My History with Alcohol

August 8, 2011

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I didn’t have a real drink until the night of my 21st birthday. Call me a liar, if you like – I scarcely believe it myself.

My perception of social drinking has evolved, I believe for the better, over the last fifteen years. Although sometimes it’s difficult for me to revisit the boy that I was, and to see things as he saw them, in this case, I know exactly how I felt and what I did in response to those feelings: I shunned drinking and those who partook. Black and white to me.

As I thought of it back then, I was more like the school counselor on South Park: “Drinkin’s bad, mmmk? You shouldn’t drink, mmmk?” When a motivational speaker came to our high school my freshman year and spoke to our class about how she was an alcoholic and why we shouldn’t indulge in a drop, it merely affirmed the beliefs I already held, and reinforced the idea most of my classmates were bad people.

I’d like to tell you that living in Japan, seeing its drinking milieu, changed my perception from black to grey, but that really didn’t happen. The change occurred in Cooper Landing, Alaska, as I volunteered to pick up a housekeeping shift for a girl I really wanted to hook up with (this of course before I realized it’s not the best approach to do everything she asks). Her friend was working with me, and we walked between cabins in the shadow of a ice-capped mountain, enjoying the fresh air (and mosquitoes) and the steady work. Most of the staff were living on site at this fishing resort, having been gathered from around the country to work for the summer season. As you might imagine, they loved to spent free evenings gathered around a campfire, eating fresh salmon and drinking to exhaustion. In the process, getting to know each other in different way than they would have exchanging tidbits at work.

I was a bit of an outsider there, always going off on long runs after my graveyard shift wrapped up, and never joining them around the fire. Honestly, I wanted to talk to them, but they gave me such a hard time whenever I refused a beer, looking at me as though I weren’t entirely human.

The other housekeeping girl and I talked about where we were from, university life, and eventually the subject of drinking came up. I just told her straight out I had no interest in drinking, and thought less of those who did – real subtle, right? I can’t remember her exact response, but it disarmed me the casual way she said drinking was a social lubricant, an excuse to socialize where you might not have been able to before. I was going to be entering my senior year at UT, and I thought back on the opportunities for friendship, even those based entirely on alcohol, I might have been able to cultivate over those first three years… the girl at the Madrigal Dinner party who asked if I’d like to take a body shot off her; the group of frat guys who pulled up next to me as I wandered across campus at 1 AM, asking if I wanted to hang out; how torn I felt walking past house parties in west campus, knowing there were people there I might have gotten along with, but they were drinkers – they didn’t exist as friends to me.

I’d like to tell you the lessons learned from that conversation washed over me, and I stopped being so uptight when it came to socializing. Well, that didn’t happen. I spent most evenings my senior year huddled next to the wind tunnel in the basement of the aerospace building gathering data. The only time I downed more than one beverage was graduation day, with my brother. Even then, I wouldn’t call it an opportunity to socialize. More like his half-hearted attempt to try and show me alcohol could open some doors if I let it.

It wasn’t until Japan that I believe I finally understood its effect on humanity. Ironically, I wouldn’t consider the drinking culture in Japan as the example to follow – indulging every night until one passes out – but for some reason the lessons I learned over there made me more open to the idea of a night out with friends and booze.

As I see it now, you’re much worse off (especially in high school) abstaining from alcohol entirely. Nor should one drink to the point of passing out. The key, as I’m sure many have learned, is the middle path; enjoying a drink for social occasions and keeping an eye on how much you consume. What that motivational speaker was telling us fell on deaf ears, because my classmates knew something even I, Mr. 3.8 GPA, would not know for years to come: by cutting yourself off from all alcoholic beverages, you really, really limit your social circle. Now, do you have to drink at every gathering? Of course not. But not accepting a beverage or an invitation to go out from an offering acquaintance is closing a door; you don’t have to make it into the focus of your friendship, but it is a good start.

I was still learning this during my two years in Japan, but I think I got the hang of it in New Zealand and South Korea. Although I am on occasion disgusted by my expat friends’ drunken behavior in public, I think of what we would do without soju, makgeolli, and imported spirits. Alcohol has never been essential to our gatherings, but I don’t think they would have worked as well without it, nor do I think I would have been as accepted without greeting visitors to my apartment with wine and cocktails.

In this sense, South Korea and I have a very different view on social drinking. It’s all too common for businessmen to go out for an “official” night of drinking, called 회식, to create an atmosphere in which they are so plastered any behavior is excusable; by seeing someone when he is the most vulnerable, most open with his feelings, one can cultivate a friendship. I believe that such behavior leads to nothing but a weakened liver and a sense of shame. Again, all in moderation.

What do you believe?

One Response to My History with Alcohol

  1. Erin on August 9, 2011 at 1:21 am

    Haha, I’m going to have to hear that impression of Mr. Mackey sometime. I had no idea you had those views of drinking, but now that I think back, I do remember you turning down drinks at a Madrigal party.

    I’ve never felt pressure to drink. Even with group of people who are going out for the sole purpose of drinking, if I abstain, I never get weird looks. Yeah, people get stupid the more they drink, so it’s maybe not as fun, but I’ve never felt as though not drinking was not an option.

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