What being abroad taught me about drinking

From CLE to Cape Town

Heather O'Keeffe

My past weekend in Cape Town was marked by the celebration of two 21st birthdays. Each birthday girl was American and each tried their hardest to celebrate the occasion as if they were back in the States. One girl even hunted down red solo cups for the evening’s festivities.

While we tried to keep turning 21 a big deal, in reality it wasn’t. The drinking age in South Africa, like much of the world, is 18. So turning 21 in South Africa is like turning 19, there is no milestone involved besides the celebration of another year.

In high school I studied abroad in Australia and turned 18, which meant for a few months I was above the minimum legal drinking age. Now, at 20 in South Africa, I will be above age during the entirety of my stay. All in all I will have spent nearly 1.5 years above the minimum drinking age before I turn 21.

This unique situation has offered a reflection of the often-debated topic amongst adolescents: Should the minimum legal drinking age in the U.S. remain at 21 or should it be dropped back down to 18?

For many Americans in Cape Town their drinking habits have changed: they drink more often but drink less when they do. Since arriving in Cape Town, my habits have definitely differed and many of my friends here have noticed similar changes. Here, I’m more likely to have a beer with dinner or try a cool cocktail and less likely to binge-drink.

In my eyes the core of the 18 vs. 21 arguments is not the consumption of alcohol but the manner and quantity of which it is consumed. If the minimum legal drinking age is lowered to 18, will more immature college freshmen drink copious amount of alcohol, putting themselves and others at risk?

Many females at CWRU hardly spend any money on alcohol. Some guys are too chivalrous to ask girls to pitch in money and many are eager to have more ladies than guys at their party. In contrast, Cape Town bouncers and bartenders don’t care if you wear a bra or boxers: Everyone pays the cover and the price on the menu is the price you pay. It’s a lot harder to live indulgently when your wallet is getting lighter. It only takes a couple nights with just a few coins remaining in your wallet to set the road straight. Going to bars and clubs is expensive; between taxis, covers and drinks I can’t afford to get out of control (and South Africa is a relatively cheap country!).

Here, I feel less safe heavily drinking at clubs and bars. Maybe it’s the fact that being a female in South Africa after dark is not the safest situation, but I am conscientious of keeping my wits about me in new situations surrounded by strangers. As alcohol lessens inhibitions and impairs judgment, I feel more comfortable saying “screw it” at a friend’s house party or dorm. So when I do go downtown for the night here, I drink less because I have to spend more and also so I can control my night and have fun rather than put myself in a vulnerable position by drinking. In a lot of respects, ordering exactly what you want at a licensed establishment is also much safer than drinking a mysterious concoction at some party.

Cape Town has a vast public transport system, but one should never, ever use it after dark, ever. Instead everyone has several cab numbers programmed in their phones. Cabs are cheap in South Africa but Cleveland has a convenient public transport system, especially for CWRU students. If a cab is too steep, then the Healthline is perfect and free! Who needs drunk driving? I’ve never even considered it as an option and I would think many others of my generation think similarly, and I’m from Wisconsin, a state notorious for its laxity in regards to DUI’s.

Finally, I think it really is true that drinking isn’t as big of a deal in the rest of the world. Drinking is an unattainable fruit you’re only allowed to have when you’re 21. But rather than surviving years of teenage angst and waiting to come of age, young people find ladders and chainsaws to eat as much forbidden fruit as possible.

People will always want what they can’t have; lowering the drinking age won’t stop 17-year-olds from going through their parents’ liquor cabinet. But changing the legal age would allow 18-year-olds to be treated like adults, at least in this small way.

Being of age has by no means defined my time in Cape Town but trying craft beers and going to a wine festival certainly has been nice. Drinking is objective and situational: It depends on the person. We all know someone who refuses to try a drop until they are 21, and someone at a state school who goes hard three times a week. However, I reckon that no matter what the minimum legal drinking age is, at CWRU, “Club KSL” will still be busier than the Jolly Scholar on any given night of the week. But if the legal drinking age was lower in the U.S., maybe after a busy Tuesday of studying, roommates would share a bottle of wine rather than hold off until Saturday to break open a fifth.

Heather O’Keeffe is a second-year student studying biomedical engineering and sports medicine and studying at the University of Cape Town. She spent more time in the library at UCT studying for midterms than she has ever spent in her life at Club KSL; this statistic is very concerning to her.