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Thứ Sáu, 12 tháng 10, 2012

I don't like beer and I can't drink wine. Being a girl growing up in a traditional family and conservative society, this fact hasn't really bothered me or people surrounding me much. There are always soft drinks for family gatherings and when I hang out with friends, I order fruit shakes. My father is a heavy drinker, but obviously he doesn't fancy his daughter to be his drinking buddy. My boyfriend doesn't consume alcohol. So never before in my life do I have to face with the question of "to drink or not to drink", until I started this new job 10 days ago.

Not really. During my time in Canada, the conscious decision not to drink robbed me of many opportunities to make friends. University students in Canada, and probably other Western countries, socialize at bars and parties, where alcohol consumption is a must. No one really talks with each other during class, unless you have a group assignment or presentation. I was surprised at first, coming from 12 years of schooling where all my friendship developed inside the classroom. At Trent, I arrived at a class 10 minutes early only to find other classmates gluing their eyes to screens, be it laptop screens, cell phone screens, ipod screens, some read over notebooks, listen to music, and very few talk to one friend or another. Very quiet, very little chatting, very unlike a typical scene of classroom I knew so well where everyone talked and laughed with and at each other. It goes without saying that people make their first contact at social occasions, in a large groups. Both my uneasiness of staying in a big unfamiliar group and my inability to drink drove me away from those occasions. I ran away to seek refuge in another friend's when my house mates threw a party. I knew what I was doing to myself. I didn't have Canadian friends my age throughout the whole 4 years. I was certainly bothered by that for the first 1-2 years, but after that I came to accept the fact. And I was firm to myself, I don't drink, if I don't make friends as a consequence of that, it's fine.

Of course I have been in situations where I was offered to drink. I would cheer, lift the cup to my lips, and put it down without sipping a big amount. It has been ok to do that. I think the fact that I am not a man helps, but not now.

The very first moment I started this new job, my colleagues already talked about how I need to drink. To drink wine specifically, and a lot. "Van, you need to practice drinking". "Van, to work with Thai people, you have to drink". "If you don't drink, it will be very difficult for all of us". "The whole team won't be able to proceed if you refuse to drink". "They drink a cup of wine first thing in the morning". "Drinking is their custom, if you don't drink, they won't like you, and if they won't like you, they won't talk". "You only need to learn how to drink, then you will be good." "If you don't drink, you will be isolated". "You can vomit, someone else will take care of cleaning, don't worry". "You can be drunk for 10 times, and you will be fine the 11th time". "It's ok, you can learn, everyone can learn to drink". "You just have to do it". The talk went on and on and on. At some point, I told my supervisor "If the ability to drink is such a crucial element to this job, why didn't you put it in the job advertisement, or tell me straightaway during the interview?". He said he wanted to, but the highest boss didn't let him. I irritatedly replied that I wouldn't have applied had I known what is required of me. The only thing they asked me to prepare for the coming field trip is to drink wine.

There is an enormous pressure to conform to the drinking norm of the team. I don't see an exception, it almost seems like it's a rule no one dares to challenge. The very first welcome party for myself, I was offered a drink by the oldest and most powerful man in the whole team. He ordered me to bottom up the cup of beer. Everyone was expecting that I would swallow and swallow the liquid until it was gone, even if I would throw up right afterwards. But I didn't. I took two sips, the most I can, and put the cup down. Everyone at the table gave me that how-dare-you look , and it was awkward. Especially because I am a newbie.

The other three women could drink. I don't know if they truly enjoy the taste of wine and beer, but being so beauty conscious, they must have a sense of how alcohol could interfere with their skins and hairs. They would spend hours surfing the internet to find articles on what fruits to eat, how to make face masks from yogurts, etc, so I doubt if they don't know alcohol can ruin the positive effects of all the beauty methods they practice. Yet they kept drinking, cheering, laughing. That moment I tasted the bitter sense of loneliness, and yes, isolation.

Why would men be interested in women's drinking? Why would that man with the most authority need me to finish that cup of beer? Does it bring him any joy or happiness? What is the point of drinking if I don't like it? Many people tell me they drink to socialize, what if I don't want to socialize, or to be exact, socialize with people who force me to drink, to be like them? Then, I realize that it is not necessary about beer per se, it is also about power. When someone of higher authority offers you a drink, if you refuse, you are challenging his  power as a boss. When a man orders a woman to drink, if you don't obey, you are challenging his power as a man. That's why other people were feeling uncomfortable. There is no precedents, no one has ever put down a drink when it comes from the boss's hands. It's no longer a personal choice of consuming alcohol, it has become a social pressure of conforming. Probably my supervisor was worried that he might be blamed or affected for having a stubborn subordinate.

When I was in Canada and chose not to drink, it was a personal choice. I might let go of lots of opportunities to expand my network and get to know people, but still, it was my own business, and I accepted the consequences. But now, as I am in Vietnam and working in a context where drinking brings about a cultural and political intonation, it doesn't affect me alone. My choice of not to drink not only can limit my potential development, but it can also damage existing ones. The boss might or did feel offended at the table because I dared not to drink, thus didn't leave a good impression on him. Other colleagues might avoid associating with me because I don't play the game with their rules, and I reject the norm everyone else was following. No one likes the strange, particularly when it comes from among their own group. I can foresee desolation.

It is time for the question "should I conform to get along, because after all I am new, and I need social approval in order to work effectively or should I stand fast to my own standard and stick to what I am comfortable with rather than replace it with the group norm?". A deeper version of that is "how much I should insist on my own boundary and how much I should be willing to negotiate it?"  I have been tempted to bend, to go with the flow, and the thought that "I might as well try once, try twice, then I should be fine" is appealing in its own right. Yet I hate being pressured into doing things I don't want to, and luckily, at the moment, I am still strong and free enough to choose the latter. Hire me or fire me, you won't change what I am. If I don't like drinking, so what?

If the personal is really political, my struggle has just begun.

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