Interview with Emma Kate Tsai–writer, editor and memoirist

by Leah on August 17, 2011

Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.

Emma Kate I-Lan Tsai has edited and written professionally both creatively and for various businesses and independent clients for over ten years. She has a masters of liberal studies degree from Rice University, for which she presented a memoir in process on identity in identical twins. She currently lives and writes in Houston, Texas.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?

Emma Kate Tsai: I must have been about twelve. That age seems telling, somehow, given that it was also the year I got my period, broke apart from my twin sister, and went out on my first date.  Yet, my first drink, for me, was not a coming-of-age thing, but a glaring piece of information about my mother.  She sat me and my sister around the dinner table and let us have a drink of fairly cheap table wine.  I was embarrassed to be doing it, and not really wanting to at all, but feeling that different kind of peer pressure–that of the wayward parent–I swigged mine.  Addie, of course, merely tasted it, like the good girl she always was.  My mother at the time screamed out, “Emma, haven’t you heard?!  Wine is meant to be sipped!  That’s not beer.”

How did/does your family treat drinking?

My parents are divorced.  My father is Chinese and my mother is American, so their treatment of drinking runs fairly counter to one another’s and closely in line with their opposing cultures. My father never drank when I was a child, and still rarely, if ever, does. When I was in my late twenties, he might offer me wine or beer at family events, as a show that he was treating me as an adult.  He also wanted to make my American boyfriends feel more comfortable about drinking, since that is one activity he equates with “western,” mostly because one of the only people he has known to drink heavily is my mother.  I’m still, to this day, a little bit surprised to visit a friend’s family and see the casualness with which drinking is treated in the American culture.

My mother, on the other hand, treats drinking like one of the four main food groups.  When I was growing up, she drank beer with every meal, went out drinking with friends and men, drank wine and champagne on special events, and shot glasses could be found lining the bathtub.  We had a large collection of them amongst the drinking glasses we used for milk.

Once, she got mad at my teenage brother for not toasting with her for New Year’s.  He was into the show Kungfu at the time and replied, “My body is a temple,” poured himself a glass of orange juice, and walked upstairs.  She then made a great display of drinking straight from the champagne bottle and shouting, “Well, I’m getting drunk!”, while Addie and I sat next to her and watched without a word.  Now, it’s something she openly does anytime of the day with every kind of person she’s in a relationship with; it is her go to activity of choice. I know barely a conversation with her that does not mention drinking. When she doesn’t mention it, I believe she’s hiding it from me.

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?

Drinking is something I do socially, if at all. When I diet or get on a health kick, it is one of the first things to go.  Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about why I drink: I never drink alone, I never ask a friend to go for a drink, I never get one unless whoever I’m with does.  I don’t go to it to relax and wind down, or if I’ve had a bad day.  For me, it’s like seeing a movie or going out to eat-something to do with a friend, and most grown-ups enjoy it, so I accommodate.

I enjoy good wine and beer, and refuse to drink bad versions of either, but to me, it seems like something people have competed on (which I’ve never understood; you are just pouring something down your throat), held against other people (I have, in my twenties, been taunted for being the slowest in the group), used to break people down (people often wanted to see me drunk because I was so composed and calm in demeanor), or hurt people with (drinking = bad parenting).  I do not judge those who drink, but have a hard time understanding why someone would need to drink every day.

In a recent story, I went with a group of girls to Mexico and when we got together to talk about the ins and outs of our travel arrangements, a big item on the list was how many bottles of booze you could pack in your suitcase.  I would never think to do such a thing, or actually do it, and such talk always sounds like that of an alcoholic to me.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

I’m in the “drinking less” phase, and was in the “drinking more” phase in 2004.  That year was one of general debauchery, at least compared to the rest of my life.  I was informally invited into a trio, making a quartet with three women whose names all ended in the letter ‘y’: Molly, Mary, and Jenny.  We’ve all grown up since then, but we were living the single high life and it was just what I needed at the time.  Our activity of choice was to drink.  I’d been in a long relationship since I was nineteen, and at twenty-four, I was finally a woman unattached, introverted, and rather square. Drinking, and these girlfriends, indoctrinated me into the world of the twenty-something, a universe I’d never known.  A year was more than enough time to realize it wasn’t a good fit for me, but for that twelve-month period, it kept me from feeling lonely, and running back to a man I needed to separate from.

Two years ago, I changed my diet-and thereby my life, body, mind, soul, and heart. Detoxifying my body introduced me to the luxurious feeling that “less” brings me, and I’ve applied it to every part of my life.  Drinking is just another burden on my body, mind, and heart, one I don’t need or benefit from.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

When I do drink, and yes, I still do, I like a dirty gin martini with extra olives, Bombay Sapphire being my gin of choice.  I first began drinking regularly during my most serious relationship of my life thus far, and my longest.  That man was a gentleman by definition, and a businessman, and I found myself at galas, cocktail parties, work dinners, and dinner parties needing a “grownup” drink to order.  At the time, he suggested gin and tonic, calling it a nice “lady’s drink.”  I couldn’t stomach Scotch under any circumstances, his drink of choice, and I never much cared for the well gins.  So I drank gin and tonic for some time, and enjoyed the refreshing effect of the lime.

I’m one of those people who needs something to do with my hands when I’m drinking, and I find I like twirling the stem in my hand as I sit and ponder. Martinis were a natural fit for me: I love olives, gin, and a long glass stem.

I also enjoy a nice craft beer.

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?

One of my closest friends is a girl named Christine. Our second date was at a trendy restaurant. That restaurant has a great lounge upstairs that’s half inside half outside, and we sat at the bar, the sun still high behind us.  First, we enjoyed some of the sun outdoors. Then we decided to come back inside, and sat at the bar. I remember asking for extra olives, and getting only two (I am vehement about the fact that two are required, and three meet the bare minimum of “extra”), so the bartender gave me a full water glass of olives, which delighted me to no end.

Our conversation took us through both of our pasts, and we freely shared our histories, pain, and emotions.  I felt connected to her, and all women, as we spoke, as if we’d pricked our fingers and mingled our blood.  She drank a specialty martini, I drank a classic one, and everything went away except for the experience-my hometown, the feel of the stone bar, the stools we sat on, the stem in my hand, the olives I let linger on my tongue, and a great chemistry.  We may have each had three drinks, I can’t really remember, but I was mostly drunk off her and her friendship.

What about the worst time?

A friend of a friend was coming into town and the little gaggle of girls I ran around with and I were intent to show her a good time.  My friend Mary was to pick her up, and together they would pick up Molly, too, and they were to all meet at my apartment, which was walking distance from some trendy bars and clubs.  I waited and waited, and I think they ended up being an hour late, or more.  While I waited, I proceeded to drink an entire bottle of white wine alone, out of a tiny purple martini glass I’d bought-long before I began drinking them.  I felt as if I were back in high school, waiting for a date who would never show, or a girlfriend who no longer found me interesting.

When they did finally arrive in true form (bouncing into my unit with great energy and excitement), I was fairly drunk, but I didn’t know it yet. It began to hit me as I was halfway into a margarita. By the time we made it to the next place, it became quite clear to the group that I was intoxicated, and my friend Mary stuck me in a cab, told him where to go, and paid him. I was dizzy, a bit nauseous and disoriented, somehow managing to stumble into my apartment, tear off my clothes, and fall asleep right on my face.

Has drinking ever affected-either negatively or positively-a relationship of yours?

I dated one guy for a few months who was an addict, and I soon realized that we spent almost no time together when he wasn’t drunk. He claimed his “job” was to promote a bar, which meant he showed up drunk, drank for free, and stood outside the front door hollering for people to come in.  The only time I could see him was either there, while he was “working,” or after he left, and sometimes he found himself at after-hours places, “working” once again.

Time and time again, he would call me at two a.m. or later, unsure where his car was, where he was, or how to get home.  Our first meeting had been in a bar, but he seemed fairly subdued at the time, and I think we may have had lunch once or twice.  But he would often leave my apartment in the midmorning to get a beer, and the next thing I knew he was calling me from a curb where he sat drinking out of a paper bag.  It was a bad relationship, but perhaps wouldn’t have existed without a bar and a place to go for a drink.  He had few other interests, no money, and no place to call home (he lived with his mother, at age 36).

In another example, I had horrible social anxiety when I met one man, the man I would spend ten years of my life with, that took us to marriage and then, divorce.  Without a drink in my hand, even if it was just one, I found I had an impossible time of mingling, smiling, or socializing, and this ability was of paramount importance to my companion.  He judged everyone on their ability to socialize, thought shyness was merely an excuse, and needed a woman that could represent him appropriately in public.  For years, it started a disagreement, and unwelcome distance on his part, until I managed to overcome this fear.  Drinking was the bridge that got me there.

Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?

Religion, no, but culture, yes.  I don’t think I would have done any drinking at all if our society-and the American culture-wasn’t one that promoted it and advertised it so regularly and frequently, and I can’t say that it doesn’t also influence all the people who have vicariously influenced me.

In my twenties, I spent a good deal of time with people much older than me, and one marker I felt was representative of my age bracket was social drinking, and competitive drinking.  I felt, when I finally began to reinsert myself into that world, that I had to be able to go out and drink, and I had to want to do that.  If I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, there was something wrong about me.  I’ve always been the outcast of almost every circle I was supposed to be a member of, for as long as I can remember, and this was just one more arena where I could be-and was-excluded.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?

Leaving Las Vegas.

What do you like most about drinking?

It’s a great way to eat olives.

Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?

I don’t need it.  I’m never moved to take a drink-by a bad day, an emotional crisis, or unwelcome news.  I feel healthier, clearer, and happier without it, and I like moving about the world with a clear mind.  When I do, I enjoy the solidarity it brings my drinking companion.  It’s never fun to drink alone, even when you need the alcohol.

How has alcoholism affected your life?

The most crucial way is my mother’s addiction. Her addiction was either to drinking or to marijuana, and both served as a distraction that lured her away from my brother, my sister, and me.  It took her out of the house at night, it brought her into her room every weekend we were with her, it wooed her into parties and events we couldn’t attend. A partier can rarely be a mother, and so, she most usually chose the party.

If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?

A GOOD craft beer.  A beverage that can deliver the wide range of alcoholic content—or intensity—and offers a refined flavor profile, can be a daily drink, a special occasion drink, preferred by both genders, and enjoyed from its original packaging or a special glass.  A drink that takes a sophisticated palate, offers a local flair or travels across regional lines (in other words, I could focus on local brews here, or discover one from another state), and garners greater appreciation with more education, experience, and insight.