October 22, 2007

Study Explores Indian-American Experience With Alcohol at C.U.

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Rites of passage can differ widely among various cultures. For Jewish teenagers, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can represent a coming of age; for a young Spanish girl, a Quinceañera marks the end of her girlhood. And now more than ever, college drinking has become an important transitional experience for many young Indian-Americans.
In a recently published Cornell study on Indian-American college students, three researchers, Samir Patel ’06, Nausheen Rokerya ’06 and Maneka Singh ’07, found that Indian-American freshman who were not exposed to the culture of underage drinking before coming to Cornell were shocked by the prevalence and acceptance of underage drinking for Indian-Americans. Their study included interviews of 10 to 15 Indian-American students at Cornell and detailed their experiences with alcohol. Rokerya explained the inspiration for her study.
“It started out as a final project for OB 329, an ILR course, taught by Prof. [William] Sonnenstuhl,” she said.
Rokerya also said that to this day, she has never consumed alcohol, so this issue was something she wanted to explore more.
“I am a Pakistani- Muslim, which I think plays a big role in my personal decision, but from what I learned over the course of my research, Indian parents stigmatize the act of drinking from the very beginning. It is taboo, and therefore is rarely explicitly discussed, but when it does come up, it’s characterized as something ‘we’ don’t do. Drinking is for ‘them,’” said Rokerya.
Another influence discussed in the study stemmed from a parental expectation of academic responsibility; for many Indian-American parents, drinking is perceived as an unnecessary diversion from coursework.
“It seems as though parents are attempting to keep their kids away from an atmosphere that might lead to drinking, as well as a subsequent breakdown of study habits,” Rokerya said.
The idea that drinking is a rite of passage, she explained, is especially true for Cornell students.
“At Cornell in particular, drinking is a very accepted norm among Indians,” she said. “There is a conversion that seems to take place for those who start out on the outside, abstaining, as they assimilate toward the norm. It seems to be across the board in terms of the time it takes, as well.”
Vinay Patel ’10, a Hindu Indian-American student, did not feel pressure from his parents to abstain from drinking.
“I personally don’t see drinking as a rite of passage for myself,” he said. “I feel that I have been raised without strict rules or guidelines and without much pressure from my parents, which has allowed me to make mature decisions about things like drinking.”
Patel did, however, mention that the same may not be true for other Indian-Americans.
“For other Indian-American college students, drinking does become somewhat of a rite of passage because they have been sheltered and restricted from doing anything while at home,” he said. “Thus, at college, away from parental pressure, it becomes an experience that allows them to connect with their peers in ways previously alien to them. It allows them to keep pace with the typical college student.”
In the study, Indian-American drinking was also seen as an assimilation into the culture of American universities.
“Drinking in college is very accepted, although when you go out, it definitely seems as if there are more white students going out drinking than Indian-American students,” said Brittney Shulman’10.
Patel addressed the reluctance of Indian parents to let their college-age children fully assimilate.
“Some Indian parents are more against drinking than other parents based solely on traditional culture and extent of exposure to American culture. Some parents who had children in India and then moved to America after a few years maintain traditional culture and refuse to allow themselves or their children to adopt bits and pieces of American culture,” he said.
Patel said he believes that if these parents have more exposure to American culture, they are more willing to trust and allow their children to assimilate.
“They understand that their children have been raised in a society where drinking is a socially acceptable and normal activity, and furthermore have faith in their children to make proper decisions about these habits. While they personally may stick with traditional culture there is an understanding of differences and well reasoned calm discussion tends to result in accepting activities such as drinking,” he said.