I remember it like it was last night. I was in grade 8. An Asian youth in Canada with over protective Parents who had me home at dark or rather sooner. In junior high, I wanted to hang out with my Canadian classmates outside of school, and especially go to some of these parties I always hear them talk about. Well, one night that fall, I finally got permission.
I had not looked forward to anything more than that first party to that point in my short life. The whole week I was thinking about it. It wasn’t going to be the craziest of parties or anything, but it was good enough for me. I was finally going to get to spend time with many of my friends who only knew me through school, who I wanted to know better, and who I wanted to get to know me better.
They welcomed me warmly, offering me drinks the moment I got there like everyone else. Alcoholic drinks, no less! Not being from a well off refugee family where allowance fed older relatives back home in Communist Viet Nam, I had not brought anything. Of course, it wouldn’t have been alcoholic drinks if I did because not only would it not have been legal, I wouldn’t have known where or how to get it even if I wanted to. Yet, my friends offered me drinks just the same. Such wonderful friends as I thought they all were.
I politely declined the alcoholic drinks. I knew it wasn’t legal, but I just didn’t want any, and it wasn’t my business to be reporting my friends to anybody. Pretty much everybody was doing it, not that it made things right. I just wasn’t there to be judgmental.
Unfortunately, it seemed those friends were. They were nice enough to encourage me to try for a short while. They assured me no one would know. Nobody would tell on me since they’d also be guilty. It was all good until someone spoke to ask well, if you’re not going to drink, then why did you come here?
It was a good question. No. A great question. Everybody there was having fun. They all had alcoholic drinks in their hands. Some of the couples were snuggling. A couple of the guys were rubbing their girls’ breasts as if for show as well as for pleasure. I felt I could have done the same. Well, not with the girls as I didn’t have a girlfriend and wasn’t exactly hot stuff. But I felt I could have had fun like everyone else, without the alcohol. I didn’t think anything was wrong with that. I didn’t think I had to be something other than myself for them to like me. In fact, if I did have to, then they weren’t the type of friends I was looking for.
In those few seconds as those thoughts flashed through my mind as quick as a natural reaction, I chuckled and told them, “You know what? You’re right. I came here to party, not to drink.”
With that, I got up and started to head for the closet to get my coat, all the while assuring my friends they didn’t need to worry, that I wasn’t going to tell on them or anything, and that I’d see them Monday. A few of the girls were nice enough to tell me not to worry and that I could stay, but I assured them I’d be all right. I didn’t think the issue was going to go away and some were obviously not comfortable with it.
And that was that for my first party with my Caucasian friends.
Life went on after that almost as if nothing happened. I saw them in school Monday and it was mostly business as usual. A few girls told me they admired what I did, but I wouldn’t say it was enough to endear me to them any more, lol. I didn’t get any invites to parties after that, to say the least, until high school when I got another set of friends who were a bit more understanding, but only a few. It didn’t matter. I stuck to my grounds that I didn’t care for drinking. Even though I was generally introverted by nature, I had been through enough moments to know I didn’t need it to get ramped up, get a buzz, lose my inhibitions, or whatever. I also preferred to be liked for who I am, not for blending in for the sake of it, and I definitely preferred to spend what little money I got on other things. I also never understood the value of being able to have a great time but not remember much or any of it. Having it retold by friends just wasn’t the same as a memory to me, never mind the hangover that came with it. I realized the bonding value those experiences had, but those were not the bonds I cared to have with people.
I still don’t drink to this day decades later, and often joke around how I’d be such a cheap drunk for many reasons. I had never built up any tolerance for alcohol over the years. I am small stature so I should be able to absorb less alcohol. I am also Asian, which I sensed as being less tolerant of alcohol having seen Asian friends over the years with alcohol. I have had a few sips of wine here and there at wedding for toasts, but not even a half a small glass of wine was my limit. That’s because I didn’t like it.
Yet, from what 23andMe‘s genotyping tells me, I’m rather tolerant of alcohol and resistant to alcohol flushing, sometimes known as “Asian flushing” for how much more it seems to affect Asians. Apparently, I was correct in that sense, but I am not very Asian in that sense. I have a GG genotype at ALDH2 that does not inhibit me from processing ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol. More specifically, I can process the converted product of acetaldehyde from ethanol, into acetic acid (aka vinegar) that gets pushed out through urine as part of the alcohol metabolization process. If I had one or two C genotype at ALDH2, the deadly acetaldehyde would remain longer in my body and do more damage. There is also the ADH1B gene for which 23andMe did not test, but that seems less dominant.
As well, East Asians like myself tend to carry a mutation ALDH2*2 that inhibits acetaldehyde processing, making us more susceptible to esophageal cancer that is one of the deadliest cancers. Worse, acetaldehyde is found in not only alcohol, but also cigarettes. When I think about all the Vietnamese I know who smoke, subjecting themselves to the risk of this deadliest of cancers, I am flabbergasted! Very fortunately for me, I don’t have this mutation that is isolated to East Asians. Not drinking or smoking on top of that is a double whammy benefit to reduce my risk!
All this is great for my health, but is probably going to only tick off some of my drinking friends more, hehehe. I am fit and can drink without too much worry about getting a beer gut because I exercise a lot, not because I am any less prone to obesity as genotyping has shown. I have a natural genetic tolerance for alcohol that may not be strong as their developed one, but it would be better if I had the practice. Kind of like a natural athlete may not be as good as one who practiced a lot, but if so, I could be better. I also live downtown in my city that has a heavy concentration of bars downtown, so I would never have to worry much about getting home safely, or have additional costs of cabbing to and from the bars. I also have money I could spend on alcohol…
All that, and I don’t drink!
And now, I also know more about alcohol metabolization and genetic influences than most people who drink.