Is it my heritage or my enzymes at work?

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Is it my heritage or my enzymes at work?

It's just another Tuesday night at my fraternity house at Cornell University, and there's not a sober face in sight. I'm with my friends Joe and Jabba, and we're playing a drinking game in which you try to shoot Ping- Pong balls in big Dixie cups. During the game we razz each other and forget about any politically correct limits. In fact, anything vulgar and obscene is fair game.

"Hey, Joe," I say, "Say 'hi' to your sister for me." I flirted with Joe's little sister the last time his family visited.

Bonk. His shot bounces off a cup.

"Jabba, where's your girlfriend?" I ask. "Working on her 'social studies' homework?" Another miss.

It's my turn, so they start heckling me. "Ree," Joe says to me, playing on my last name. "Can you even see the cups? You're always squinting." I've heard that one so many times that it doesn't even faze me. I sink my shot.

"Go back to Asia," Jabba says. "Ree is an F.O.B. (fresh off the boat). Ree is an F.O.B. Ree is an F.O.B."

Then Joe says, "Hey Lee, you're not Asian. You're drinking, but you're not red."


Seeing the puzzled look on my face, another brother, Johnny Biology, explains that most Asians lack an enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, that helps digest alcohol. As a result, Asians' faces often turn red when they drink.

That's news to me. Hoping to confirm this at our next party, I camp by the keg to watch the freshmen getting free beer. But not a single Asian comes by. Oh well.

I'm 7 years old again. My father has some friends over. Something has gone wrong or something has gone right. Everybody's drinking. I'm called over. I look around the circle. The men look like they've been out playing in the snow, with their cheeks and noses all rosy. But it's the middle of August.

And last week: I'm at dinner with the extended family, and the table is littered with bottles of soju. I glance around at my middle-aged relatives and a laugh escapes me. Their faces are glowing a radiant red. I think back to Johnny's biology lesson and smile.

Why don't I turn red when I drink? It might be due to my size (I'm 183 centimeters, or six feet tall) or I might have been blessed with the enzyme. But could my friends be right, am I not Asian?

The writer is a junior at Cornell University in upstate New York.

by Steven Lee
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