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When I was a kid, alcoholics were trashy white people staggering around trailer parks, sloppy miserable men who worked in factories and returned home to abuse their broken families, or lonely 20th century American novelists typing away the next great American novel in ramshackle rooms they rented for $10/month.
They weren’t Chinese American honor roll students who went to good universities like me.
Even though I work in an offbeat profession as a comedic performer/writer/commentator touring one-woman shows across the country, at the core of me is a very serious person who has worked as hard as any med student for every grant, gig and award I ever received.
I justified all those years of getting wasted and making an ass of myself in public as my work in advancing racial progress.
All those years of screaming profanities in the faces of bar patrons, belting out Guns N Roses karaoke numbers before vomiting out a car window? It was a subversive stereotype-breaking guerilla theater performance for an audience of drunks. I was proof that you could be a Chinese trophy daughter and still know how to party.
But I wasn’t just Captain Morgan meets Cornel West. When I drank, I was consistently hilarious in ways that took forever to hone in my stage shows. At least, hilarious is how it felt as the room spun around me, joy amplified with each sip. And if I didn’t have a live audience, I resourcefully found an audience to receive my inebriated but genius text messages at 4am.
Booze made any of my actions forgivable -- a get out of jail free pass.
Drinking was my reward for not succumbing to a grown-up life of marriage and babies. Drinking kept me tuned into the antics of teenagers who worship Justin Bieber the way I used to crush out on Ricky Martin (waaaay back in the day, before he came out). Drinking was that temporary roller coaster ride where I ventured outside my own body and a cathartic excuse to scream at everything.
I was a superwoman with booze. No social situation too intense, no company too intimidating, and no stranger not worth professing my love to. But something changed.
I was no longer 23. I was hungover on weekdays. I was drunk dialing people in the middle of the day, including my father. I was running out of people to joke about these antics with the next morning. My friends were breeding and there were fewer and fewer people willing to babysit me through a night out.
As my yearly income increased, so did my tolerance for signing off on extremely high tabs. At the worst of it, last December, I woke up hungover in the media lounge of a conference I was attending and had to attend that morning’s plenaries with a huge pounding headache and the sting of shame.
But don’t get me wrong, I was still hilarious. And I still wasn’t an alcoholic.
So without any dramatic interventions, without any meetings or rehab programs, I decided on my own to see what life would look like for 365 days stone cold sober.
It wasn’t about going to five AA meetings a day. It was just going to be a yearlong experiment with a start and end date in seeing how my strength, spirituality and viewpoint would change sans alcohol. What would my nights look like? How would I make friends quickly? How was I going to “meet up for a drink” without said drink? How would dating be more or less awkward? How much moolah would I save?
Committing to a one-year window actually made turning down alcohol easy. Surprisingly, my biggest trigger was not social situations or stress but my inner cheapskate that ached to turn down free booze. With saying “no” came this sense of presence and control over life I hadn’t had before. I’ve become more honest and straightforward than I ever remember being. I find myself more direct about expressing when I’m upset or just able to navigate past potentially high drama situations altogether.
And most remarkable of them all, I traveled through Scotland and Ireland this year without a drop of the booze. It was a much more boring trip, but I remembered a lot more of what happened.
This other weird thing happened when I started to tell people I wasn’t drinking -- a secret society of sober people outed themselves to me and I became an instant member of the Underground Dry Gang. People would confide in me that they were slipping out to an AA or NA meeting. People would verbally beat down the people who coerced me to give up this sobriety experiment, a pressure that I wasn’t going to succumb to begin with -- but thanks for the back-up.
Then there were the drinkers who became so empathetic about my experiment, they’d apologize at length for drinking in my presence, or also go dry for the evening in unsolicited solidarity.
Declaring my sobriety made me feel complicated. Saying I was “sober” seemed to instantly indicate to others that I had lived a dark and stormy past and that I was trying to turn my life around. When really, there was no past horrors, I just wanted to make a change and see what would happen. But who couldn't use a little edgy PR?
It’s not as hard as I thought it would be to date sober. I can still meet people in bars and feign drunkenness on virgin margaritas. And usually, my dates drink less because I’m not drinking at all.
Initiating a first kiss was once made easier by alcohol because I could just collapse face first onto someone and if they didn’t reciprocate, I’d hardly remember the next day that I failed. In this year of sobriety, first kisses are just as awkward; I just tend to narrate aloud every emotion I’m experiencing. Everything is much more honest.
I did gain 15 pounds this year which is bizarre because being awake and active more hours in the day means I’ve exercised more this year than I ever have in my life -- five times a week! It could be because non-alcoholic ginger beer is so high in calories or more likely, because I’ve adopted a cupcake addiction in the wake of cutting out cocktails. Or maybe I was just really dehydrated all these years and this is all water weight.
My skin also cleared up dramatically -- age or no booze, I’m not sure why.
But this year in experimenting is coming to a close, and now I’m faced with asking myself if I’m capable of hitting the bottle again. Because a year without booze has changed what drinking means.
Sure, I could be more moderate in my drinking. But I’m learning that there is no “medium” dial for me. I go hard or go home.
My drink of choice was the Long Island Iced Tea. (Hey, it’s economical and college drinking habits die hard.) It was a drink I became so synonymous with that when I did a show in Miami in 2010, the theater bar named the featured cocktail “Wong Island Iced Tea” after me.
Like a born-again virgin, I’ve grown this nice new thick sobriety hymen, and it almost seems a shame to just pop it arbitrarily. I’m also on a streak and if it’s anything I hate to break, it’s a streak.
But I am tired of feeling like I’m missing out. I miss the transformative haze that is getting drunk. I became better at meditating this year, but drinking was a much easier way to turn off the thoughts in my head.
What do you think? Shall I celebrate the year in sobriety with a glass of champagne? My liver is in your hands.