New Zealanders like to celebrate, which means we really like birthdays. And ironically, the birthday we celebrate the most means nothing at all. The 21st. You can already join the army and drink and have sex, but it's a milestone because it's allegedly the point where you become an adult, for real.
And like any big milestone, we celebrate turning 21 with weird rituals. For girls, it's a photograph of you holding your shiny 2 and 1 balloons (so everyone knows, you are, in fact, 21). For guys, it's listening to your friends severely roast you about your "RnV antics" in front of your Aunt Sharon. And for both, it's sculling your bodyweight in alcohol, either via 21 shots or a yard glass.
Bingeing yourself to blackout in front of your nearest and dearest has become par for the course when you turn 21. It's like if you don't "coma," or vomit uncontrollably, you're a pussy.
The Drug and Alcohol Review released a study on Wednesday revealing the alcohol industry doesn't just encourage this kind of drinking, it relies on it. In fact, in higher income countries like New Zealand, the report says "heavy drinking occasions make up approximately 50 percent of sales."
Analysing data from the International Alcohol Control study, the New Zealand-led research team found that industry players consistently try to paint heavy drinking and alcohol-related harm as confined to a minority of drinkers, and critics of the unbridled commercialism of alcohol as "neo prohibitionist" killjoys.
Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams says we're not going to change until we recognise how deeply embedded alcohol is in our culture. "New Zealand has a long history contributing to our current attitudes and behaviours towards alcohol," she said. "These kind of environments mean it becomes difficult for people to know when their drinking is problematic and more difficult for them to seek help for the problems they encounter. It's a vicious cycle."
These attitudes aren't going anywhere soon. In fact the 21st practice is so normal that many upload their yardie video to social media. This may seem crazy, for future employment reasons alone, but in reality you share your yardie video for the same reason that you share any significant achievement in your life—you want everyone else to know it happened.
My friend Jason Gulasekharam posted his yardie on Facebook–it was filmed by his mum, dad, and grandma. Back then he told me even though he'd made average time, he was still pretty proud of his efforts. Jason acknowledges now how bizarre the tradition is, but says the external pressures were immense.
"That's just what you do when you're a guy and you turn 21. The quicker you do it the more 'masculine' you are, so doing it is just a massive ego thing. I didn't wanna be a 'little bitch' by not doing it. With everybody else is it's kinda obligatory."
Jason went on to explain that if you're unlucky enough to finish with a slow time (the seconds you take to drink a yardie) then you risk getting laughed at. "I kind of want to do it again to see if I can beat my time, but that's just my ego talking," he said.
I didn't see another friend, Tim Mills, down his yardie, but I heard from mutual friends that he made impossibly quick time–27 seconds to be exact. This made him something of an urban legend during 21st season, so I got in touch.
"I am pretty proud of it…To me it's the post-school beep test, it acts as the yardstick for who is a bigger drinker and more of a bloke. It shows that you are a lad and can sink piss."
"It becomes an achievement that Kiwi guys respect. Almost like a trophy. Saying it out loud sounds so cringe but it really is the reasoning behind it."
For girls, the motivation is less competitive, but the connotation that this is proof you can "sink piss" is certainly still there. At my friend Kate's* 21st, I watched her do 21 shots (five shots of tequila, the rest of a vodka mixer) during her speeches. She blacked out at 10 PM. Other than that though, she doesn't have any regrets.
"I will always wish I went out and celebrated later on, instead of spending my time over the toilet sleeping off the booze, but I still had an amazing first three quarters of my party."
Kate, who now lives in Australia, told me she's noticed that 21sts aren't as big a deal overseas as they are in New Zealand.
"I think NZ has a huge drinking culture and maybe that is why yardies are such a big deal over here. It would be seem crazy hire out a venue over here for a 21st but in NZ it's just normal."
She said while her parents didn't necessarily approve, they were certainly complicit in her excessive drinking.
Tim says his dad loved watching him "become a man."
"This is almost like the Kiwiana initiation into manhood, your family is there to witness it. My dad loved it because he saw it as me growing up I guess."
This seems to be the most concerning part. More times than I can count I have been among the group filing outside to watch the birthday boy chug his way to adulthood. Or laughed while a girl did one shot after another for every year she's been alive. Something that we should acknowledge as an antiquated practice that's far more dangerous than cool, like drink driving, is in fact so nationally accepted that even—like Jason—your grandma can watch.
In 2010, the New Zealand Law Commission report summarised our role in traditions like these, stating "New Zealanders have been too tolerant of the risks associated with drinking to excess." We've become so accustomed to this kind of drinking, that even though some of us might feel like it's wrong, we're resigned to remaining a silent observer.
So even if your fun-loving, blokey dad is cool with it or your grandma's standing there with a video camera, keep in mind that pulling out of a yardie/21 shots situation is always an option. At the very least, you could save yourself and those standing around you from five minutes—or even just 27 seconds—of some pretty serious discomfort.
Then again, you don't want to look like a little bitch.
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