint.

The dinner, like all of our other school meetings, was almost entirely in Korean.  Despite owning a small chain of English academies, our director speaks very little English himself, and really only two or three of the Korean teachers are conversationally comfortable in English.  I can’t fault them for this.  Given the choice between speaking with other Americans in Spanish or in English, I would certainly choose English.  However, the four foreign teachers do occasionally find ourselves wishing they would at least translate the important stuff, since we do compose a pretty significant percentage of the teaching staff at our hagwon.

None of these things were out of the ordinary, though.  Nor were the rounds of soju and beer toasts that accompanied dinner.  In Korea, getting drunk on your boss’s dime is not only acceptable, it is encouraged.  Never having been so presumptuous as to think we could hang with the Koreans in consumption, Ric and I nursed the obligatory soju shot or two and watched our coworkers mix soju with their beers, Korean car-bomb style.  

After dinner, we were treated to a KJC tradition.  Apparently, new Korean teachers are required to sing a song in front of the rest of the faculty.  Luckily, we were given what we refer to as the “foreigner bye” and were not asked to sing a capella in the middle of a busy restaurant in a strange country.  Little did we know we had not actually dodged the musical bullet.

As we wrapped up dinner just after midnight (Korean teachers stay up way later than their American counterparts), our school’s manager announced that he and the director had decided we were all going to a norebang, or singing room, to continue the company festivities.  

Norebangs are like private karaoke bars, and they are incredibly popular here in Korea.  For a small fee, you and your friends can rent a private room with seating, a table, and a state of the art karaoke set up:  TVs, mikes, speakers, sound effects, even tambourines. The staff of the norebang serves you snacks (including more beers) and you basically sing until you are tired, hoarse, or too inebriated to remember the words (although that last one didn’t stop all of our coworkers).  

Ric and I had read about the norebang phenomenon, so we knew enough to know the first basic rule of the Korean singing room:  If you go in, you will be singing.  What we were unaware of was the elaborate range of, um, talent we would be treated to during our norebang encounter.  

This is truly a national pastime on par with baseball or screen golf or hiking clubs.  Every one of our Korean coworkers, regardless of his or her God-given musical talent, had trained and practiced for occasions like this.  They all had a personal repertoire of K-pop hits.  The most dedicated performers had actually studied and perfected the music video choreography that accompanied their selected tunes.  The spectacle was nothing short of amazing.  Even the director, a middle aged man who rarely speaks to any of us, got up and sang a Korean love song reminiscent of the easy listening tunes popular in the 1970s.  The head elementary school teacher spent five minutes doing what can only be described as shouting into the mike and cavorting around the room, ending up, briefly, in our director’s lap as the crowd cheered and applauded wildly.  

All of our coworkers were the most personable and entertaining we have ever seen them.  Some of them, in fact, were pretty darn talented.  After some mild coercion, Ric and I delivered a completely forgettable performance of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, to thunderous shouts and applause from our coteachers.  Not usually our genre, I know, but we wanted to pick something that would be familiar to a Korean audience, which meant it was Carly Rae, Lady Gaga, or the Beatles, and the vibe for the night was definitely bubble gum pop.  

For us, the highlight of the night was watching our coworkers, who are normally so reserved and quiet, let their hair down and have fun.  One of the middle school teachers confessed to Ric that the norebang was a place where “we can let our inner Korean out”.  

From our observations, the inner Korean is drunken, musical, and does a flawless Gang-Nam style horse dance.  Just another day at work here, folks.  

Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: Busan, Hagwon, Korea, Norebang, Teaching



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