On Responsible Drinking and Reverse Culture Shock; or, In Which Adulthood Is Again Pondered

I have been thinking a lot since I returned to the U.S., and to Princeton, about the different cultures of drinking that manifested themselves in my higher ed experiences on either side of the Atlantic. I think that perhaps the foremost cultural difference between Princeton and Oxford (which are in many respects quite similar) is how I saw alcohol consumed at the two institutions: the juvenile way I saw it consumed for the two and a half years I spent as an under-21 student at Princeton; and the adult way I saw it consumed and consumed it in Oxford, in an environment where I was not only legal, but where most of my friends were graduate students and thus the tenor of social drinking was different. Being an RA this year—as well as reading about the dangers of student drinking from a faculty perspective—reminds me how important it is to talk openly about how college students drink, why they drink, and how to encourage them to drink like adults. Now that I am actually 21, I can not only drink much more openly and responsibly, but also talk openly and responsibly about why and how I drink and have drunk at college. This is obviously very important, and we need to be having more conversations about this.

I spent my share of my orientation week at Princeton lurking awkwardly behind eating clubs, a member of one of the furtive crowds around kegs on back porches of the clubs to which a roommate’s OA leaders belonged. I felt uncomfortable, disoriented, out of place, overtired, but there didn’t seem to be much else to do. And in orientation week, of course, freshmen travel in packs, and they follow the throngs of people heading east to Prospect Avenue because it is such a clear visual marker of the direction of the campus social scene. I kept this up first semester. Culture-shocked to all hell, convinced I didn’t belong here and didn’t deserve to be here, I repeated the routine once or twice a week, going to an eating club to drink cheap watered-down beer because drunk people are always happy to see you. At the time I didn’t know how to drink, and was unused to it, and would often end my nights crawling back home alone to throw up the three or four watered-down beers I’d had. I wasn’t endangering myself much, or slipping into alcoholism, but I wasn’t drinking maturely, I wasn’t drinking healthily, and I wasn’t happy.

The thing going for me was that I knew this. I knew this kind of drinking was childish, different to the kind of drinking that my over-21 friends did and in which I wasn’t allowed to join them, since most of them had advisory roles in my college that prohibited them drinking with their advisees. But I didn’t know how to find for myself the middle ground between drinking childishly or drinking as a coping mechanism, and not drinking at all. Until, that is, I turned 19. When I turned 19 I was legal in the other country where I live, Canada, and the first summer that I was 19 I started drinking wine at home with my parents, and my dad and I went to the local pub. In however small a way, I finally got access to a world where consuming alcohol was something adults did. It was exciting, a sense of Things to Come—and when I returned to Princeton for my second year, it made me feel more embarrassed by the emotional and social distance between me and my older friends, and the extent to which they had to make allowances for me. When I was around, we couldn’t go to the bars where they might have liked to go. I spent a memorable portion of ages 19 and 20 standing inconspicuously across the street from liquor stores: no big deal for some, but for me a constant reminder of how far I had to come, how much I had to grow up, to be the adult my friends were.

A few weeks before I left Princeton for Oxford, one of my older friends jokingly said to me, “People drink a lot in Oxford! You’ll have to improve your tolerance!” I knew this—I hadn’t drunk much thus far, and knew I didn’t do it well—but it took going to Oxford for me to really hit the alcohol learning curve. I had no idea what many kinds of things I would be expected to drink (and to develop a discerning palate for), what diverse social contexts in which I would be expected to drink, and how important it was not to get sloppy-drunk on starting the third glass of wine. But, as this blog shows, I learned. I learned not to show disorientation when I was making it through those weird Oxford marathon formal dinners, and similarly to reevaluate my process of alcohol consumption as something where drinking, but not drunkenness, is the goal. I’d go to the pub with my friends and have one or two drinks after a long day. And thus I learned also to do my drinking in public: instead of cheap vodka out of those opaque red cups in the claustrophobic confines of a dorm room, I’d be drinking beer or wine or gin and tonic out of a clear glass. And it felt, even when I went out dancing, that I was acting much more like an adult. I felt like I had what I’d always wanted: access to this mystical world where grad students lingered at the reception instead of running away right at the end of the lecture, hobnobbing with famous scholars, the motif of their hobnobbing the little plastic glasses of red wine they’d clutch with the tips of their fingers. In Oxford, with access to that talisman, I felt I had the ability to hobnob, too.

I came back to Princeton as a 21-year-old, and so have been able to replicate a lot of what I liked about social drinking in Oxford in a way I couldn’t before. I can go to the nearest equivalent to a pub in Princeton and order a pint of a good ale. I can go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of gin and have a g&t with my friends on a Saturday night. This past Thursday, I attained what for me has always been the apotheosis of adulthood and, at the reception after a talk, had a glass of wine. For me, drinking without getting drunk is always something that has been made possible by having the legal and financial ability to order and/or buy one’s own alcohol. I can’t practice responsible drinking behavior if I don’t have any control over the environment in which I come across accessible alcohol. Now that I can drink at departmental receptions, I don’t have to vomit from eating-club beer anymore.

I went to one party during this year’s orientation week (when, before everyone’s classes and workloads begin, there’s a lot of revelry). I had one of the biggest moments of reverse culture shock I’ve had since being back when I noticed that everyone at the party was acting much drunker than two or three drinks over the course of a couple hours should have made them. I went home early: whether it was Oxford or the age of majority, I just didn’t know how to relate to this culture anymore. Two weeks later, though I’ve done plenty of moderate social drinking in other settings, I haven’t “gone out” again.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the atmosphere of juvenility at Princeton: how much hand-holding there is, how much in loco parentis attention we get from grown-ups, how freshman orientation so much resembles a summer-camp atmosphere, how despite claims to the contrary in the brochures, there’s not a lot of institutional support for undergrads who want to do the work of and be treated like grad students. We’re coddled, we’re treated like children still, and while that seemed normal when I was 18, three years later it’s all gotten a little bit boring—not to mention ridiculous. People our age are learning how to shoot AK-47s and going to risk their lives in Afghanistan. We’re being given matching college t-shirts to wear in a parade during orientation and an intramural sporting event in the gym, and then the adults who manage our lives are surprised that we drink excessively, shirk our academic work, and otherwise behave with little attention to consequence, so determined are we to forget the strains placed upon us by a pointlessly uber-competitive academic atmosphere and the uncertainties of the grad school and employment opportunities (or lack thereof) that we face upon graduation.

I have been quite angry this week with a collegiate culture that places so many parameters on what we do in some fields, and so few parameters on what we do in others. I have spent much of the week fighting to get allocated my own reserved desk and bookshelf at which to write my thesis (as of now, I’m expected to share with another person). Many of my friends have been frustrated at the unexpectedly low intellectual level of some of their classes. I don’t think any of us are perfectly happy with the social scene on this campus, as much as we make do. And yet there is still so little effort on the part of the otherwise overinvolved administrative layer to help us to see ourselves as adults academically and socially. Call it reverse culture shock, call it getting older, but whatever it is, I’ve been frustrated.

But the thing is, we all make our own cultural compasses. Now that I’m 21, I can be the one who models responsible drinking, who treats herself to a drink when she’s put in an eight-hour day on her thesis. I can behave like an adult as much as I feel able, and hang out with people who do the same. And when I’m the RA on-call tonight, I can do the job that I signed up for: the job that entails making sure that 18-year-olds in their second week of college are staying safe and are learning how to grow up and to be better. Growing up means giving back, doing for the kids next to come along all that was—and wasn’t—done for you.

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