Hi, I’m Asian. I Don’t Drink Because I Can

“Do you want to come out for a soft drink with us?”

This is a question I get asked quite a bit by people I know who are planning on heading down to the bar or pub to knock back a few beers. They know I don’t drink anything alcoholic, and it’s very nice to be invited along.

Let's have a drink. How about some iced chocolate, chocolate powder and vanilla ice cream mixed in one cup? Photo: Mabel Kwong

Let’s have a drink. How about some iced chocolate, chocolate powder and vanilla ice cream mixed in one cup? Photo: Mabel Kwong

A couple of years ago, I was having dinner with relatives in Malaysia and red wine was passed around. As a non-drinker, I declined. One of my uncles frowned and said to my parents in Cantonese, “That’s so strange. Your kids are Australian. But they don’t drink.”

Really? I’m Australian, so I must be a drinker? Does my no-drinking attitude have something to do with my Asian background? Because I’m Asian Australian?

It’s no secret there’s a strong drinking culture in Australia. It’s the norm for many here to wander to a watering hole and unwind with jugs of beer on a Friday night. Get tipsy and you’re assumed to be enjoying yourself. When a public holiday rolls around, plenty of Aussies eagerly throw a shrimp on the barbie and wash down it down with a fine wine. When the footy’s on, a pint of lager is bound to be on the table.

In Asia, the drinking culture is a notch tamer. As Bloggers Without Borders has pointed out, religion and limited wealth are factors contributing to this. For instance, there are large Muslim populations in Indonesia and Malaysia that abstain from alcohol and so not everyone drinks. In China, drinking is usually done by stable income-earning professionals and families when they are closing business deals and having celebratory reunion dinners respectively. In the country’s rural areas, it’s extremely expensive to transport literally anything to these regions.

On the topic of health, studies have shown Asians tend to inherit a deficient enzyme that inhibits their bodies from digesting alcohol efficiently. This goes towards explaining why a number of Asians get the “Asian flush” face when drinking and don’t hold their liquor too well, and so drink less.

What’s more, tea is frequently the preferred drink of choice, overshadowing alcohol, on several occasions in Asia. It’s almost served immediately upon arrival at Chinese restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Milk tea is also a hit in these cities, with long queues a common sight outside bubble tea stores day and night.

In the Western world, Asians are naturally tempted to be more adventurous with their drinking habits. Clubs here organise “Asian nights”, nights where Asians are encouraged to come out to party and bond (non-Asian clientele are welcome too). Alcopops and slabs of beer can be bought at the nearest 7-11. Consequently, recent research has shown drinking wine has become part of the lifestyles of many South East Asians who have studied abroad.

I’ve never had a proper drink in my entire twenty-something life. Not in Malaysia. Not in Singapore. Never been enticed to in Melbourne. Admittedly, I had a sip of Tiger Beer and red wine on two separate occasions in my teens. That was all.

It’s not religion or money or my time in Asia that influenced my decision to not drink. My reasons for not drinking are simply:

I don’t like the taste of alcohol.

My body is a temple and I want full control of it.

I’ve nothing against those who drink and believe many of them are nice people. Recently, I discovered The Wine Wankers, a welcoming blog about searching for the best wine(s) around and yes, it has opened my eyes to the art of wine-tasting. As for those who stumble drunkenly on the streets, I’m inclined to think they made the occasional bad decision at the pub on a swell night out. Getting intoxicated doesn’t necessarily mean someone has drinking problems, and drinking in moderation has health benefits.

There’s a social stigma attached to not drinking: if you don’t drink, you’re often stereotyped as anti-social and shy. Do people who drink feel uncomfortable around me and those who order something non-alcoholic on a night out? I don’t know. But what I do know is that apart from the reasons above, I feel no need to justify to others why I don’t drink – the choice is mine.

I’m perfectly happy with my Asian Australian self sitting in a bar with a cup of water while everyone else has a beer or two. Or more.

What are some of the reasons you drink/don’t drink?

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49 thoughts on “Hi, I’m Asian. I Don’t Drink Because I Can

  1. If people payed too much attention to the taste of alcohol, no one would drink. Also, it takes a lot to get drunk and social drinking would never get you there. Imo there’s more to your decision than that. Personally, i know I have a moderation problem and I know if I drink, I’m going to like the escape too much and will probably slip into drugs as well. I’m not saying your decision is wrong, just that it’s a little weak.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t agree. I honestly enjoy the taste of alcohol, particularly of microbrewed beer or decent wine. There would be something a bit strange about people that hated the taste of alcohol getting plastered every weekend. Which I guess may say something about Australian culture – if your opinion is reflected amongst the masses.

      It doesn’t take a lot to get drunk. Two drinks in half an hour would be sufficient for the smaller creatures amongst us. The third would topple (or should I say tipple) you over the edge pretty quickly. Drinking socially is where alcoholism starts – much like smoking and drugs.

      I take my hat off to those that don’t drink. But I think there’s a general attitude of mistrust towards those that have the willpower to stay away from our culture’s favourite method of escapism!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Now, now. No need to get personal. It’s not really the same thing. In terms of common behaviour, smoking is an exclusive habit compared to drinking. I would say that the thought would derive from that member being sober and completely perceptive whilst other members of the group are loosening their inhibitions and declaring undying love for eachother. I didn’t say it was me personally, but I can understand the thought (which is well documented in fiction when characters don’t drink).

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      • I initially read your comment as “micro-WAVED beer”. I had this image of a glass of frothy yellow pub beer spinning round in the microwave and as someone opened the microwave door, it exploded – raining beer everywhere. Joy for you!

        Agree with you. If many Australians hated the taste of alcohol, most likely they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole and wouldn’t get sloshed and staggering around every weekend. Alcohol is a strange substance – it’s used to make chemicals such as cleaning lubricants, and it’s a key ingredient in our beers. Many different uses for it. I suppose many who drink just get used to the taste after a while and let the effects of a beer or wine take them to a happy place (who doesn’t want to forget about their problems?!).

        I always thought too that smaller people get plastered more easily. But I remember reading in the news a while ago that it’s the opposite. Not too sure how true this is.

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    • Different people have different capacities of consuming alcohol before getting sloshed. For some people, social drinking that entails a glass or two of beer or wine is enough to stop them from walking straight for a good few hours. For me, the reasons I don’t drink, really, are stated in my post above. I’m not allergic to alcohol and I just want to take care of myself physically.

      Good on you for knowing your limits and choosing not to drink too much (if at all). Self control in the context of drinking isn’t always easy if you seriously crave the taste of alcoholic beverages or are tempted to give it a go because everyone else is doing it.

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  2. If you have a look at per capita alcohol consumption, you’ll find that Australia is not that much more that China, Japan and Korea. That said, I have noticed a few differences. Firstly, I’d say it is frowned upon for women to get drunk in Asia while it is no big deal in Australia. (If you just compared per capita rates for east Asian men compared to Aussie men wouldn’t be surprised if they had higher rates.)Secondly, Asians get together and get sloshed to an extent I have not seen in Australia since my teenage years. I find Australians are more steady drinkers than may drink throughout the week and on weekends. As a result, maybe it feels like we are always surrounded by alcohol in Australia.

    I like your desire to have control of your body. I have always found it silly that people try to improve their ability to find a partner to engage in an intimate congress with by reducing their cognitive ability through alcohol. In more simple language, improving their chances by reducing their mental abilities. That said, I can’t lie and say that I don’t drink and that I don’t love booze. We have had many good times together. (A few bad ones as wel, but that is life.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must agree, in China I can see (at least in the cities and countrysides I’ve been) always at evening times people getting together to eat and ofcourse to get hammered. Sometimes there is so much alcohol involved that I fear for their well being.
      As I am coming from Germany and Finland, two of the bigger drinking countries in the world I am often shocked by the extent of the drinking habbit in China.
      Sure, alcohol is more expensive but still you see wander workerer gather around their carts to have few drinks…
      Of course the majority is keeping it low but those “feasts” I can see nearly everyday down the street are rather extreme and sometimes horrifying.

      Here, back in my homecountry I know many Asians as well as Europeans who do not drink anything at all. I rather enjoy the occasional beer or sip of whiskey at home but thats about it. I am not interesting in getting drunk but many of my friends favor it very much. In every culture you find all kind of people when it comes to drinking.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True that. Two people of the same race sure can have different drinking habits. I often wonder why some people drink to the extent of getting drunk – the after effects aren’t that pleasant at all. Maybe it’s the buzz people claim to get from drinking. These days the act of getting drunk seems to have become entrenched in our society, so much so that it is considered a normal thing to do on a social night out.

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    • Very good observations there. In Asia, it’s not that often you see and hear Asian women loudly and proudly holding up massive jugs of beer whereas here in Australia, it is perfectly acceptable for women to do so. People in Asia tend to work much longer hours than those in Australia, sometimes up until 8, 9pm in the office or longer weeknights. So it’s no surprise they don’t drink throughout the week as you suggest – they are just too tired for pub social activities after work, and are still focused on work when they leave the office.

      It’s silly, isn’t it, when people gulp down drink after drink when going out with someone they fancy, knowing they might not be able to stand up straight in public? However, perhaps some feel that some drinks will take away their “nervousness” and relax them a bit on such special, rather rare occasions.

      I applaud you for drinking within your limits. Of course, where there are the good times, there will be the bad!

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  3. I’d read somewhere recently that Asians who get the red flush after drinking are more susceptible to a certain kind of cancer, which is worsened by heavy drinking – so vicious cycle there. However, I don’t fully agree that only stable middle class people in China drink, as all corner grocery stores in China – regardless of how rural its location – has some wicked rice wine or beer of questionable ingredients for sale. And beer and wine are a feature of many meals for factory workers or farmers alike.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point there. Cheap wine is definitely abundant in Asian grocery stores everywhere. Sake is especially popular with a lot of people these days too. From what I’ve heard, having one or two of these cheap drinks won’t get you drunk or even tipsy – alcohol content is fairly light in these.

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  4. It is nice to hear that you don’t drink. I have great respect for you.

    I’ve been sober for nearly ten years now. It isn’t easy. I no longer drink because of many reasons that I will not detail here. I wrote a post earlier this year about it and the drinking culture in Japan. http://nihonigo.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/missed-opportunities/ I don’t like putting links in comments but if you are interested it might shed some light on a small piece of the puzzle. Thanks for sharing. I am always interested in continued discussion about alcohol and its impact on lives. Have a wonderful day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing, Matt. I applaud you for staying sober for such a long time. Good on you. Definitely like your perspective on the discussion of alcohol and lifestyles. It’s always hard to resist temptation – a constant battle between giving in to what we crave and what we want to do for the better. Sometimes the people around us play a part in our choices to stay sober (or not) too. Those that insist on shoving a drink in my hand, for free, I really don’t have much to say to them and let them drift out of the picture. I suppose you have a great group of people around you who respect the decision that you have made in terms of drinking. Have a good weekend!

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    • Drinking in moderation is also a very wise attitude! Interesting to hear you say you don’t tend to enjoy the flavour of wine yet still drink it at social occasions. Maybe alcoholic beverages make some feel relaxed and take them to a “happy place” 🙂

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  5. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to this awesome post, Mabel!

    I’ve definitely heard about the drinking culture in Australia. Quite a few of my Taiwanese friends have gone to Australia on working visas and been introduced to that scene there. I also learned about Asians’ tendency to become flushed when they drink, and that it is not approved of to be drunk in public in many places in Asia…

    I grew up in a home and religion where alcohol was frowned upon. I don’t drink much at all — only once in a while — and have never been drunk. Many people are shocked when they hear that, but I agree with you that my body is a temple of sorts, and I definitely like to feel in control of it. Just because you don’t drink doesn’t mean you’re a fuddy-dud, though. I still know how to have a good time, and I don’t disapprove of my friends if they drink. I wish more people would just live and let others live.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Fuddy-dud” (or fuddy-duddy)! Love that word and it’s been a while since I heard it 😀 Very true that we can still have a good time when we don’t chug down glasses and glasses of alcoholic drinks. Some say that the real truth comes out of our mouths when we’re drunk though…

      I’ve seen international students from Asia here in Australia too who have gone from being non-drinkers to being the first to put their hands up for a pub crawl at university. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just that I find it fascinating how some people crave to loosen up and lose control of their physical bodies all with one too many drinks.

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  6. Great article Mabel! I must say that the drinking culture in China now (and historically) has been a big thing. French imported wines etc. are a big hit in China, and the local Moutai has at least 53% alcoholic content and it’s a popular beverage in bars and clubs.

    But in Australia, what annoys me is that when an Asian person says s/he doesn’t like alcohol or whatever White-Australians immediately assume it’s because we’re Asian. And then if a White-Australian says s/he doesn’t like to drink, they don’t say it’s got anything to do with their culture or beliefs but merely because they are, as you said, anti-social and ‘not cool’. I mean, it could be for many reasons why Asians don’t like to get hammered. Some people drink so they can have the excuse to do stupid things; and it’s socially acceptable, these days, to share ‘drunk stories’ with friends and you normally get positive responses. It just doesn’t make sense; why these days we hail drunkards but scorn at sensible people.

    And it’s great to hear you do not fall into peer pressure to drink! I too don’t mind others who prefer a drink or two but as long as they don’t pressure others to drink.

    I don’t drink for health reasons and plus I don’t like wine. Beer and spirits are okay (depending which ones) but I only drink very small portions. Alcohol used to be a sophisticated drink but now people drink it like a hungry bear charging towards a bee’s nest for honey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your knowledge of China and Chinese culture always amazes me and puts a lot of things into perspective! We all have our own personal choices at the end of the day. Like you, I find it amusing that some people recognise that they are entitled to their own choices but not others.

      It definitely is a wonder why we hail drunkards – Caucasian drunkards. I think many Westerners perceive Asians as quiet and conservative (stereotype, stereotype. But Asians tend to be more conservative than Caucasians on a number of levels, think religion and dress sense) and so when they hear an Asian person saying he/she don’t drink, it’s natural for them to think it is an Asian thing to not drink; drinking can make the Asian drunk and make the Asian step out of “Asian character”.

      Hahaha, I like your last phrase a lot. These days, a lot of my Asian friends are downing more sophisticated drinks such as whiskey, drinks that incidentally have stronger concentrations of alcohol. Nothing wrong with this so long as it’s all enjoyed in moderation.

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  7. Yeah and one thing I forgot to comment is that some white-Australians automatically assume that it’s our Asian culture that deters/discourages us from drinking. It’s almost implying that our culture is conservative, boring and restrictive.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. İ don’t drink too… I have my own reasons as you. 😉 But the sad side about drinking, i think, some people use it to be able to be more socialize one. They believe, if you drink you can easily socialize with others and maybe they like that relaxing feeling and drink more and more. But for social comminucations seing alcohol as a necessary thing for yourself is not a good thing, i think. I just want to say that. Maybe i am just in the different part of it but this sometimes can be main affect of consuming more alcohol in socializing areas…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree with you there. Drinking or alcohol is seen as a “social tool” and helping one “loosen up” a lot of times. And yes, the more we drink the more likely we are to lose much of our inhibitions and so drink more and perhaps end up making fools of ourselves.

      A lot of people like to catch up over coffee/tea/chocolate in cafes or casual restaurants. This seems like a very informal way of catching up – sitting down and focusing on conversation in a well lit area that sort of forces you to pay attention to the person/people you’re with. With catching up over beer in a bar or pub, it’s more acceptable for people to stare into their drinks and think about finishing this drink and moving on to the next.

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      • Yes and even while they are inside of a big group of friend, like what u said, they just focus on their drinks. Frankly, they are losing their attention to other side and making less real comminications. Maybe, other side need more attention, maybe some help… but while drinking they just focus on drink and pass time. Not for making a real supporting communication.
        Some people say, i feel relax and open myself more easily, share myself more easily but using alcohol for that, it’s not a good habit. Sometimes even cuz of that little reasons people can find themselves in alcohol addiction.
        And in other hand, why we are focising on alcohol that much. It’s just a drink. What’s make it different from other drinks… We like to celebrate our happy moments with alcohol or pass our sad moments with alcohol. But in reality it’s just a drink…such as tea, water or juice. A drink that we like to assing so many means. So we found as an interesting when we heard other side don’t want to consume it. But in reality it’s so normal thing…

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        • Very interesting two-sided argument you’ve brought up there. We should never fully rely on drinking alcohol to make us relax and feel comfortable around talking to people because as you said, it can lead to alcohol addiction. This habit can also lead one to have low self-esteem – feeling shy to mingle with others without alcohol in say, a work or school situation.

          On the other hand as you brought up, alcohol, beer, wine, spirits etc. are really just drinks and they are drunk during both celebratory and commiseration occasions. I’m sure for a lot of people, alcohol drinks are their favourite kind of drinks and they are disciplined enough to drink in moderation and not pass out.

          I don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol. Maybe you do. Other’s do. And in either case, it’s all okay so long as we can respect each other’s decision towards drinking.

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  9. I really don’t like alcohol. It just makes me feel ill when I drink. Although when I’m drunk it’s pleasant, but it’s difficult to maintain that level… drink too little I feel ill, drink too much I get sick. There is a balance to keeping a maintained level of a happy drunk. I usually overdrink and end up laying on a bathroom floor in cold sweats feeling like I’m going to die so I try to avoid drinking.

    Overall, It’s not an enjoyable experience especially considering how awful it tastes. As well as it’s not enjoyable unless everyone is at the same level of drunkenness… otherwise, I could be drunk and having a good time but to someone sober I could be annoying him or her as they’re not on the same level as I. This creates a lot of discord amongst drinkers.

    But given how prevalent alcohol is in the US, I do often feel like there is a lot of social opportunities I miss out on by not liking alcohol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That makes two of us then, Chris. I don’t like the taste of alcohol too . I still vividly remember taking a few sips of beer and wine years ago and spat everything back out, gagging. Hmmm. I didn’t know that you needed to “balance” drinking alcohol so that it will be an enjoyable experience. Because I’m a non-drinker, I personally don’t exactly know how enjoyable it can be when one is drunk or tipsy from drinking.

      To me, it seems like when someone is drunk and all of their friends around him/her are drunk, everyone in this group happily shuffles and stumbles around like a carefree pack of zombies. So to others who are sober, being drunk – being intoxicated in a group especially – is unattractive and makes the drunk person scary and unapproachable.

      I have to disagree with your last point, though. I believe that is only true if we let ourselves think that. We can always sit and drink a water or soft drink besides our friends/acquaintance/colleagues who consume alcohol. If they are really our friends or decent, nice people, they’ll respect our decision 🙂

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  10. As you mentioned ,drinking alchohol is not secret in Australia, your uncle might have thought you were going to drink but because you have had denied, he was just curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. There’s definitely a wide conception in Asia that Westerners, and those who live in Western countries, drink quite often. Even my friends in Australia are always curious when I decline alcoholic drinks, pressing me on and on for an answer which they they’re never satisfied with.

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  11. I’m so glad you put this post up Mabel – I don’t drink alcohol either and never have. I’ve had so many weird looks from people when I order water and the rest of the group order cocktails. It just isn’t me and I love being in control of my body too. I remember when I was a teenager, I was invited to a house party that was BYO, everybody bought vodka cruisers and I bought a can of Sprite and was laughed at. There is nothing wrong with not drinking, it’s healthier, cheaper and you are guaranteed to remember and enjoy the evening. My friends are used to it now and I am the lifelong designated driver to events. Thanks for making me feel better about something that so many people have judged me for 🙂 x

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s very nice to meet another non-drinker who is proud of it. I generally tend to avoid going to party or social drinks altogether unless I know the people who are going really well. They are social get togethers but then again, they are also times where people choose to intentionally drink and that’s not what I want to be associated with – it’s not who I am. I don’t even drink much soft drink but the occasional Sprite 😉

      Sorry to hear that you got laughed at for not drinking. You must have felt awful. But very nice to hear your friends are accepting of it now. I think quite a few of us who don’t drink are actually quietly confident and okay about it. And we don’t make a big deal about it (drinking gets more attention in the media…fair enough since it poses physical threats), because there’s no need to 🙂

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    • I like your reasoning that there are other ways to relax aside from drinking. There shouldn’t be any shame in that. Relaxing without losing our senses. There’s certainly fun in that.

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  12. This is perhaps a bit late given how long ago this was posted, but I thought I’d add that I believe I agree with you, but if I might comment on two points:
    1. The supposed health benefits from drinking would seem to be based on somewhat sketchy evidence. Some of the basics are covered in this article from the bbc http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150901-is-alcohol-really-bad-for-you
    2. Wine tasting as an art doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny. Here’s an amusing video on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PeKcWCC-tw

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    • That is interesting to know, and thank you for sharing. It can be hard to say whether alcohol is indeed good for us. I suppose it depends on how our individual bodies reach to alcohol a lot of the time.

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  13. Hi Mabel! Thanks so much for this article. As another Asian Australian I also hate drinking. I hate the taste and I’m also a little bit allergic to alcohol as my throat burns when having just a little bit. Also my family has a history of liver cancer so I don’t want to risk my life by just trying to fit in. I honestly really hate the drinking culture in Australia. It seems that there is a pressure to drink especially at work. This often makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that I’m also shy and introverted which reinforce the stereotype even more. At the moment I really want to join an Asian firm where drinking culture is not so excessive and colleagues are more understanding of my background. Do you know any big Asian Accounting firms in Australia?

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    • “I honestly really hate the drinking culture in Australia.” Thank you so much for your honesty, Tammy. I love it and I feel you. No one should feel pressure to drink, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with fitting the stereotype. It is how we are. If we don’t want to drink, others should respect that and if they have an issue with it, it is their probably.

      I am not familiar with accounting firms in Australia – it’s not my field of interest. Maybe Google can help you 🙂 Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Tammy. Really appreciate it.

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  14. “My body is a temple and I want full control of it.” I love that, thanks for sharing. So much social interaction involves alcohol, doesn’t it, that it takes courage to simply say no, I don’t drink. I admire your courage Mabel.

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    • You said it so well, “so much social interaction involves alcohol”. I suppose there is an element of fun involved in alcohol – in that drinking alcohol can make you relaxed. But if we are self-assured enough we can be relaxed too. Each to their own. Thanks for reading and stopping by, Denzil.

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  15. Omg! I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to meet someone else who doesn’t drink! I just don’t like the taste of alcohol too. I mean I can force myself to take a couple of sips if I really have/want to, but most days my mindset is, if I don’t like it, why force it. It is rather difficult when you’re in a place that has a strong drinking culture, you kind of feel like a killjoy if you don’t go along, but luckily I’ve gotten to that age where I don’t really care too much about pleasing other people anymore. 🙂

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    • Yeah, I don’t even drink today. So agree with you and the taste of beer, wine or anything alcoholic is disgusting to me. I’d really be happy with a plain glass of water. Like you, I don’t care what others think anymore and safety and health is always the most important 🙂

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