You’ve probably seen soju at some point in your life. It’s the national drink of South Korea, a distilled grain alcohol that comes in an iconic green bottle, and it’s a mainstay of Korean BBQ joints and karaoke bars.
It has increased in popularity in the U.S. in recent years, popping up in trendy cocktail menus and gastropubs everywhere as mainstream America cottons onto its versatility and smooth flavor. And as South Korean pop culture continues to grow and influence the consumption habits of American youth, one group in particular has claimed soju as part of its new cultural identity: Asian-Americans.
Even though soju is a Korean drink, it has now morphed, through the enormous process of intergroup exchange, into a cultural signifier for all East Asian-Americans alike. On Subtle Asian Traits, an Asian-American meme page-slash-cultural mecca that has become one of the largest Facebook groups in history, soju occupies an almost sacred place. Users share links to soju jewelry, soju clothing, soju memes galore, and recipes for soju cocktails that involve ingredients like boba and Yakult (a Japanese yogurt drink). There are no explainers necessary here. The references are loudly declared and implicitly understood: it’s our drink.
Growing up Chinese-American in majority-white suburban New Jersey, I never felt like drinking could be for me. Drinking was the kind of activity that was meant for other kids, the ones who came at life with an unconditional familiarity and ease: white kids. While they returned to school on Monday regaling each other with wild stories from the weekend, my other immigrant-born friends and I stayed quiet about how we’d spent our days: gossiping in parked cars and driving with the windows down through the rolling hills of our suburban hometown, sober as stones. I feared the judgment of my parents, feared that if I even tried to participate in the terrifying world of high school parties, I wouldn’t even know where to start and would be hopelessly lost.
But, of course, as soon as I entered college, everything changed. Like most freshmen, I immediately engaged in the kind of deleterious drinking only achievable by hordes of 18-year-olds granted total freedom for the first time in their lives. In those early months, I imbibed, in copious, life-altering amounts, bottom-shelf vanilla vodka, Malibu Rum, Natty Boh (a watery, wheaty Baltimore staple), and dubious frat house Jungle Juice, chasing them all down with nothing but teenage confidence. The taste was gag-inducing and the sugary hangovers knocked me out for days at a time, but I didn’t care—I had a lot to make up for.
I thought I liked drinking that first year of college. Like, really liked it. But what I actually liked was the escape, the temporary confidence, the feelings of numbness and recklessness and, subconsciously, of proving that I could also be a part of my white peers’ world. And so, whenever I could, I went to wherever alcohol was available, taking two Pepcid beforehand to mask my Asian glow. Oftentimes, these were spaces where, even though I had performed the requisite rituals, I felt like I was always striving for some ideal that was handed down to me by people I didn’t know, and who I would never meet. This feeling was only bolstered by the rumors I heard about frats turning away Asian faces and complaints about parties being “all yellow” (meaning too many Asian girls). Amidst the chaos, I was meeting other Asian-Americans who, like me, were trying to fit into college life and navigate their identities at the same time. In a world dominated by American party culture, Asian-Americans often carved out their own spaces—and soju was always at the center. Soju, and the community that came with it, were the things that made me truly appreciate and enjoy drinking.
Eventually, as I got to know more of my Asian peers, I found the spaces where they drank and enjoyed themselves, especially Baltimore’s Koreatown, a strip of restaurants in Studio North that once was a thriving ethnic enclave but now is a not-so-secret haunt for Johns Hopkins’ Asian students. Jong Kak, a Korean BBQ restaurant that stayed open until 4 a.m. and never carded, became a kind of shorthand for my new friends and me. After a night out, we wouldn’t even have to ask each other if we wanted to go to Jong Kak; we just knew we would end up there somehow, a few bottles of soju between us, “decompressing,” mouths full of raw garlic and delighted play-by-plays of the preceding debauchery. The frat parties faded away, and this became the mainstay of my college experience.
We all had our favorite soju flavor, our own neat party trick with the bottle, our own makeshift cocktail that our white peers would never know. In a world where alcohol was so crucial to one’s coming of age, soju became a way for us to navigate our burgeoning peoplehood and celebrate our identities at the same time. When I was drinking soju with my Asian friends, I never had to explain what a citron was or how to pronounce “lychee.” I never had to be self-conscious about the language I used. It was a way to bond with my friends who I knew had the same life experiences as I did, who had struggled with their identity and self-acceptance in the same way that I had. And what better way to do that than to get fucked up? One night I would be drinking in a room full of sweaty white frat bros, and the next I was out with my now-best friends at Jong Kak, soju flowing, shedding the burdensome persona I had to shoulder in order to blend in.
I felt like I finally understood drinking, like I had a magical recipe to have a genuinely good time. Every time I knew I needed a good night—free of hang-ups, bad decisions, and weird social etiquette—I always reached for that green bottle. It sounds silly to say now, but because of soju, I could be that girl I always saw in the movies: I could be drunk on my own terms, dictate my own kind of high. I could flush red as a tomato and still feel sexy. I could feel powerful, a protagonist of my own boozy fantasy.
Soju, to me, is the alcohol of self-discovery, of true belonging, of learning that I could enjoy myself freely and without judgment. It’s my never-have-a-bad-night juice, the booze that gets me right where I need to be, the fuel for the kind of nights that everyone deserves to have.