Age in Asia

I’m twenty six. I have no problem with my age – it’s a nice balance between youth and the full weight of adulthood.
But no one in Asia seems to get it right. Ever. Since I moved to China in 2008/2010 I’ve had people guess that I was anywhere from 17 to 50. Yep, you read that right: seventeen to fifty. . When I was actually seventeen, most people thought I was twenty-three. I’d read a lot of classical literature, had a tendency to wear suit jackets with jeans, and held quasi-informed opinions on everything from politics to philosophy. In college most people just guessed I was in college. But in China it was weird.
Back in 2008 I was 20 and worked for a cultural group nominally under control of the ministry of culture. I was too young to work, and on a student visa, but it didn’t really seem to matter (as I was, after all, working for e government in an age when Chinese-speaking foreigners were still hard to find). My supervisor decided I was born in 1986 or 1984, and most people seemed to find this pretty plausible as I looked young, but had a job with a decent number of responsibilities.
Two years later during my first week of teaching in rural Yunnan with Teach for China I let my students guess my age. They weren’t very good at it. Most people got somewhere in the twenty to thirty mark; but one kid guessed eighteen, another fifty, and a few forty-something. In Yunnan in general people were just bad at guessing foreigners’ ages – I suppose because there were few foreigners, and American movies don’t exactly portray age accurately (have you ever noticed how every female character from high school to mom-with-three-kids look roughly the same age?). It probably didn’t help that we physically looked young, and did young things (like biking and trekking all over the mountains), but dressed to fit our role as teachers in a conservative community.
My next year was spent in Guangzhou, where ninety percent of women strive to maintain perpetual youth. Even women at work who were in their thirties wore hipster glasses and cute t-shirts, makeup calculated to exaggerate the roundness of their oh-so-dewy eyes. The A-Level school I worked at eventually issued IDs and required all the Chinese staff to wear them – so the thirty-years-olds wouldn’t be mistaken for their teenage students. And it wasn’t just the teachers. Within a half-kilometer radius of my apartment complex there were no fewer than ten beauty salons, many of them specializing in plastic surgery, wrinkle removal and skin-whitening.I was then twenty-three, but most people guessed I was around twenty-six or seven.
My last year in China I lived in Urumqi, Xinjiang, on the far western side of the country. Because I spoke decent, accent-less Chinese most people just assumed I was Russian (if they were Uyghur) or Uyghur (if I was Russian) – but that’s another story. It wasn’t just that they mistook my ethnic identity – suddenly everyone seemed to think I was a first year college student. At the university where I worked several times I had middle-aged Uyghur women snarl at me to get off the teachers’-only elevator (I responded in English and they always gasped at their faux pas and hid their head in the corner the rest of the ride). It was pretty easy to see where they were mistaken – while Chinese teachers dressed in shirts and skirts I abandoned at eight and one of my Chinese students even wore a onesie to class, Uyghur women at the school dressed in somber blacks and towns with long skirts and square-shouldered jackets reminiscent of 1942. Uyghur students plied themselves with makeup (one of my male students drew a comparison with Lady Gaga) and dressed in sharp blacks and silvers, kind of goth Lady Gaga meets Eddie Izzard’s executive transvestite and have a go at a Paris runway, but covered head to toe. The dark makeup and heavy hairstyles made the girls look a lot older, and fresh-faced was something one associated with youth. Hence, I looked very, very young. And being assumed young in a culture where youth is viewed as frivolous was not always very pleasant.
Bishkek is another story. I had one woman tell me she thought I must be thirty after looking at my cv. I’ve also been asked whether or not I was at least eighteen while trying to buy beer at the grocery store on perhaps a half dozen occasions. They don’t ask if you look over the legal age, and I don’t often buy beer. When I was teaching at the university I once had the cleaning lady tell me not to use the teacher’s restroom if I was a student. But women here – even Uyghur minorities – don’t dress in a way that makes them look much older. Like Guangzhou, beauty shops with fresh-faced Asian beauties (mostly Korean) abound, even if plastic surgery is not yet common. Women seek after youth, and the first few times I was mistaken for being so young I felt a bit offended.
But then I realized – it’s not me. It’s the culture. Here women age faster, and tend to look tired. Most women in Bishkek marry between ages 20 and 24. By my age they have at least one child, if not two. A lot of Russian women smoke. Add to this the stress of dealing with high levels of drinking among men, and struggles to stay fiscally afloat, and women my age generally look a lot more worn down. The few non-married women above the age of twenty five I do know in Bishkek similarity look much younger than their married counterparts.
Though age is a sensitive issue for western women, I’ve learned to take it less as a reflection of myself than of the culture I’m living in – what does the age people mentally assign me say about women’s aspirations, about power leverage between people, about expectations concerning when people will play different roles in their life.


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