"Does it ever make you self-conscious that you're the 'old lady' hanging out with all those kids?"
A friend asked me this a few weeks ago when I was telling her about the unexpected ways my life had panned out in Hong Kong. At the time I laughed it off, offering some quip about how I've always been an "old fart" and I may as well embrace it, blah blah blah. But the question burrowed a hole in my brain and stuck there long after our conversation ended.
By the way I'm 34, not 104. The way we regard age is so weird. But that's another post.
I am almost always the oldest person in the social groups I've wormed my way into over the past couple years living abroad. And while I've managed to make a couple friends my own age recently, mid twenty-somethings vastly outnumber the friends who actually get my HILARIOUS jokes about Who's the Boss? (say "An-ge-LA!" or "Mo-NA!" like Tony Micelli and you'll be happy all day long).
For a time, I was a little self-conscious about this, but I've gotten over it. More than gotten over it, I've found a new acceptance of my age, and place in life.
When my husband and I moved to Japan, it was so he could further his PhD studies while taking classes at an intense Japanese language school. I was excited to have the financial freedom (rent and cost of living was much lower for us in Yokohama) to pursue a new career full time. Plus yeah, I got to live in JAPAN.
The first time my husband and I gathered with his fellow his fellow Japan scholars, I was surprised to find that most of them — mostly masters and PhD students — were in their early to mid-20s. I don't know why this surprised me, the move from undergraduate to graduate school is often a smooth, continuous progression these days. The fact that my husband waited until his mid-thirties to start his PhD was and continues to be, a bit unusual in his scholarly circles.
So we were usually the "old folks" in the group. It didn't really bother me, more I was fascinated by the different ways an 8 to 12 year age gap made its way into interactions.
Oldies music to them? How could that be? Now that's what I called music in high school! (Okay, FINE. They're oldies now.)
There was a time, or so they'd heard, without computers on every lap, and cell phones on every ear (I just dated myself again — who makes calls?). I lived it, I could spin yarns about those days. They just looked at me with pity.
In turn, the speed with which someone only 10 years younger than myself can adapt to new trends in technology is breathtaking.
I know this is all well trodden territory in the "millennials are like..." discourse, but I'd never experienced the age gap first hand. While I'd always considered myself pretty quick to learn, and savvy when it came cultural and technological trends, I felt like a dial-up modem next to the shiny fiber optic speed of those 20-somethings.
But we got along. Age wasn't some glaring, uncomfortable difference like being an Alien Life Form — or "ALF" if you will. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Point being, age was no big whoop.
Hong Kong somehow evolved into a different beast.
Moving here, my husband and I did not have the built-in social infrastructure of academia. In many ways, this was the first time we were REALLY set loose in Asia. All we had was each other and the people who crossed our paths.
But bit by bit, I started meeting people. The first friend I met here was actually one of your fellow xoJane readers/commenters. Reaching out to me via email, I met a young American teacher living in Hong Kong. I'll call her Annie.
A generous and gregarious person, Annie readily folded me into her social circle. Singlehandedly, Annie gave me a social life, introducing to friends and experiences I otherwise never would have explored in Hong Kong.
If you're reading this, "Annie", thank you. Your wine and cheese nights saved me from going Full Hermit.
Annie is in her mid-20s, I am in my mid-30s. Most of her friends are her age or younger, therefore, when we hang out I'm again the oldest person there. This time around in Hong Kong, unlike Japan, it's not always so easy.
Through no fault of their own, I can't help but sometimes feel a disconnect from those 20-somethings. While we have much in common, we are at different places in our lives. Our worries may be similar, but our perspectives are different.
For example, money. Everybody has money woes, but they do tend to evolve as you age. How I worried about money at 25 is not the same way I worry about it now, and will not be the same as how I worry about it in my 40s, 50s, and beyond.
The same evolution can be said of relationships, the amount of fucks you give, and how many whiskey and sodas you can drink before the next day is spent wishing you could remove your head for a while and put it on ice.
For the most part, it's a matter of experience — if you have the privilege of aging, you tend to gather more of it.
But a funny thing happens with all that experience, at least for me. It can start to mutate, turn into something else. I started to worry that with all my 34 years of experience, I shouldn't be gallivanting around with some "upstart 20-somethings". Reading that now, it sounds so silly.
The experience, knowledge, and perspective I was falling back on started turning into something more sinister: comparison. Comparison to Annie and her friends, comparison to my friends back home who are my age.
Being the oldest person in a group of 20-somethings, living many of the same struggles and worries as them, I wondered if there was something wrong with me?
Was my life and/or career so stalled that I'd somehow REGRESSED into my 20s? Was I so immature a person that I was unable to find friends my own age? Should I be worried that I had been more financially stable in my 20s than I am now in my 30s?
I don't think there's a clear answer to these questions.
As my own harshest critic, yes, it is a bit worrisome that money is tighter for me now than it was at 27. I keep reading all over the wretched Internet that my 30s are supposed to be when I'm young AND financially stable — LIFE IS GRAND!
But that isn't so (for me and lots of people I know). And while there are times this wounds my possibly disproportionate ego, I have to remember that "perspective" I was harping about earlier.
I may have earned more money in my mid to late 20s, but I also worked myself into a nervous breakdown. I was in a career that felt hopeless to me, and I dreamed of doing what I do now.
Now I live in a place I love, I do what I love, and I share this life with the man I love. While I'm not swimming in Scrooge McDuck's money pool (am I the only one who thought that looked unpleasant?), I have enough money to live in a nice home and eat nice things. I worry about money a lot more than I did when I had an intern and a fancy title, but life excites me again, take that as you will.
On paper, it may seem like my life has regressed. I admit "life excites me" is all well and good, but it don't pay the bills. It's hard. I'd be lying if I said being "rich in experiences" always feels worth it. There are times I wish I didn't have to stress about whether to pay my Internet bill on time or hold out for the seven day grace period. It's times like that that I sometimes feel like a joke, that I wish I was like a "normal" 30-something and could afford a car. (It seems like everyone on Facebook is buying a car right now. What's up with that?)
But 90% of the time I'd rather be living this life than that other, more lucrative life I left. I don't have kids, I don't want kids, I don't have extravagant tastes, and I have the (relative) freedom to live as I choose.
Maybe I'm cutting myself too much slack, but after much thought (and berating myself for being "entitled", "bratty", "flakey", what have you) I don't think my life and career are stalled. I've just changed my plans a little later in life than the majority of people.
As a favorite professor once said to me when I told him I was moving to Japan, "You're living your youth in reverse. You did the 'grown up' job first, without all the questioning and soul-searching. NOW you're doing the stuff most people do in their 20s."
As for the question of maturity, and whether or not there's something "wrong" with me for making friends with a bunch of 20-somethings, the answer I came to was no.
Friends are friends. We draw strength from the uniqueness of our individual experiences (there's that word again) and we make navigating this increasingly difficult world more enjoyable, safer, less terrifying. Age is not a qualification for friendship, at least in my book. Why cut myself off from good people because of a number?
And frankly, as someone who is living the life of a freelance writer abroad, I have more in common with those "kids" as my friend described them, than a lot of the slick, established professionals that are closer to my age. No shade on them, but our paths just don't cross as often.
And no shade on me, or the company I keep.
So to answer my friend's question, after some long-winded soul-searching , "Yes, it made me self-conscious for a bit, but no, it doesn't anymore."
Life experience has lead me to these friendships, and that same experience has taught me to be at peace with them, myself. I have to believe I'm where I'm supposed to be, with the people I'm supposed to be with.