The USA is bizarre. This I did not realise until I cruised into JFK airport with my entire study abroad year ahead of me. I had no idea what I was doing, flitting off for a year to a country I thought I knew about but had never actually been to.
For starters, peoples’ accents aren’t just different, but people communicate in a completely different way – in a superficial, faux-friendly manner, a concept alien to a proud young Brit like myself. This is by no means a problem, but it does take some getting used to. I had to do a lot of adjusting in New York State, getting used to the ‘spendaholic’ way of life that seems to affect so many, getting used to the fact that my accent and quirkiness were attractive traits, and of course, the difference in social scene.
England loves a good drink – we all know this – and those of us who’ve ever turned on our TVs know this is certainly true for the US. But it’s a little different. Although we are at the forefront of binge drinking worldwide, we also enjoy the odd relaxed pint in a pub from time to time. The States don’t really have pubs. Fighting back the tears, I roamed the streets of Downtown Manhattan in search of an alternative, and there it was: The Bar.
The American bar is an interesting concept. Shrouded in mystery to those under 21, and on that ‘glorious’ day, one is finally allowed to take that inaugural sip of beer. We as Brits are accustomed to pubs and drinking from a very young age, and honestly, I think that is a superb thing. It belittles the 18th birthday by US standards, reducing it to ‘merely’ a rite of passage rather than an all day drinking festival (not that plenty of us don’t indulge).
Anyway, the young American has no idea of the concept of alcohol, due to ludicrous drinking laws and the forbidden connotations that the devil’s brew holds. Wide-eyed freshmen arrive at university and are overwhelmed by the binge drinking culture present there. Drinks are forced upon them at frat parties and they ‘learn’ how to drink. Bulky ‘dudemeisters’ tell them to “CHUG!” and you’re letting the whole party (and yourself… of course) down if you can’t do it.
So they find their way, but never learn to appreciate the drink they consume, never appreciate the socialising that is supposed to come with drinking, and certainly never appreciate a quality beer (frat party beer tastes like something close to rat piss – not that I’d know what that tastes like). But that is the way things work in the US, and I was able cope, somewhat begrudgingly, at least until the last day of classes.
The last day of classes is marked with an event somewhat counterintuitive in a US university setting – public drinking. Those of age and those underage all get together to celebrate, and for some reason the powers that be turn a blind eye to the events of the day – until medical attention is deemed necessary. I was perceived as one of these cases, when after a drink (or five) too many, I chose to take a nap on the campus baseball field.
This was a voluntary act – the grass looked very comfortable and I consciously chose to have a little lie down. I thought it would do me good; I didn’t think I was harming anyone. I vaguely remember a couple of passers-by asking if I was ok, to which I responded “I’m fine, I’m just taking a nap”.
Obviously, someone either didn’t like my tone or didn’t believe me, as the next memory I have is of the medical response unit and campus police arriving on the scene and testing my sobriety with intent to take me away by ambulance – a mandatory means to an end when an alcohol related incident occurs on campus. I calmly explained that I was fine, and simply fancied a nap, and after a lot of discussion they decided that I was indeed OK and even gave me a lift home.
The incident perplexed me: Why set out such strict national drinking laws but then relax enforcement to such a giddying extent? If drinking were legal from the age of 18, surely days like these would not occur, and people would drink as a means to socialise rather than to get drunk? Then again, when I compare this to the situation in English universities, things aren’t all that different. Are we as a society doomed to binge our way into oblivion, or is there some culture out there able to enjoy a beverage and leave it at that?
Either way, I suppose the situation across the pond isn’t all that different to what we have here in jolly old England, except that perhaps they spell the word organise with a “Zee”.