America’s unnatural love of all things 1980s is like society’s reverence towards pregnant women: you can’t really counter it without sounding like a complete monster. But since I’m already an inherent outcast twice removed, I guess I’ll be the brave soul to take a stab at it (the ‘80s).
They say trends come in twenty-year cycles. I was born in the 80s, and I remember as a preteen, being glad when all the saccharine gaudiness of the decade vanished by the early 1990’s. Little did I know that it would all come skipping back in an even more mannered, pretentious form—ten years later when I was in my TWENTIES, in the ‘00s.
By 2003, you couldn’t surf the web without coming across an article that proclaimed: “Check out your favorite redheaded ‘80s celebrities HERE!” or hear a song that didn’t sample a classic ‘80s synth-pop ballad, or have a conversation with an adult girl who didn’t squeal: “Ohhh, I LOVE the ‘80s!” Basically, it was like crack in the ‘80s: integral to the social scene.
If you can’t guess by now, I have highly objective reasons why I don’t like the ‘80s. I came of age in the decade that succeeded it: the ‘90s. When I say “come of age”, I mean the (first) era of maturing in one’s life—your teen years.
Nothing is as great (or bad) as when you are a teenager. If I came of age during the 1890s, no doubt I would be sitting here clamoring about how great churning butter was, and how kids these days are missing out on savoring fermented cow milk you procured with your own two hands. So I’m aware that I suffer from a little bias.
For me, I feel sorry that kids today didn’t grow up with angry, forlorn, edgy alternative-rock singers who managed to somehow be both dangerous and mainstream in this perfect window of time known as the 1990s. It was a truly magical time. I mean, MTV not only PLAYED music videos for significant chunks of time, they actually focused on music from earnest, serious artists. Music hadn’t been this socially aware and provocative since the ‘60s!
TV and movies vastly improved in my eyes too. Gone were the days where a movie focused solely on a nuclear family going on vacation, or a kid taking a day off from school. Movies with higher concepts were in vogue now: the term “indie” exploded, with all its subversive and innovative connotations. Disney rode a triumphant wave of Renaissance for the first half of the decade. Summer blockbusters pushed their art to new, exhilarating heights with movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump” setting records.
TV shows delved into darker and more progressive parts of the cultural psyche, with shows like “The Simpsons”, “Seinfeld”, “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” (although some of them debuted in the late ‘80s, they came into their prime in the ‘90s). Shows didn’t have to pander to the ideal family unit anymore. They could push the boundaries of what we found funny or intriguing, and succeed.
Look, I get the objective reasons why people love the penultimate decade of the twentieth century: it was simple. Sweet. Goofy. Over-the-top. Everything my fellow gay men love, which is why all gay men have some voluminous playlist somewhere that is nothing but ‘80s, ‘80s, ‘80s—as well as the perfect ‘80s getup outfit, should they have the divine fortune of crossing paths with an ‘80s-themed party. The ‘80s is like your kooky, fun, and slightly frivolous aunt. Whereas the ‘90s is your cooler but more sedate and socially conscious uncle. It’s kind of obvious who you’d rather party with.
But this is why I don’t like the ‘80s: I don’t like things that are simple, sweet, and over-the-top. It’s not my style. I’m the jerk that likes things to be ironic, dark, and brooding, hence: I will always identify with the Gen-X-dominated ‘90s. And hence: why most gay men have a convenient blind spot for this decade altogether. Seriously—can you imagine a gay man squealing about the ‘90s? ….? Only if they were forced to go to a ‘90s-themed party; they’d be squealing about their “other obligations that night”’—to get out of it. No gay man wants to be reminded of a classic Tarantino movie. It’s way too heavy, and our lives are already heavy enough. The same can be said for society at large, truly.
But the ‘90s are innocent as well, compared to the subsequent decade(s) that follow it. For one: during that decade, “social media” only went so far as logging into AOL via your phone cord, selecting a terrible login name, and signing into a god-awful chat room with other strangers. We had virtually no digital footprint, and honestly: many minds and lives were saved because of it. Terrorism was not truly a household word until the tragic events that ignited it on a fateful day in New York City, the following decade. We didn’t have such a politically divisive country due to a polarizing president yet. And a recession, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, hadn’t yet imploded.
So if you want something innocent, fun, but with a little more edge and a smidgen of self-important angst, why not make a pit stop in the decade before the ‘80s (if you’re going backwards in time)? You can geek out to Ace of Base, camp it up to the Spice Girls—but you can also show your gritty, “street cred” side by wearing baggy gangsta pants or grungy thrift-store plaid. The ‘90s had its perks too, ya’ know.
Thankfully, it is the 2010’s now—well over twenty years since my favorite decade started its rotation under the sun. It’s finally getting more of the “respect” I always knew it deserved. Too bad it takes twenty years for some people to arrive to the party—but better late than never.
When I hit my early thirties, I started noticing how my body reacted differently to alcohol. A couple of drinks already made me queasy and on the verge of vomiting, as though I’d just binged on shots all night after a hardy Mexican meal. You know that precipice just before the point of no return, where you’re summoning every fiber of your being to maintain composure and ward off the inevitable hurl? The next day was a continuation of that stymied state: my body seemed to constrict on the inside—tensing up into a knot while my face felt like it was stretching—like a balloon being pumped with just over its limit of air intake.
This new development was particularly noteworthy because: Once upon a time… I was a drinking superstar—a dubious honor my old friends bestowed upon me with a mixture of amusement, resignation, annoyance, pity, and good cheer. This was all relative though. I can honestly say I was never a binge drinker or a bona fide alcoholic in my heyday. I was simply a social drinker—ironically surrounded by nondrinkers and very moderate drinkers—so everyone saw me through their reverse beer goggles and amplified my drinking habits by default. Anyway, it was starting to look like I peaked early.
At my next all-around physical, I mentioned this new condition to my doctor, who dismissed it nonchalantly as part of the aging process: “That’s just your body telling you what it can handle now.” You mean I don’t have a choice? Maybe he was right: my body did check out all right with the requisite tests that day. Also, interestingly, my older brother had quit drinking in his early thirties too because he didn’t like how alcohol made him feel anymore. I guess non-alcoholism runs in my family, along with reticence and aversion to affection.
Indeed, I would prove all my friends wrong that year by quitting alcohol literally overnight. If I ever wanted irrefutable proof that I wasn’t an alcoholic after all, it was the simple glaring fact that it took no effort for me to put down the bottle. My last drink was at a friend’s birthday celebration a few months later. Still testing the waters at that point, I had one beer bottle that night—but I found that even that tossed my head into a slight tailspin. That was enough. From then on, good ol’ H20 was going to be my drink of choice on wild nights out on the town. And henceforth, I would encounter the strangest reactions from people I met who simply could not comprehend my new lifestyle.
Being Asian, I naturally grew up around many other Asians and befriended them throughout my life. If I learned one thing about my ethnic group, it’s this: most of us cannot hold our liquor. Hence, many of us simply forego the activity of drinking alcohol altogether, to spare the embarrassment of physical discomfort, vomiting, and the famous “Asian glow” (instead of being mysterious about it, I’ll give you the scientific definition: many of us including myself, turn beet red after just one or more drinks). And yes, I know some of you dear readers are all too happy to counterattack me on that—I’ll just say it with you: “some of by best friends are Asians who DRINK!!!” Yes—I knew some Asians who drank too—namely me! But I would say about ninety percent of the Asians I knew didn’t drink at all. Therefore, I was accustomed to this kind of lifestyle. I never questioned it—because I was aware that it didn’t affect me; it sure as hell wasn’t gonna stop me from drinking myself!
But since not everyone is Asian, there are some people out there who are baffled by the “dry” lifestyle. After I joined the other side, when I would meet new people—such as friends of friends—invariably, it would take place at a bar or a place where alcohol was served. These encounters often went down like this:
Drinker: “Hi, nice to meet you.”
Me: “Nice to meet you too.”
Drinker: (noting my lack of an alcoholic beverage) “Are you gonna get a drink?”
Me: “No, I’m okay.”
Drinker: “Why not?”
Me: “Oh, I don’t drink.”
Drinker: “You don’t drink? Why??!”
Me: “Oh, just health reasons.” (trying to be pithy but informative).
Drinker: “Health reasons?”
Me: “Yeah… it doesn’t sit well with me.”
Drinker: (discerning look, not convinced) “Oh…”
Me: “I used to drink—but not anymore…” (trying to paint a picture of the truth and letting them know that I’m not completely green either).
Drinker: (still bearing a discerning look)
Later, after chatting about our mutual friends, jobs, living situations, etc… :
Drinker: “So what do you do for fun—since you don’t drink?!!”
Me: “Oh, I like hanging out, watching movies, eating… stuff like that.”
Drinker: “Why don’t you drink??”
Me: (pause, annoyed) “I don’t want to.”
Drinker: “So you never drink?”
Me: “No. I used to drink…”
Drinker: “—BUT YOU DON’T NOW!!”
Later on in the night, the topic would somehow just naturally come up in conversation—a sticky residue that just glommed onto everything:
Me: “Today was such a beautiful day!”
Drinker: “It’d be even better if you drank!”
Me: “I love Indian food.”
Drinker: “You know what goes well with Indian food? Jack n’ Coke. Too bad you don’t drink!”
Me: “I went to Oktoberfest last year.”
Drinker: “Oh yeah? I love the sausages there!”
Not being a drinker was like having food stuck between my teeth—only everyone was eager to point it out—repeatedly. I was subject to conversations like the hyperbole above, indefinitely. Usually I was the only person not drinking; the interrogators had plenty of cohorts to bond in their alcohol consumption—yet they felt compelled to zero in on me, refusing to accept that one person in their presence wasn’t participating. To be fair, I think some of these people simply brought up the topic incessantly out of sheer ignorance (a pervasive human trait)—without realizing that they sounded like a car alarm that wouldn’t shut up.
I only met one person who expressed any sense about my predicament. After I lamented about the opposition I was receiving, he remarked: “Well, I just assume that if a person doesn’t drink, that they might be a recovering alcoholic or something—so I don’t push it.”
… Thank. YOU.
It astonished me how little sensitivity and respect I was allotted for my lifestyle choice—my RIGHT—to choose this lifestyle. Alcohol is inherently a delicate subject and should be treated as such without question. It can be a divisive and taboo topic because of all the connotations it bears, unique to each person.
But—not to pull a victim card here—I suspect I often wasn’t afforded this minimum of consideration because: no one thought it was possible that I’d be a recovering alcoholic or anything close to that. I wasn’t some aged, weathered-looking hard-ass (apologies for typecasting “recovering alcoholics”… ) I’ve always conveyed an image of, shall we say: even-keeled, reserved civility… to my own benefit and detriment.
To corroborate this theory: many people throughout my life have conceded that they didn’t even think I was a drinker! So there is something about my personality and appearance that evokes the impression of a “clean” lifestyle.
And indeed: (after I stopped drinking), I had one mutual friend drop the label “innocent” on me twice in one night, so there you go. I was an object of derision, not empathy. I wasn’t someone with a past; I had no past in his eyes: a simpleton.
This was what baffled me—the inability of people to simply put themselves in someone else’s shoes—to realize that not everyone enjoys the same things! Badgering someone to explain why they don’t drink is like badgering them for not eating broccoli or peanuts. The simple combination of free will and preference should be explanation enough.
It has been two years since my last drink. Although I’m certainly proud, I’m also very unceremonious about it—just as I was when I decided to quit so ably in the first place. I never felt defined by alcohol before or after quitting, and I prefer it that way. Too bad some people simply can’t see this.