How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Asian Glow

As a legal of-age male in his early twenties who’s part Korean, part Japanese, part Pacific Islander and part Some Other White Stuff, let me share with you a unique cultural problem I face quite literally with my face. And no, I’m not (of course) referring to the ambiguous ethnic identity crisis that keeps me awake whispering “Who am I…?” into an empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream at two in the morning. I am (of course) talking about another anxiety-inducing reality known as Asian glow.

For those of you who don’t have your token John Cho bro or didn’t go to a college with an ethnic demographic comparable to UCLA (University of Caucasians Lost among Asians), Asian glow is the erroneously cute term for “alcohol flush reaction” – a frustrating condition concerning the intense blushing and bright rosy hue that emanates from one’s face, neck and body upon consuming alcohol.

It’s curiously common among people of Asian ancestry, a large percentage of which lack aldehyde dehydrogenase 2, some cellular enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol, causing it to accumulate at 10x the normal concentration due to the presence of an allele called ALDH2*2 by which –– okay, look, I get it. Asians are supposed to be good at math and science, but I can’t even pretend to understand this stuff, so why don’t you just Wikipedia the rest while I go ahead and live it. Ugh.

Due to my genetic makeup, my relationship with drinking is something akin to The Scarlet Letter. I love it, I hate it, and I’m forced to wear it on me for all to see while others whisper in the corner of parties and not want to have sex with it. Sure, getting wasted is a shit show for everyone. But it’s worth mentioning those plagued with the glow have their own set of unique drinking problems.

For us, the worrying starts before the drinking even begins. If we’re going to drink tonight, we have to concretely decide we want to drink tonight. I don’t mean this in the endearing twentysomething way that involves feigning disinterest while prying one’s self away from Roseanne on Netflix Instant because “I can’t, I’m just sooo 24 going on 201, is there a cover?” You weigh whether or not you want to get freaky, while we weigh looking freaky. Where drinking has a built-in degree of unpredictability and letting loose, we however know exactly what we’re getting into…and so will anyone at the bar with at least 20/400 vision.

We worry about getting dressed and choosing clothes that’ll complement our potential face color which could run anywhere from a portly pink to a deep purple. Of the over 350,000 that Asians helped create, there’s not a single iPhone app for that.

We worry about solving the occurring redness by taking a Zantac 75mg at least 60 min before our first drink which must be on a 5–15% empty stomach to optimize the 33.5% probability it’ll even work at all. You’re scarfing down fried hot wings while we pregame with a wild plate of math. Watch out!

At this point, drinking feels like a part-time job because of all this prep work involved just to down one beer. And it can never be a Red Stripe because dear god…

The jokes we have to worry about. We have to deal with our friend who keeps mime-sprinkling us with holy water while shouting, “The power of Christ compels you!” We need to allay the fears of the oblivious girl at the party who’s always checking up on us. “Are you okay? Are you sure? Do you want some SPF 90? You’re like really red right now. Ack, now you’re turning purple! Did you choke on the spanikopita? I made it!” Everyone means well, but they’re having a killer buzz and we’re just red with jealousy.

We worry about measuring up. After one and a half sangria the effects are accelerated: the pulsing headache, the dizzying nausea, the numbing drowsiness. We’re told this is just “being drunk,” but then why are we so goddamn itchy and AAAHHH? As everyone takes their ninth shot, we clutch onto our third, wondering when we stumbled past the fun buzz part straight into the starring role of The Hangover III. What’re we missing? Nothing really. Just an integral social component of our 20s!

Then let’s not ignore the smaller percentage of us who aren’t even Asian, but afflicted with this chemical phenomenon and constantly have to protest how we’re like -25% Asian without sounding racist about it.

All this stems from a singular side affect at the core of glowing: Self-consciousness. The paradox of Asian glow is it’s at total odds with why people drink in the first place. Drinking to rid ourselves of our inhibitions only makes us more inhibited. Yes, it’s embarrassing, yes, it sucks, yes, it’s the ulterior reason so many Asians get into stem cells and chemical engineering.

From my experience, here’s the best advice I have: Let it burn. Half the Battle of Iwo Jima Bean is to embrace the biological fact that this is who you are. Self-acceptance is the only path to drunken nirvana! That said, the solution is relatively simple: Learn to love it or choose not to do it. (Either way, you’ll end up the odd one out.) I prefer to toast to optimism, so here’s to, uh, highlighting the, er, bright side of Asian glow. Cheers!

We love knowing our limit better than our friends will ever know theirs. The reason so many of us leap into that grim hangover feeling is because our egos are thirsty. We feel pressured to keep up with everyone else because we’re Asian and think everything’s the SATs or something. But it’s okay to fail this one! Consider ourselves lucky that after just one drink we’ve already fallen into a chill buzz (red face first of course).

We love that turning red saves us a ton of green. While our tolerance limit is embarrassingly low (mine is a sad 2–3 drinks), our credit score remains pretty high. It also gives us the chance to put in extra DD practice for when we’re driving all of you to AA in 15 years.

We have to be even more confident in our skin, a life lesson in loving yourself. We’ve been conditioned, guys especially, to believe an inability to hold our liquor is emasculating, so that saying “real men wear pink” takes on a whole new spin. We use a diverting self-awareness and make light of being a lightweight. We point at our faces and say, “I’m not sure if you can tell or if you can really tell, hah, but I sort of suck at drinking … what was your name again? Kidding!” Laugh modestly, be done with it and hope this makes us look adorable because it’s all we got. That or we’re so comfortable in our Face of Fury we exude something akin to a self-assured Bruce Lee? Whatever, a boy can dream…

And dream we will – the ultimate coping mechanism to loving the glow. The next time we’re blinded by the luminescent reflection of us in the glare of our drink beating like a bruised heart and begin to blush over the blush with embarrassment wondering where we fit in the fabric of this party, we convince ourselves we’re part of an enlightened truth radiating beneath the tide of our crimson surface, seething with a secret knowledge some day in the post-post-racial year of 2187 everyone will inevitably have some of this hyperactive blood pumping through their veins, drinking with the desperation that everyone here is partying in the past and we’re bright beacons of the future lying ahead, literal faces of a melting pot society that no longer sees color, basically telling ourselves anything to stop worrying and :-) TC mark


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  • Jasmine

    Well, at least you have a high likelihood of be looking very much younger than your actual age when you grow older! :-)

  • BrianK

    I’m pure Asian and my tolerance is half a drink before I glow like the red light. Great read bro.

  • Michael Lynch

    I’ve always acknowledged this as something my Asian friends would be self conscious of. Hell, I would be too. Kudos to you for keeping cool about it.

  • Anonymous

    I am 100% white, and I have this. Nobody believes me when I tell them it’s called the asian glow.

  • Glow

    I made it a personal rule to drink only with good friends to avoid all the “OMG! You’re so red! (insert open mouthed smile of awe here)” or, only Asian friends. hehe.

    I kinda loved this. Good read, I totally connected with every anxiety.

    • Michael Koh

      Seriously? :( 

  • Jen O'Neill

    So many quotables from this. And all shamefully true. I’m half Asian and have been and will forever be mocked for my radioactive glow.

  • C M Yung

    One frozen strawberry margarita and I look like an Oompa Loompa under incandescent light. Fabulous.

  • Alexandrea

    I’m an Asian, though I don’t have very pale skin to begin with. Still, using a bronzer helps to hide that so-called Asian glow. My paler friends do that.

  • cecile

    You’re cute!  Drinks this Friday? Promise I won’t laugh at your red face… ahem, I mean Asian Glow. :3

  • clarissa

    Yah it’s really important to own it. The solution that works for me is Pepcid AC ~15-30 minutes before my first drink – at the very least it dials down the purple red face/neck to a rosy cheek flush. And actually, my mom is way worse than my friends: “You look so drunk! Ladies should not drink! Our bodies cannot handle it! blah blah blah.” My motto is, “just drink through it.” Once you’re drunk enough, not only do you no longer care (about anything at all), the glow also fades – or rather, transforms into drunk eyes and crazy dancing.

    • Guest

      This works!

  • douchegirl

    I’m not Asian and I suffer from this. Red wine is the worst for it. I’ve kinda learned to accept it, though. 

  • asian

    dude, pepcid.

    • Guest


  • Michael Koh

    That shit only gets me when I drink stuff like coconut rum/’dragonberry rum’, etc.

  • Kayla Dalsfoist

    battle of iwo jima bean? brilliant.

    also, i feel your pain. filipino/swedish.

  • Lily Dawn

    Hey! Some people happen to find the Asian Glow quite endearing/cute.

  • Jason Ham

    Hahaha yeah I have major anxiety over this. As a result I only get DRONK in the company of my closest friends (who do not care about my redness at all) or in super dark nightclubs where people don’t see how red I am until I’m already in a taxi cab with them…

    I seriously used to get SUPER choked up about it until my white friends just sat me down and were like WE DON’T CARE. In fact, the only people that point it out are my Asian friends that get less red than I do, maybe because it makes them seem more normal, which makes total sense.

  • Courtney

    This post perfectly captures the experience of asian glow. Asian glow has defined me in my ring of friends for being the light weight, the asian girl who can’t hold her drink. And you know what? I wouldnt want it to be any other way. It helps you find your limits, make funny stories, and become a connoisseur of beer. Glow on, Mr. DeKneef.

  • David Moon

    I have at least one Asian friend who gets picked on all the time for this. It’s annoying to hear other people point it out in a really negative light. You’ve got to be a real scum bag with your own set of insecurities to make fun of another person for being himself. I’m glad you explained this so well, and I’m glad you’ve made your peace with it!

  • TinyNinjas

    The best solution for me is to avoid Asian Glow altogether by drinking water or Diet Coke when I’m out. It helps that alcohol never gives me so much a buzz as it does a raging migraine headache and nasty heart palpitations.

  • Randnotell

    I believe you mean Ben & Jerry’s Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream. As Anderson Cooper (actually) said, “It’s 360 degrees of flavor!”

  • Michelle Ong

    this is amazingly written. matthew, you’re my new hero. 

  • I’m Half-Korean And My Husband Makes Racist Asian Comments, But I’m Okay With It | Thought Catalog

    […] Phil: Calm down. You’re getting Asian fever, also known as red fever. You know, when your cheeks turn red after drinking alcohol. […]

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