Alcohol is a mystery to me. I have never had a glass of alcohol in my life, and I never will.

Soon after I transferred into Penn last fall, I went to a club event that involved going to members’ apartments and a frat house, each assigned its own specific drink. I was concerned by the amount people were drinking, the speed at which they were drinking and the lack of snacks and water.  I was careful to open my own bottles of water and soda. I wondered how high everyone’s tolerances were. I wondered if I should hand some water to the girl next to me who had just consumed two drinks in a row within ten minutes of arriving.

Most of what I know about alcohol I’ve learned from pop music and that one episode of How I Met Your Mother. Nobody in my family drinks, and I haven’t had a lot of friends who drink.  I didn’t even know what alcohol was until a fourth grade class on peer pressure. Growing up, I didn’t understand those signs that said “Don’t Drink and Drive”; I  thought it was because you physically couldn’t see the road while holding up a bottle of water.

There are several reasons why I don’t drink — the biggest one being that I’m Muslim, and Islam prohibits consuming alcohol. On top of that, I’m not the legal drinking age, I’m terrified of throwing up, I have a hard enough time remembering what happened in a given week, and I don’t ever want to act in a way that I can’t control or take responsibility for.

Not drinking has its perks – it saves money, lowers the risk of alcohol–related health problems, spares you blackouts, and prevents you from having to do homework hungover. But it is a little awkward not having access to an experience which is so prevalent and normalized in our culture.  Sure, I know facts here and there, like mimosas are for brunch and Franzia comes in a box.

But I know absolutely nothing about the mechanics of drinking – how long it takes people to get drunk, how much water they should drink in between drinks, and when you should stop one of your friends from having another glass. I want to look out for my friends, but I don’t know how. One of my friends went to the hospital twice for alcohol poisoning. When I found out, I was really scared for her but I didn’t know what I could have done to help her if I had been there.

I don’t know a lot about the positive aspects of drinking, because, through health classes, rumors and the news, I’m constantly reminded of the negative consequences. From hearing classmates talk about how they can’t recollect three hours from their weekend, to a friend telling me about how a close friend got so drunk she was crying, stories I hear about the dangers of alcohol stick with me. And actual experiences often corroborate this, like a high school party where a friend took too many shots right after showing up and friends had to watch her and hand her water. I haven’t had enough positive interactions around alcohol to balance out my negative associations.

It took me a while to become comfortable with being around alcohol, and being around people while they’re drinking. I remember going to a friend’s birthday party sophomore year of college and being surprised that there was alcohol there. It was a very relaxed and low–key party, but it was a rare chance for me to meet up with a lot of friends I really enjoyed being around and I had a great time. I remember telling my mom about it afterwards and saying it was a good way for me to get used to being around alcohol without feeling nervous.

I’ve never felt like I’ve been missing out by not drinking. I’m not judging or criticizing people who drink or drink a lot – I’m as accepting of drinking as I want others to be accepting about the fact that I don’t. I have been around people who weren’t respectful of my choice not to drink. Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case at Penn, but at my previous college and when I studied abroad in England this past summer, many of my friends expressed shock, disbelief and even criticism at the fact I didn’t drink. I had one friend tell me she thinks everyone should drink, because everyone else does it.

I often get frustrated with how our culture assumes that everyone drinks, and imposes pressure that alcohol should be a regular part of everyone’s life. We need to move away from standardizing experiences, and from creating social pressures, particularly when it comes to something like drinking. Penn gets stereotyped as a drinking school, but I don’t think that’s the necessarily the case. My experience has been that there is an active drinking culture, but it’s not everywhere and it’s not everyone. I’ve found a pretty active non–drinking culture – and I didn’t have to look very hard.

I know it’s only going to get worse as I grow older. So much career networking and out–of–work socializing happens at happy hours and bars and if I’m uncomfortable with alcohol–related social events now, it’s going to be even more difficult when I have to deal with alcohol–related work events.
In the meantime, I’ll try to develop an affinity for sparkling apple cider and feel grateful I’ll never know what a hangover feels like.