HOW OLD IS OLD?


Navajo Grandmother “NAVAJO GRANDMOTHER” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

I was raised to believe that asking another person’s age was as bad as asking how much money they had in the bank. Kids did it. Polite grownups did not. It was one’s personal business, not to be shared. I don’t know what they believed anyone was going to do with this information if we somehow let it slip.

Some years ago I began practicing Tai Chi each morning at the crack of dawn in the park. My face was the only non-Asian, and was clearly the oldest face in the group, although there were plenty with more wrinkles.

From day one, as each came to meet me, their opening question was “How old are you”? At first I felt this to be an invasion of privacy, or at the very least, an indication of the category in which they placed me.

A young friend has been teaching English in Beijing for several years. During his first year he was taken aback as people stepped into his “privacy zone” and looked him up and then down. Another cultural difference. So this is the box where the asking of one’s age is placed.

These days I’m different. You can find out a lot about someone by knowing his age and where he grew up.

You can find out what kind of music he grew up with, what presidents shaped his political opinions, even what kind of clothes were in fashion. Did she wear poodle skirts or hot pants? Did he wear knickers or polyester leisure suits? A well known haberdasher and dear friend used to sport pale blue leisure suits open at the neck with a gold chain. You may say “How gauche”, but it actually WAS the fashion.

Where were you when certain life-changing events took place? I’ll bet you remember where you were when JFK was assassinated, don’t you? Or when John Glenn landed on the moon? I know where I watched all the newscasts. Glued to to TV set and as it happened, I was painting a watercolor each time.

Now that I am the one asking how old you are, it places you in a certain place in your life, and that’s what I really want to know. I want to know you, and I know that’s what you want to know too when you ask the question.

Whereas in most of my early life I was the youngest person in the group, now I reside in the other realm—to my great-grandchildren, I am probably the oldest person they have known. I hope I pass muster.

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