When I started my freshman year of college, I was just as nervous and excited and anxious as every other freedom-seeking eighteen year old. But during those first few days of Welcome Week—when, despite the sweltering August heat, beer cans replaced water bottles and rationality was lost to intoxicated impulse—I quickly realized that I had home court advantage in this new college playing field. Many of the girls on my residence hall hadn’t consumed alcohol before coming to college, and, as they habitually drank too much at parties, I found myself holding back ponytails of hair as they hunched over toilets late at night. From my pre-college exposure to alcohol, I knew my limits. It’s not that I hadn’t gotten drunk before, but I knew that overindulging early in my college career would earn me a reputation as one of those “binge drinking college freshman.
And there are many. Even, and this is for the willfully ignorant parents out there, among your desi children.
“Work hard, play hard” is the most well-known term that categorizes the lifestyles of many college students. These days, we might more appropriately refer to it as “the binge lifestyle.”
Author and nutritionist Sylvia Escott-Stump defines “the binge lifestyle” as one that “promotes a lack of balance. Usually it entails overwork, overeating, and overplay, with excessive eating, drinking, shopping, and negative health behaviors.”
Work hard, Play Harder
“South Asian or not, the binge lifestyle is prevalent among young people,” says Abhi Tripathi, one of the founders of the popular blog Sepiamutiny.com. “South Asians might have it worse, because typically, they are not suppose to do things like binge drink and smoke pot. So it seems like we are partaking in it more than everyone else when we do these things.”
Yet while South Asian cultural norms usually discourage partying, that doesn’t mean that, historically, binge drinking hasn’t had a place in our social settings. It is neither some new phenomena nor a newly adapted cultural practice among South Asian Americans. My father recalls that college students “drank till the last man was standing” at the undergraduate university he attended in India. Tripathi remembers his father saying that after moving to the U.S, he and his friends would often buy six-packs of beer and down them while playing poker.
First-generation South Asians may have once binged similarly to the way the second-generation does today, but it appears that those who did so in their late teens and early twenties significantly curbed the behavior upon their pursuit of the proverbial American dream. After all, though many of our immigrant parents arrived in the U.S. when they were young adults, many had only a few hundred dollars to their names and were determined to use their money toward fueling their careers, postgraduate education, and family life—not drinking.
Accordingly, one of the reasons for the increase in binge drinking among second generation South Asians lies is the fact that we are simply less accountable. We don’t have the same responsibilities. While our parents had to work hard to establish their lives as successful immigrants, we have grown up without having to worry about much other than our parents’ expectations for our academic and professional success. We have far more leeway to partake in binge lifestyles, so long as we perform well outwardly.
“Our parents worked hard, so we do have the pressure to be as successful as them, but a lot of college students manage to play hard anyway because they’ve found all these short-cuts to ‘doing well’ like taking blow off classes,” says 21-year-old Sejal Patel.
“All of my friends are binge drinkers,” another student adds. “I can’t even remember the last time we did ‘sober’ activities for an entire night.”
Nisha Vasavada, Junior and Co-Captain of the Stanford University Bhangra team, adds that “‘work hard, play hard’ is big on campus because there is large population of really smart Indian kids who can have that as their mantra and still succeed; they don’t have to exert that much effort to get the academic results they want.”
Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of The Cultural Connect, Raymond Rouf, suspects a trend in those who embrace the binge lifestyle: “South Asian college students near the top of their class still maintain the traditional work ethic, but the South Asian college students who hover around the middle of the pack (though they still do well in school) tend to exhibit the overplay/excessive partying behavior. This middle pack tends to be a huge number; it’s like a bell curve.”
So what exactly qualifies as binge drinking? The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. Typically, this happens when men consume more than four drinks and women consume more than three drinks in the span of two hours. Statistics show that about 75 percent of the alcohol consumed by adults in the United States is in the form of binge drinking.
There are many identified factors that contribute to the tendency for individuals to engage in binge drinking, but for all those who don’t drink or can’t fathom why young people do it, consider this:
Having a drink or two is like being teased with a taste of pleasure. For the most part, alcohol makes people feel good—happier, more relaxed, uninhibited, and liberated. As with any pursuit of pleasure, we tend to want more and more of it, so we keep having more drinks to heighten our pleasure. Yet the problem with drinking-induced pleasure is that at some often unknown point during drinking, a reverse effort kicks in. The feelings of pleasure are no longer produced and are replaced by impaired motor reflexes and decreased awareness. Without realizing it, we become unintentionally, heavily intoxicated. Having hoped to experience utmost pleasure, we are instead faced with our own lack of control. In the aftermath of a night of binge drinking, while nursing a killer hangover, we recognize the displeasure that drinking often causes and swear off it for the next few days, even weeks sometimes. Yet somehow this realization is quickly forgotten if, a few Fridays later, perhaps, we once again experience that alcohol-induced pleasure that accompanies the first few drinks. Thus, the cycle of overindulgence and abstinence that defines binge drinking is easily apparent when we examine the chemical feelings that alcohol induces.
A 2006 research project titled “Switchovers: Indian American Drinking Culture At Cornell” outlined how individual ideological changes in a small focus group of 12 Indian American students caused them to start drinking after having abstained during their first year in college. Dubbed “switchovers” because of their decision to start drinking and thereby assimilate into mainstream Cornell culture, their ideological shifts were caused by a combination of socialization needs, avoidance of fears, and academic pressure. Additionally, many of the “switchovers” changed their life goals and academic aspirations after entering college, and, because of that, they felt more inclined to start drinking.
Regardless when students choose to “switchover” to drinking, their choice is rarely expressed to their parents. Many South Asian students express the sentiment that their parents are completely unaware of the drinking culture that permeates college campuses, or, in some cases, they are vaguely aware but choose to pretend it doesn’t exist in order to avoid having to discuss taboo subjects like alcohol.
Priya, a college student, wrote the following comment after a Sepia Mutiny blog post about the “Switchover” study: “I’m really surprised at how unaware my parents are [of] this whole situation of desi kids actually drinking and partying. I was trying to convince my dad that Indian kids here party just as much as the others (not me included, of course :)) and he wouldn’t believe me! ‘No, the Indian kids too?!’”
While some South Asian parents, including mine, are well aware of what goes down in the college drinking scene (8 a.m pre-football game tailgates, belligerent Saint Patrick’s day celebrations), being raised in liberal households doesn’t necessary ensure that students will drink less or more responsibly in college. “The notion that only really conservative Indian college students go crazy in college isn’t true; it’s similar to the Catholic school girl going crazy in college myth,” says Tripathi. “The liberal ones tend to party the most, especially when it comes to smoking pot.”
Inevitably, factors such as the drinking habits of friends and roommates, or the intensity of the drinking culture of the specific college, will play an influential role in the development of an individual’s drinking tendencies, perhaps more so than upbringing. In fact, if anything is going to distinguish South Asian college students from the general population, it is our tendency to spend generous amounts of money on alcohol and going out.
“Our family incomes are well above the U.S. mean, so we are willing to spend more money on [it],” says Tripathi. Accordingly, because many South Asian college students are financially supported by their parents, that “more money” that is spent on partying is often the parents’ money.
Living the High Life
So do students stop partying as hard when they start paying their own bills? On the contrary, many young professionals admit to binge drinking even more after taking on high-stress, intense jobs. According to national surveys, 70 percent of binge drinking episodes involve adults over age 25. Those who go onto high-paying, high-demand careers like I-banking and Consulting enter a work world where happy hours and open bars dominate the social culture in the workplace. Some consulting firms even have a bar in their office.
“I had a small group of friends who didn’t start partaking in the binge culture until the very end of college, and it accelerated into their work life,” Tripathi remembers. “Many young South Asians I’ve met have jobs like I-banking, working more than 70 hours a week, and they feel like they deserve to get wasted when they aren’t working.”
Leena Sanzgiri, a Business Analyst at McKinsey and Company, agrees that consultants do often exercise the mentality and behavior Tripathi describes: “Our entire work week is spent in a single team room at the client site where the sole social interaction we have is with the two other people on our team.
“We get back to the hotel around 1 a.m., to an empty room, and start over the next day. So we let loose during the three days a week we have in our hometowns, and for the younger consults who don’t yet have families to go home to, it’s a matter of shaking of the work week as best as you can—partying as hard as you can and seeing as many people as you can before you fly out for work again.”
Aarti Srinivasan, a physician from the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group, says that college students and young professionals feel invisible, and so they take pride in pushing themselves academically and professionally: “It’s that idea of ‘see how hard I can party and [still] make it to work at 5 a.m.”
Sandip Shah, a Consultant at Accenture LLC and co-founder of the Chicago Agni dance competition, similarly describes the perception that binge drinking aids upward social mobility: “Many people, especially within the South Asian community, feel status is the only way to progress socially. They think that binge drinking is one of those status boosters.”
Play Hard, Work Harder
A 2007 study conducted by Columbia University, titled “Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America’s College and Universities,” suggests that the intensity of excessive drinking and rates of drug abuse have risen sharply. By examining the prevalence of alcohol and substance use from 1993 to 2005, the study found that 49 percent of full time students indulge in binge activities. But the important thing to note is that students don’t always binge for “fun.”
The use of illegal drugs like marijuana has doubled, but the use of stimulants like Adderall, whichare often used as study-aids, is up 93 percent. (Adderall is a pharmaceutical psychostimulant primarily used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.)
In short, students are “overplaying” with increased drinking and smoking, but they’re also “overworking” by pulling an excessive number of all-nighters (and probably also overeating because of the tendency for college students to eat post-party, late night, greasy meals.)
Students of all backgrounds are moving further away from living balanced, functional lifestyles, socially, academically, and with respect to extracurriculars. Take the examples of cultural shows, competitive dance teams, and touring Acapella groups, to which a large number of South Asian students devote themselves during college. Many students openly admit the overwhelming time commitment that accompanies participation in cultural groups and dance teams. Having been on a competitive college dance team as well as our Indian Student Association board, I echo their sentiments. While many of us have been dancing or singing (classical, Bollywood, folk, fusion, the full gamut) from a young age, college associations and performances have taken the rigor of these commitments to an almost indescribable level of intensity.
Anjali Nair, Vice President of the Indian American Student Association (IASA) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, serves in the core planning team for the largest cultural show in the Midwest, which attracts a sold-out crowd of over 3,400 audience members at U. Michigan’s Hill Auditorium. Though unsure as to exactly why cultural shows have evolved into such grand productions, Nair suspects that it has to do with the widespread desire to meet and exceed the high standard set by cultural shows in the past. She notes that the first IASA show was started in a little auditorium with seating for just 200 people.
Leaders of groups like IASA are expected to devote much of their lives to their organizations. “A month before the show,” Nair says, “we warn everyone involved in planning and dancing that they are going to push their body to the sheer maximum—to a level of exhaustion they never thought it was physically possible to reach.”
Almost every college in the U.S. with a reasonable South Asian population has a comparable cultural show, like Bollywood Berkeley, the largest Hindi film dance competition in the country. In the days prior to the show in question, a student involved in planning and performing will have evenings that consist of going to three or four hour dance practices, attending planning meetings, putting up flyers around campus for advertising, sending out massive numbers of emails, and other taxing activities. Additionally, because students are busy earlier in the day with various other commitments (not to mention classes), those meetings and dance practices usually don’t start until 10 or 11 p.m. and often go until 3 or 4 a.m. daily. Two years ago, the competitive Raas team at U. Michigan often practiced from midnight through the early morning.”
“You have to choose to sleep less to attend class,” Nair admits, “but most people skip classwhen they are tired.”
Patel, who has planned cultural shows and danced competitively at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, jokes that she went to the University of Dancing and majored in Raas, Bhangra, and Bollywood dance: “We would be up until probably 6 a.m., go home and send out emails until 7, sleep till 12 or 1 p.m., and then do it all over again the next day. People would make it to their required classes, but that’s about it.”
Patel has observed a dramatic increase in the competitiveness and intensity of Indian dance teams since when she first began participating in them four years ago. “I think the college Indian cultural team scene started became really competitive when YouTube.com and Google videos got really popular,” she muses. “All of sudden, you could go on the internet and compare videos of different university dance teams.” This year, the “Best Of the Best” Indian college dance competition in Chicago has an interactive, community website that allows teams to upload videos of their various dances from previous years.
At U.C. Irvine, the Indian Subcontinental Club (ISC) has a budget of over $60,000 for each academic year. ISC runs the largest West Coast Garba competition in addition to their member-based events. The planning for Garba with Attitude (GWA) begins almost one year in advance, and ISC hires a committee to help plan execute the show. Nationally recognized as one of the best-organized dance competitions, GWA requires long meetings, sometimes over four hours, to plan all the details and logistics. Subodh Kola, current Co-President of ISC, balances working 25-30 hours a week at two jobs (an internship in the Financial Systems group with Broadcom Corporation and as a UCI student representative at Microsoft) with being a full time student studying Informatics and management. Kola explains, “The only way I could juggle all of my commitments is by having a very detailed calendar synced up to my phones alerting me of when I have to go to class, work, or various meetings I have scheduled during the week. I make lists of what I need to get done and plan out my day’s schedule, sometimes down to the minute.”
Surya Yalamanchili, a former cast member of The Apprentice
“South Asians tend to be extra hungry and driven, which leads to binge lifestyles in their studies and work,” Yalamanchili says. “At times, I definitely feel like I’m living the binge lifestyle by putting in 12-14 hour days at a start-up and then trying to squeeze in an hour or two of research and writing for my book. But I try to balance the week some solid vegging out on the weekends. While some people choose to binge both ways—work hard, play hard—I find it’s easier to remain sane if I focus on one or the other.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with the increased prevalence of the binge culture amongst South Asian young adults lies in the forced “forgetfulness” that it perpetuates. How do most of us come to terms with our tendency to binge across one or many facets of our lifestyle? Many of us don’t.
“When you’re working really hard,” Rouf notes, “it’s so easy to get really caught up in with you’re doing and forget about growing yourself—whether it’s spiritually, emotionally, or personally.” We willfully forget the nights that we’ve blacked out; we erase from our minds those exams we did poorly on after pulling all-nighters for dance practices. But what we shouldn’t forget is that to habitually binge is to become accustomed to a learned behavior—a pattern that quickly establishes itself as habit.
And there are, whether we admit it or not, risks that accompany the binge lifestyle. “Some people might manage to live in this extreme way but you never know …” says Srinivasan. “It might result in a serious health issue or poor performance at work.
“[You] might not get away with it just that one time.”
|Rupa Dev is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She currently resides in the Bay Area.|