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Legally drunk and confused

For a few months now, I’ve been repeatedly telling my friends about how excited I was to finally turn 21 and be able to order a goddamn beer with my burger at Burger Bach. And this last Tuesday, the day finally came.

Did it feel as good as I expected to ask the dude for a Corona and know that I’d get one? Honestly, and not to sound tacky, it absolutely did. There’s nothing like handing over a perfectly legal driver’s license—not that I’ve ever partaken in illegal activities related to alcohol, of course—and taking that first sip of legal alcohol. And first sip of alcohol, period, as far as the authorities are concerned.

But, when the waiter carefully scrutinized my license despite my having told him it was my 21st birthday, and when he kept joking about how all my friends had “barely made the cut” after checking their IDs and seeing that they’d all recently turned 21, I was reminded of how absolutely weird the drinking culture is in the U.S.

For some reason, I’d been counting down the seconds to do publicly the same thing we’ve all been doing in secret since we were in high school. And when I could finally accompany my burger with a beer whenever I wanted, suddenly all I wanted was a Coke or some cold water. Why?

Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States, and it’s estimated that people ages 12 to 20 drink about 11 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the country. 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.

Binge drinking is defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as “when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours,” which, to me, sounds like a Duke first-year’s average Shooters pregame. According to a survey conducted last year, Duke undergraduates consume alcohol at an almost 10 percent higher rate than the national average.

Even more worrisome, a Chronicle article from last year cites an EMT student admitting that “there is a noticeable binge drinking trend during the first few weeks for freshmen on campus, likely a result of the newfound freedom that college provides as well as the desire for social fluidity.”

So maybe, the amount of freedom is the problem. We’re given none of it for the portion of our lives during which we’re awkwardly begging for social validation, forced to resort to chugging warm Aristocrat vodka before entering a venue underage, with the hope that it’ll last us the night. And then, once we’ve sort of figured our shit out and developed horrendous drinking patterns, we’re suddenly allowed to do it like normal people, in public at restaurants and real bars that aren’t Shooters or Devine’s.

Suddenly, we’re allowed to take our time and enjoy alcohol, after our society has taught us how to do the exact opposite. Because, if you haven’t tried Aristocrat, trust me when I say that it’s so bad all the Poles who first distilled vodka in the 8th-century roll over in their graves every time a bottle is opened.

Although I used to think this was a uniquely American problem, there are a few other countries with equally troublesome drinking cultures. Although 72 percent of countries have friendlier drinking age limits between 16 and 19 years old, including all of Europe, Canada, most of Latin America, a decent portion of Africa, Russia and Australia, binge drinking is still a severe problem in many of these places.

According to a survey that explored drinking standards around the world, no one can really agree on how much alcohol is too much. Drunk driving plagues South Africa as well as Spain, and binge drinking is glorified in New Zealand and Australia. While in Japan, France, and Italy, alcohol is primarily enjoyed in order to enhance one’s eating experience, excessive underage drinking is a serious problem in the Philippines and even in the UK.

So, I guess all over the world, young people are connected by how much they love to disobey the law in the unhealthiest, most unpleasant way possible: by drinking ourselves to death.

It’s always been fascinating to me how much alcohol defines our social spaces from a very young age, whether we choose to partake or not. In high school, I remember feeling like I was worlds away from peers who were finding ways to sneak into bars and clubs when we were barely sophomores. And at Duke, there’s absolutely nothing more telling than those damn little Sharpie ‘X’s on the back of our hands when we can’t get into the over-21 line.

And I remember every morning when I’d wake up with a messy black mark on my pillow or cheek, it would feel like the universe was reminding me that yes, you are not allowed to do the majority of what you did last night, even though it tasted awful, and no, you may not ever join those beautiful juniors and seniors by the bar, having seemingly more pleasant nights.

Well you know what, universe? I am one of those juniors now, and even though my night is definitively not more pleasant, it is certainly more legal. So get ready, bartenders and waiters of Durham. I’m finally allowed to switch my drinking habits from secretive and disgusting to public and tasteful, and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. This is the dilemma we’ve all helped create. 

Daniela Flamini is a Trinity junior. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays.


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