The room is dim and smoky, and a waitress weaves through the packed tables with bottles and glasses balanced precariously on a tray. Music is playing – it could be anything from the latest Rihanna chart-topper to zitar music. Regardless of the style, the music is loud enough to be heard over dozens of conversations. There might be hookah pipes out for paying patrons to use, or signs or flags plastered to the walls. This is the American ex-pat bar.
If you’ve ever been abroad with a group of 20-something aged Americans, you’ve seen something like this. No matter what part of the world you’re in, if the town is big enough to have more than three traffic lights, it’s likely to have a bar that all the Americans go to. And in my experience, Americans – especially college students like myself – are the loudest, rowdiest, most likely to break things, and least likely to speak the local language of any foreigners. We make up for this by spending hand over fist for foreign beer and wine and spirits.
I saw this behavior at its worst when I was in China. People from our group went out nearly every night of the week, despite having early classes every morning. Granted, the World Cup was occurring at the same time as my stay in Tianjin, so everyone wanted to be out to watch various soccer matches on bar TVs. But there’s nothing to explain the apathy for mixing with locals at bars, the penchant for accidentally breaking glasses and becoming uncontrollably drunk (weren’t we taught to be extra careful in foreign places when it came to inebriation?). The phenomenon of rowdy college students abroad has always puzzled me. What was their reason for coming to this country? What do they hope to learn from out-partying the locals and mixing only with the people who speak their language? While I’m not against going out for a few drinks – it can be a great way to get a feel for the town, the culture – doing so as a way to stay as comfortable as possible by keeping your lifestyle as similar as possible to the one you led in the U.S. seems counter to what you hope to learn by going abroad.
But then, I guess it depends entirely on what you want to get from an experience in another country. And is there any one experience that is less valid than another?
There’s a lot of debate about what it means to be a tourist vs. a traveler, with the former being a more pejorative term for what is essentially the same activity. I’ve always viewed drinking and clubbing through this framework. Travelers drink with locals, chat about families or sports or the problems with government. Tourists cling to each other and pride themselves on thriving in such a foreign environment. But is there really a distinction between the two? Who’s to judge?
I recently moved to New York City, and there are more immigrant enclaves here than I can count on all my fingers. And for the bigger groups of immigrants – like some Asians living in various Chinatown communities – you sometimes never even need to learn English because you can find everything you want within a 20-block radius of like people. There are clear parallels between such neighborhoods and Americans who enjoy each other’s company when they’re stranded in a foreign place.
When it comes down to it, each individual will set the parameters for his or her own experience, whether they become fully integrated into their new society or cling desperately to the one they come from. That balancing act is not easy, nor is it a perfect science. And sometimes, when it seems like you’re fighting a losing battle, you just need the comfort of an American bar, where other people will speak your language and recognize the state you come from.