In a few weeks, I’ll be on the wrong side of my mid-30s.
You know, the over the hill and halfway down the other side end. The one with the great big pile of Sisyphean boulders stacked carelessly at the bottom. The unfashionable end. The one traditionally lacking in glitter and shiny things. The end that’s that much closer to 40- whatever 40 means these days. I’m not really sure any more. It used to be a pretty firm indicator that a person was a grown up but I’m starting to have my doubts.
According to my mother, I’m still in my mid to late 20s and will likely remain there until I qualify for the pension I’ll never be able to claim because I’ve spent my entire adult life as a transient (one step up from hobo according to Revenue Canada, I believe). I know that for me every age beyond 28 didn’t quite feel real, as if those numbers belonged to someone else’s identity. For a few years in my mid-30s I actually lost track and honestly couldn’t remember if I was 33 or 35. How can I be grown up when I have no house or car or even furniture to call my own? No marriage or kids or stable job, home or city or even country. I’ve started over so many times that I always feel like I’m just at the beginning. When will I feel my age and what should my age feel like?
When I went home to Canada this summer, I had a long talk with one of my friends from Istanbul who moved to Vancouver when I moved to Shanghai. We are the same age, separated by only a few months, and have had a very similar life trajectory: lots of sudden halts and shifts and detours and careless whims. Dozens of countries were involved. Many jobs, many flats, many shifting circles of friends. We both suddenly realized at 37 that we were no longer technically young and able flit about accordingly, starting over endlessly if the need be. We were now seen as grown ups by people that we forgot were younger than us. We were no longer the young ones, it seemed. We were the adults. It was a very weird feeling, as if we were impostors, unqualified for the job.
These days, increasingly, people assume I am married and commiserate when I say I have no kids. My hypothetical husband and theoretical kids are frequently the first things that are brought up in situations with people I’ve just met. This is especially true in conversations with locals here in Shanghai, as the idea of being over 30 and unmarried and childless is simply unfathomable or at the very least, highly unlikely. During the flurry of formal guanxi-building banquets I had to attend back in May and June, my imaginary family life was toasted dozens of times by representatives from various local government agencies. I never knew how to politely correct them. I can’t quite fathom that I’m even old enough to get married or have kids.
Sexual harassment has eased up considerably in the past few years, something I’m happy to say goodbye to, but also wondering if I’m suddenly too decrepit and invisible to entice even the assholes out there. I no longer feel pressure to look trendy and pretty in a twenty- something way but I do grieve that I had never actually had that chance to begin with. Now that I look older, the chance is gone to ever be lithe, adorable, cool in a culturally sanctioned way. Not that I ever was to begin with. I was a massive dork back then too.
I am frustrated by the fact that my face and body are not necessarily reflecting who I think I am. I look tired and haggard more often than I’d like, though I blame the fact that I’m juggling 3 jobs and mild insomnia right now for that. I am still bewildered when I am treated with a degree of respect and authority upon meeting people, rather than as the rather dubious flake that I am convinced that I am.
One thing I have found surprisingly liberating about getting older is that I no longer feel pressure to look like a 20 year old. Because I’m not. At 20, I didn’t even look like an acceptable 20 year old. Now I have an excuse. At 20, most people I met thought I was 30 and I didn’t correct them because they were around 30 too and I didn’t want to mess up their honest perception of me. Because I was decontextualized– travelling through countries, settling in for a year or two at most– there were no external cues by which they could judge my chronological position in life. I liked that. It was liberating.
When I first arrived in Shanghai in 2009, one of my students confided in me about how old and frustratingly out of touch one of their other teachers was. ‘How old are they?’ I asked. Thirty, she said. Impossibly geriatric. Practically dead from advanced age. I was 35, I said, and her jaw dropped, eyes bugged. She refused to believe me. Not because I didn’t look 35. I did. I had looked 35 since I was 25. But because I acted like me rather than a number. I dressed like me rather than like a predetermined stage of life. When I do speaking tests these days, I find myself noting when checking ID cards that I now consider anyone born before 1985 as old– because here, quite frequently, that is old. The test candidates who were born in, say, 1980 or 1977 or whatever, act and dress as if they were a decade older than me.
In my metaphorical group portrait, the one containing all the different incarnations of me, I am not older than the me who was in London or Kayseri or Cape Town or Galway. I am just the one who lives in Shanghai and who has a slightly different hair cut and a different wardrobe. I’m the version with the slightly funkier shoe collection than the others, due to not living out of a backpack for 5 years. This version of me has a thing for funky shawls and actually wears blue. I never used to wear blue. This one wears mary-janes not Doc Martens. Different but not necessarily older.
They say your thirties are better because you have the self assurance that was lacking in your twenties but I am weighed down by an awareness of all the accumulated crap I’ve dealt with and I find it much harder to be elated and excited and inspired now. The self assurance comes from having gone through a lot of stupid, stressful, difficult times (repeatedly) and doing very challenging things that now feel very matter of fact. I miss the doubt followed by amazement. I find it really hard to feel proud of what I’ve accomplished, as those things were done by a totally different version of me. You know, the Turkey me or the Ireland me or the Canada me. This current me is just starting out in Shanghai. Barely a toddler.
Given that I’ve so far inadvertently failed to accept chronological time (and the expectations that go with it) as it exists, I’m pleased to accept the idea that I am officially free to be whatever age I want to be. I intend to be 5. Or maybe 11. With a dash of 86, for good measure.