Explaining Asian Glow to an Irishman

A story about cultural exchange (???) and alcohol.

One of the biggest perks about staying in hostels is that you meet people from all around the world. In Bordeaux, I met a whole cast of characters.

The interesting about this hostel—Hostel 20—was that it hired backpackers from across the globe and offered them lodging in exchange for a few hours of work a week consisting of checking guests in and out, cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, making sure guests don’t get rowdy at night (which didn’t work too well, to be honest) and taking turns making the nightly hostel supper.

For just €5, I joined the conversation, landing myself a seat at the table with guests and fellow backpackers speaking different languages over plates of a home-cooked paella, prepared by one of the hostel’s workers from Malaga, Spain named Paola.

At the table, I sat next to a software engineer from Uruguay who had been on the road for seven months. I asked him how long he was planning on traveling and he responded, with a smile and a laugh: “Until the money runs out.” Across from me was a biotech major from Brazil who was only in France because she hadn’t been able to get a visa for Japan in time fro her trip. We all found it just a tad bit difficult to feel sorry for her. Next to her was a man-bunned clad Canadian named Evan who pronounced the word “out” just like you would expect a Canadian to do so. He had packed up and left Canada the day after he finished graduating university to travel, which I found pretty cool. Little did I know in my next few days in Bordeaux, he would spontaneously become my best friend on my first solo-trip.

But before we get too far, let’s go back to dinner. The paella was served with nothing else but a glass of red wine that tasted perhaps a little too full-bodied for a seafood-based meal with next to no meat.

As a five-foot-two half-Asian woman, when I drink even just one glass of wine, my skin starts to heat up and turn an unmistakable shade of red. The phenomenon is most commonly known as “Asian glow.”

“You must be a lightweight,” Evan said to me. “You’re already so flushed and you haven’t finished your glass.”

I quickly explained why I was so flushed—not because I was drunk, but because genetically, my blood doesn’t absorb alcohol very well.

One of the hostel workers, an Irishman named Patrick, laughed and said that couldn’t be possible. He asked me how long I had been drinking, doubting that Asian glow was a real thing.

The Brazilian biotech major piped up with a very specific scientific explanation that I didn’t have the knowledge to explain. Something about enzymes. Blood absorption. Alcohol. Genes.

Still, Patrick didn’t believe it was true.

“Maybe you just haven’t been drinking that long,” he said. “I’ve been drinking a long time and eventually I just build a tolerance to it.”

I laughed and told him that definitely wasn’t the same thing.

“No, but think about it,” Patrick said again. “If you just drink and drink and drink, maybe you won’t flush so fast.”

Another hostel worker from New Zealand named Jon laughed. “Yeah, Pat,” he said. “It’s like when you tell yourself if you run for five days every day, you’ll get better at it. If you drink every day for five days straight, you’ll just get better at it!”

I laughed, hoping that my face wasn’t turning even redder with embarrassment.

Patrick was amused, yet shocked at this phenomenon. And, in that moment, I taught a stranger from another country something he might otherwise never know. It was an interesting moment over the course of an equally quirky and intriguing evening.

And yet that’s the beauty of staying in hostels. Yes, you have the creepy 46-year old man who should probably be putting himself up in a hotel and the woman who walks into your room and turns on the light at 5:42am. But, along the way, you meet friends from around the world you would otherwise never encounter. Or you meet someone who lives just down the block from you and you never met (disclaimer: this did not happen, but D.C. is down the block from New York City when you consider the size of the whole world, right?).

At Hostel 20, I found myself, for the first time, learning peoples names and interacting with them on a daily basis over the course of my first solo trip. Evan and I eventually toured practically all of Bordeaux in an action-packed two days, climbing the 233-step Tour Pey-Berland, making fun of odd, disturbing contemporary art at the CAPC, and tasting a wine that’s not exported outside of France. I listened to Jon’s speech about his affinity for “dodgy” places where he felt he fit perfectly in. Paola, who was learning French, practiced a little bit with me when she checked me in. And Patrick—well Patrick told me a lot about Ireland after our lesson on Asian glow.
It was a wonderful experience, where I learned a lot about different places of the world just in the place I came to sleep at night. And I wish all my hostels had been somewhat like that—a true auberge de jeunesse.

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