The Geographical Cure

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Fun fact:  in Hong Kong, one of the main locations for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is a church almost directly across from the United States Consulate.  I wound up in both places just over a year ago.

At the end of 2012, I was 30 years old and had recently separated from my husband.  I was living alone in Berkeley, California, enrolled in grad school for Chinese Studies but no longer going to class, instead opting to spend most afternoons in a drunken stupor.  Even after a hopeful stint in rehab, and various unsuccessful stints in Alcoholics Anonymous, I continued to feel helpless while anxiety problems and alcohol abuse destroy my marriage.  Out of ideas, I dropped out of grad school and moved back in with my parents temporarily in Michigan, wondering what to do next.

If you are at all familiar with 12-step and recovery-speak, you have heard of the “geographical cure.”  Someone who “pulls a geographical” is someone who, unable to face their own problems, uproots their life and moves to a new place, hoping old problems will be left behind.  In Michigan, my relationship with my parents was deteriorating rapidly, and I was itching to leave.  Via an online recruiter, I found a teaching job at a college in Guangdong Province, China, in a small, relatively unknown city less than 100 miles from Guangzhou, the historical trading center and current mega-city.  (In this essay, I will not mention the exact name of the city or the school, so as not to embarrass my former employer.)  The term was starting almost immediately, so I maxed out my one remaining credit card for my visa fees and plane ticket.  I arrived at a seemingly-dreary vocational college in Guangdong Province the day before my thirty-first birthday.

Just to be clear– this was not Eat, Pray, Love.  I had no illusions that moving East would be a magical, spiritual cure.  I had lived in China years previously, had traveled there many times subsequently, and still had friends there.  I spoke decent Mandarin, but I was also self-aware enough to know that my ease of finding a job was based mostly on the fact that I was a presentable-looking White woman with a master’s degree.  In China, I could earn more money than I was presently earning temping in Michigan, with the bonus of free room and board.  On paper, it was a totally logical move, but I knew my main goal was to get as far away as possible from both my problems and everyone I knew.

When I arrived  from the bus station, sweaty from the southern China heat and still a bit hungover from the Jameson I had procured at the duty-free shop, some new colleagues and future students met me at the school gate.  After they took me to dinner, they escorted me to the supermarket across the street to help me get some supplies.  Alongside some of bottled water and yogurt, I tentatively grabbed two cans of Tsingtao beer.  The students who accompanied me giggled as I put these cans my cart.  The next day I would meet the dean of the English department, who had interviewed me on Skype, and she said “I hear you like to drink!”  If only she knew, I thought, while teeming with embarrassment.  I was still hearing about those cans of beer from colleagues two years later.

A well-known stereotype amongst many Chinese is that expat English teachers are losers who can’t get jobs at home, and the alcoholic Western expat is a stereotype worldwide.  I obviously was a bit of both.  Drinking culture in Mainland China is vastly different from that of the United States.  With the liberalizing  economy, consumption has risen drastically since the 1980s.  Currently in China, binge drinking is on the rise, quite dangerously, but it’s often relegated to businessmen and government officials, who do shots of baijiu (Chinese grain alcohol) out of camaraderie or competition.  Young people drink cheap, watery beer with friends over BBQ, and tuhao (the dreaded Chinese nouveau-riche) drink fancy imported wine for show.  Many women don’t drink much at all.  People of Chinese decent are also likely have a genetic predisposition that inhibits the alcohol consumption (the so-called “Asian flush”), which may also account for the differences in drinking culture.

The specifics of alcohol consumption very highly from region to region, but in all these situations, being out-of-control drunk is a huge loss of face, and that social pressure keeps many people in line.  Alcoholism is not recognized as a disease, or really recognized much at all.  The language that dominates the American way of thinking and speaking about addiction–  ideas about “denial”, “hitting bottom” and “sobriety”– have no cultural Chinese translation.  12 step groups have fellowships in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but most attendees are expats, and most meetings are in English.

In Guangdong province, in contrast to other parts of China, locals don’t drink much at all.  Outside the college where I worked, I would often bemusedly watch students at roadside stalls eating BBQ and playing drinking games with soda– nothing that resembled the hard-core binge drinking of my Big 10 college years.  The quiet, dreary dive bars I favored in the States simply didn’t exist.  Outside of major cities with large expat districts, China favors thunderously loud, smoke-choked clubs that are mainly venues for prostitution.  School banquets (which were becoming less and less common due to anti-corruption reforms) happened without alcohol, and students and colleagues would invite me to booze-free sessions of KTV (karaoke).  I somehow learned to sing in public, in Chinese, gleefully, while stone-cold sober.

Years earlier I had worked in Shenzhen, the bustling, brand-new “Special Economic Zone” with a population of 12 million and a large expat community.  There were Western-style club and bars aplenty, and it was easy to anonymously drink to get drunk.  Now I lived only a three hour away bus ride away, but my life was completely different.  Only in China does a town of half a million people feel tiny.  Everyone seemed to know everyone, and there was little expat community to speak of.  In Shenzhen I had once been quite brutally robbed, but here I left my iPhone in a restaurant far from campus, and a student recognized me and returned it.  I lived on campus, but even when I went out, I didn’t have much privacy.  My students would cheerily report places they saw me around town, and I couldn’t shop at the supermarket across the street without my basket being shamelessly inspected by students.  This constant interaction was exhausting for a socially anxious person like myself, and of course it meant I had to check my alcohol consumption.

Without much other social life, I threw myself into my work, teaching “Business English” at vocational college filled with students whose college entrance exam scores didn’t qualify them for a four-year university (in China there is only one test that determines your college career).  My classes of 50 plus English majors could barely speak a word, and often couldn’t be bothered.  As students, their laziness and insolence drove me crazy, but outside of class I found them delightful.  They taught me how to cook local foods, told me which pop stars were cool, and gave me lots of amusing, unprompted critiques of my appearance.  I would befriend a few of these students and would rib them, “You know many Americans think that ALL Chinese are all very good students,” and we would all crack up.   Even though neither the students or the administration seemed to pay much interest, I labored over lesson plans every week.  I started to work my ass off, literally– I lost 15 pounds, and I gained a decent reputation as a teacher.  I even started getting high paying tutoring gigs around town, quickly doubling my salary.  On my summer vacation I backpacked alone in through Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.   On paper, the geographical cure seemed to be working.

However, all I was still quietly putting back a bottle of wine a day, more or less.  This level of consumption was not ideal, but it was an improvement to my previous habits and seemed manageable.  Still, I took my wine bottles out to the trash early in the morning, before any students could see me, and made trips to Tesco in the middle of the day, when most reasonable Cantonese had their midday nap.  There is a stereotype that alcohol abusers are all hard-core partiers who shirk responsibility.  I was never much of a party girl, but I had shirked many, many responsibilities in the past.  In China, however, I was a perfect, well-liked, hardworking employee.  I never missed a day of class, or was even 5 minutes late, but I still was drinking myself to sleep most nights, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.

Last year I decided to visit Hong Kong on holiday, which was only a three hour bus ride away.  Having lived just across the border in Shenzhen, I’d been to HK dozens of times before and seen the sights, so this time I wanted mostly to experience the Western pleasures that were hard to come by in small-town Guangdong, including cheese, name-brand cosmetics, and bars.  In HK, I was suddenly in a big city and no one was watching.  HK had the kinds of pubs I missed, where you could sit in a nurse a drink (or four) with a book that, for me, had long since served only as pretense.  After a positively gleeful night of drinking solo in Wan Chai, a district that strangely alternates yuppie bars and sad-looking strip clubs, I woke up the next day in a strange hotel room with a massive hangover, but without my wallet and passport.

After spending almost a full 24 retracing my steps, while mostly drunk and bleary-eyed, I called my boss and explaining my situation, and then I gathered my documents and made an appointment online with the US consulate.  I not only had to wait for a replacement passport, but I also had to procure a visa back into Mainland China.  Because of it’s colonial past, Hong Kong is a currently Chinese Special Administrative Region; US citizens can visit without a visa, but you need one to cross into the Chinese mainland.  Getting my visa replaced was another hassle altogether.  In doing my online research, almost as an afterthought, I googled “AA in Hong Kong”.  As I mentioned in the header, AA meetings take place in a church across from the US consulate. Without much money to spend or much to do, I started going to AA meetings daily, though I still drank alone in my hotel most nights.

AA in Hong Kong was not much different from that in the States.  The barren church meeting room, the posters of the 12 steps (in English), and the meeting format were all instantly.  There are a few Cantonese language meetings, but most meetings are in English, and most faces I saw were White.  An American expat woman I met jokingly referred to Hong Kong AA “gold star AA.”  She explained that while AA meetings in the States have a lot of riffraff (homeless who wander in for free snacks and coffee, uninterested people with mandated attendance for DUIs, curious but noncommittal newcomers pressured by friends and family, and so on…) Hong Kong AA is made up of people who know something about AA and absolutely want to be there.  There is no cultural pressure to attend, and no mandated court attendance.  People in Hong Kong meetings were infallibly kind, as people in AA generally are. With no friends and little money in a city where a main pass-time is shopping, AA meetings became my routine as I waited to get my passport and visa sorted out.

I finally got back to my school and finished out my term.  After reconciling with my husband, I moved back to the United States a few months ago, and I am still working on getting my life in order.  I have health insurance and meetings and the resources to deal with alcohol abuse, but I also am in a country where ads for bourbon air at 1pm in the afternoon and every TV character has a giant class of wine in hand.  I miss social outings that end with 3 hours of alcohol-free karaoke, and long dinners where nobody even considering ordering booze.  Here, even work events tend to end in drinks, and drinking is the focus of every social situation.  I find my former students’ constant stream of selfies more bearable than my American friend’s constant stream of Instagrammed cocktails.  I wonder if, in America, our alcohol problem has as much to do with our culture (stubborn individualism, social isolation, expected group imbibing, and so on) as it does to do with any kind of genetic predisposition.   I don’t have many answers, but I’ve reluctantly acknowledged that l couldn’t really solve my problems just by leaving.

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