When Pierre Jamot, 20, arrived in the United States from France to study at the University of North Alabama, the reality of not legally being able to drink in the “land of the free” sent him into an immediate culture shock.
“In France, when you turn 18, you’re considered an adult,” Jamot said. “You can do anything, including drinking. I knew when I came here that American culture was very different from mine, but I was still somewhat shocked.”
The sophomore marketing major said he has found the American drinking age to be the cause of some of his homesickness.
“Not being able to drink wine has made me homesick,” he said. “Wine is a big part of the culture in France. I had my first sip of wine when I was 10 years old.”
According to Joy Mallard, coordinator of international affairs at UNA, many international students struggle with not being able to drink while studying abroad in the United States.
“It’s always challenging for students who come to a different country with different cultural expectations than yours,” she said. “Drinking is something people have strong beliefs about.”
Mallard’s job is to orient international students to American culture and academics, and alcohol is a big part of her presentation.
“The truth is that underage drinking is an issue on every campus,” Mallard said. “I try to remind them that, as students on visas, their job is to follow American laws.”
And the laws, Mallard said, are tame compared to some countries.
“Some countries have zero tolerance for alcohol; some have no restrictions,” she said. “We’re kind of in the middle.”
According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 26.3% of Americans ages 12 to 20 reported consuming alcohol in the previous month. This didn’t surprise Jamot, who said one thing the drinking age in the United States and France have in common is that surprisingly few people honor it.
“Even in France, no one respects the drinking age,” he said. “They usually start drinking around 15 or 16.”
Part of the reason many students drink underage, Jamot said, is the law itself.
“I think the more the government tries to prohibit students, the more they like to try to break the law and drink. It adds a temptation to it that just isn’t there when it’s legal. It’s sort of like saying ‘Drink if you dare,’” Jamot said.
Jamot thinks it’s unhealthy to see alcohol as taboo.
“When I see people waiting until they are 21 to drink here, I think ‘OK, but how do you know what you like?’ Before 21, you are building your habits and personality. If you start drinking when you’re 21, you won’t know your limits and will go overboard,” Jamot said.
Which, according to the NSDUH survey, proves true for many. The study found that 17% of underage drinkers were binge drinkers and 5.1% were heavy drinkers.
Jamot has seen students go overboard firsthand.
“It seems like many people here turn 21 and start to drink, drink, drink,” he said. “Starting like that makes it easier to become an alcoholic. Compared to French schools, here it seems like it’s nothing or everything. But so many people here drink before 21. I have heard of many of my friends here vomiting at parties.”
Jamot thinks alcohol-related problems would decrease if drinking laws were reformed.
“It would be a good idea to scale it,” he said. “Some countries allow soft liquor at 16 and hard at 19.”
Jamot, who will turn 21 while studying abroad here, is looking forward to drinking legally in the United States.
“I will be turning 21 while I’m in the states. I’m really looking forward to it. I won’t have to see that annoying black X on my hand anymore when I go to clubs with my friends.”
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