Nov. 27, 2012 — “How old are you?” asked the woman I had just met.
I took a deep breath, but answered honestly.
She smiled, clapped her hands and said, “So old! But I’m much older than you.”
This conversation would probably not have taken place in this country where it’s considered impolite to ask someone’s age on first introductions, but when I lived in China, it happened regularly.
I was in my forties when I lived there, that dubious time for a woman when we’re no longer young and the big 5-0 is looming, but, there’s a lot to be learned from a culture that doesn’t fear aging, and I think it helped me accept, and not deny, my own aging process.
One day one of my students, a beautiful young woman just finishing up her degree at Hainan University, asked me why, in America, we were so reluctant to talk about our age.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing to grow old and gain all that wisdom. I’ll be able to give younger girls advice and share what I’ve learned with them.”
I’ve since passed the 50 mark, and while I sometimes miss my younger self, I try to remember the lessons I learned from a culture where age, rather than youth, is revered.
It’s not always easy. Here aging is not seen for the natural process it is. We get face-lifts, liposuction, botox and spend a fortune on creams and lotions, anything to make us look younger than we are, and still the years march on.
It’s also difficult in the job market. Although, no place of employment is going to admit to age discrimination, most people over 50 will tell you it’s not as easy to find a job as it once was. I count my blessings to have one.
Since my black hair began graying while I was still in my early 30s, I probably had to confront aging sooner than some. When people started guessing my age at about 10 years older than I was, I ran to the store and picked up a bottle of dye. First I dyed my hair back to its natural black, and then I went to a lighter brown. For a few years I was a redhead. Finally, when the gray really started to take over, I went blond.
Then, just before my 50th birthday, I’d had enough. I cropped off my long hair, tossed the dye and decided to see what I looked like without artifice.
And I’m quite fine with it.
Occasionally, someone will tell me I would look younger if I just colored my hair, and maybe I would, but at this point in my life, I’d rather spend my time and money on other things.
Maybe the best thing about getting older, though, is the acceptance that comes with age. If I wanted to dye my hair purple, put a ring through my nose and wear orange boots that would be okay too. We women in our 50s have earned the right to whatever style we want.
Other more substantial changes have come about, too. I’ve made enough mistakes that I’m not so quick to judge others for theirs. I make more conscious choices rather than react to everything around me, and often those choices are to simply not engage in exchanges that don’t seem constructive or that don’t interest me. I try to put more energy into what’s right with the world, instead of what’s wrong.
And when I look in the mirror and see a head of gray hair, lines around my eyes, and the ones I cherish most — my laugh lines, I just tell myself I’ve earned every one of them.
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