Apr 16, 2019

Why I Can’t Enjoy Drinking Parties

Every time I get invited to a drinking party with one of the schools I work at, I feel uneasy towards it. On the one hand, I am happy to be invited to join my co-workers in one of their bonding sessions, but on the other hand, I have my reasons why I don’t enjoy these drinking parties.

Before I get into that, these parties called "nomikai" are usually directly translated as “drinking party”, which is quite a funny name because for me, parties usually imply drinking and there isn’t a need to specify the alcohol involved. It’s like if I invite you to a “swimming beach party”. Yeah…

Back to the drinking parties.  Schools often have these parties at the beginning of the school year, after sports day or big teacher development days, the end of the year, and whenever else there are reasons for teachers to gather and drink. It sounds like a great idea.  A chance for teachers to bond and chat openly…right? Well...

My biggest issue with these drinking parties is that not everyone can relax, and there are so many social rules involved even when I was there to get drunk.

From my experiences, these parties are always well scheduled and planned. What that means is that each party is organized by a committee at the school where the few teachers in charge of the particular party has to find and book the restaurant, confirm the attendees, collect money etc. Then they have to plan the details too, such as the detailed scheduling of what happens during the 2 hours of said party.

It is always 2 hours, which means there is an opening speech, a speech from the principal, a specific moment for a toast, then “eat, drink and chat” only to be interrupted in 30 minutes by games like things you would see on variety TV programs.

All the information is printed on a massive poster-size piece of paper and stuck onto a white board or the wall in the middle of the party room of the restaurant or hotel we are in. It is an overkill if you ask me. What happened to just drinking and having fun? Why do we need to follow a schedule to have fun???

Speaking of following, even seating is assigned upon entering the venue. Me, as the ALT, I'm usually grouped with the "7th grade teachers", and since there are only 6 grades in Japanese elementary schools, that group refers to the principal, vice principal, administrative head… and me. Needless to say, this usually isn’t that comfortable.

Then when the “eat, drink and chat” part begins, that is when food starts arriving and more than half of the teachers, especially the young ones, would ignore the food, grab a bottle of the unlimited beer and go pour beer for another teacher, usually one of a higher status or one who did something great on that day (managing sports day, for example). This pouring gesture is also the initiation of “let me talk to you”, then it becomes a 1-on-1 chatting time.

What happens to the food, you might ask? People only eat a few pieces during the gaps between the pouring and chatting. When I was at a party like this for the first time, I didn't get up to pour drinks, and I wanted to eat, but teachers kept coming up to me to talk so I ended up not being able to eat the food that I really wanted to. Looking around, most of the food went to waste.

Why I Can’t Enjoy Drinking Parties photo

The game time is actually the best chance to eat. A few teachers go up to play a game for prizes (snacks) while everyone else watches and laughs while they eat. It really is like watching a live recording of a TV show but with people you know.

Everyone involved seems to have fun after they get drunk enough, but the amount of planning and the social rules of interactions make it not the same kind of “drop our status and chat as equals” party that I am more used to. If you want to have THAT party, it is called the "ni-ji kai" (2nd party) to which not everyone goes. In the first and main party though, restraint and hierarchy is very much in place. For someone like me who is not used to it, I can’t really enjoy these Japanese drinking parties.