columns, experiences
Comments 5

Under the Influence


“Four!” says the Swede, showing the card to the crowd.

I point to the floor, watching a Scotsman, Frenchman, Irishman, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Chinese, and Ghanian follow suit. Incidentally, the Swede, bearer of the card, is the last to point. We all laugh as he drinks his Tsingtao beer.

Sitting back and taking a look at my group of friends, I can only shake my head at the veritable United Nations assembly of drinking taking place. We’re all playing Kings in my friend’s apartment in Shanghai, throwing Mandarin around with dramatically differing degrees of proficiency — only one of us is a native Chinese speaker. English is used as a close second, but it falters even more often than the Mandarin. It doesn’t really matter though, any lulls in conversation are immediately shattered by brokered agreements to drink more.

I pick a card but as I do the ring of carefully arranged cards around a cup breaks. The crowd oohs and ahhs as I pick up the cup — as per the rules, I have to down the whole thing.

Players have been pouring odd tidbits of booze in the cup the entire game. The resultant concoction is the bastard child of Chinese beer, Korean soju, Mexican tequila, and a New Zealand feijoa cocktail mix. This shit is nasty.

And I’m supposed to chug it.

“Under no repeat no circumstances should the President actually drink from his glass in response to banquet toasts.”

These were the instructions given to President Nixon during his milestone trip to China in 1972. It’s sage advice, the contents of Chinese banquet cups bearing the notoriously potent baijiu.

I stare into my cup, contents writhing, wondering if I should heed the decades-old words of Nixon’s attaché. If it applied to old China perhaps it applies to the new one too?

A few years ago I wouldn’t have considered drinking it at all – I’d always been a late bloomer, forays into booze included. But when I was finally 18 and at home from my first semester of college I told my parents I wanted to try alcohol. It wasn’t planned, it just came out – it was time. All my friends were fairly deep into their drinking careers having started much earlier, 14 to 16 being about the norm for most Third Culture Kids. I’d had opportunities around that age to drink as well but had turned them down repeatedly, partially out of fear of the unknown and partially by rationalizing that I’d do it eventually. But in the college scene, caught in the craziness of freshman year, it caught up to me – people (girls) treated me like I was a little boy, and I finally cracked. I felt stunted.

First step was a quick run to the grocery. Perusing choices, my dad and I just shrugged as he took a couple of Budweisers, one for each of us. We got home, popped them open, clinked cans, and I sipped, deliberately, my approach akin to conducting a science experiment. Beer tasted funny. Not unpleasant, just different.

“It’s an acquired taste,” says my dad. I sat on the couch until I finished the can, all the while in a heightened state of self-awareness, overanalyzing every homeostatic process, wondering if every slight deviation was an effect of the alcohol.

Sitting there I was reassured I had waited to drink. Despite there not being much of a buzz from my first can of Bud, I honestly don’t know how I would’ve reacted to alcohol when I was younger. Going out around Shanghai, I run into expat teens no older than 14 or so, many seemingly handling drinking with aplomb. Sometimes I do second-guess myself, wondering if I gained anything from holding out so long. How many parties did I miss? How many friends or girlfriends did I never meet? If these teens can do it, why couldn’t I?

I’m somewhat hopeful for those jumping in now, justifying to myself that they’ll be wiser sooner, having built up their tolerance and learned from their misadventures. But mostly I can’t help but feel that that they should be home, engaging in the type of pure, unadulterated harmless activities I stuck to in middle school and high school – namely fiddling with Microsoft Paint and playing Madden on my Playstation 2. There is plenty of time for drinking later.

As it stands for me, that later is now, the crowd egging me on to drink from the cup I grip in my hands.

“Under no repeat no circumstances should the President actually drink from his glass in response to banquet toasts.”

The words echo but I disregard it, just as Nixon did in ’72. My eyes are shut tight, I raise the glass as my head is thrown back, the nasty concoction wriggling down. Wincing, my ears hear the rowdy cheers of the international community until my eyes finally burn open. The soju-beer-tequila induced grimace morphed into a goofy victorious grin.

What was drinking your first alcoholic beverage like? What country were you in?


  1. Steph Y. says

    I honestly can’t remember the first time I tried alcohol, but I do remember the first time I ordered a drink. It was at a dinky club in Singapore, and I was nervous as hell. I walked up to the bar and had no idea what to order. I eavesdropped on the girl next to me, then confidently ordered exactly what she ordered.


  2. Alix A. says

    I can’t remember either, but I’m pretty sure it was in France. Over there, there’s quite a tradition with wine. But I’d only drink half a glass on special occasions. Since I’m 19 and living alone- back in Paris, by the way- I’ve started drinking more than that when invited by older family members, be it for dinner at a restaurant or for casual lunch at home. I don’t want it to become a habit, though.


  3. Rema O. says

    Some girlfriends and I got tipsy on Kahlua and milk within the safe confines of our friend’s home. The first time I ordered a drink at a bar, though, I remember being ridiculously nervous since I’d opted for a Sex on the Beach and the bartender taking my order was a handsome Aussie with deep blue eyes. Being 16 years old and saying the word “sex” to a cute boy was almost too much for me to handle! 🙂


  4. enjoyed reading about your experiences!

    steph – i think i pretty much did the same. trying to remember the first drink i had at the bar and i think it was at my college watering hole… was probably just a beer, but slight possibility it was a car bomb.

    alix – i also had little sips (granted not half a glass) when i was younger; i hear you on not necessarily wanting it to become a habit. i know i definitely examined the dynamics of my relationship with alcohol while writing this piece.

    rema – i just laughed when i read your comment. having to deal with the hot bartender was definitely something that takes getting used to! totally unprepared for that – when there’s a super pretty girl serving me a pint in the states, i get nervous about the proper amount to tip her…


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