I Look Young

November 16, 2009

A few years back (maybe four or five years ago), I went to the corner store to pick up a case of beer. The nice old Korean lady that ran the place took my id and looked at me. Then back at the id. Then back at me. Then back at the id again. And then she asked me, "do you have Asian in you?"

I replied, "Yeah, actually, my mom is Chinese."

And she said, "of course, of course – you cannot look like you do and be your age without having Asian blood."

I smiled, took my beers, and walked out of the store.

Of course, there were two pieces of information conveyed to me that evening that weren’t actually new to me at all: 1) I look quite a bit younger than I actually am.* 2) My Asian blood contributes to that youthful appearance.

These are two facts that I have lived with and been aware of for the majority of my conscious life. My boss’ (at the middle school) favorite joke was to take visitors by my class to see what we were up to and tell them, "It’s hard to tell, but that’s the teacher over there." My friends of color and I would always talk about how good it was to have melanin, because it helped us age so much more gracefully than those without.

Over and over again – I look very young, and it’s because of my Asian blood. I have Chinese blood, so I look much younger than I actually am. Years and years and years. You get the point?

So it took me by surprise at my first interview here in Shanghai when the lady (Chinese, obviously) said, "How old are you?" in a shocked tone of voice (this is after she had read through my resume and seen my many years of experience). When I told her I was 29, she could only say, "But you look so young."

And, in my head, I was thinking, ‘But I’m in freaking China now, where everyone has full Asian blood – how can she think I’m so young? Must be a fluke.’

But let’s just keep it brief and say – it wasn’t. Interview after interview: "How old are you? . . . But you look so young." Random Chinese folks in the street, "You’re a teacher? You mean you’re a student, right? You’re how old? But you look so young." Every Chinese person I meet has the same reaction – they think I can’t possibly be older than 25 at the most, probably a few years younger than that.

So what’s going on? As long as I’ve been aware of how young I look for my age, I’ve "known" that it’s because of my Chinese blood. And, suddenly – it’s not. Not at all. Chinese folks don’t believe my age.

I don’t know what to think, then. Why do I look so young? It’s not because of my white side. It’s not because of my Chinese side. Could it be the mixing? Do most mixed folks age well? Or is it just random? My mom looks much younger than she is . . . but I guess that’s not because she’s Chinese – just lucky genes, in general.

Many of you probably don’t understand why this is such a big deal to me. If I look young, I look young – so why would that change just because I’m in another country? Signs of age and youth are generalizable to all humanity, so it should follow that I would appear "young" wherever I went in the world – and that just held true. So why the surprise?

Because race is such a constant factor when you live with it in the U.S. You can never escape it. So many different life experiences and ways of being become tied to our racial identification (at least for those of us with some color) that it becomes second nature to attribute various realities to our racial backgrounds. I can’t go a day without thinking about my phenotype and racial make-up in the U.S. (or, possibly, anywhere else), and so it only becomes natural to connect different ways in which I am "other" to my main "otherness" – my race.

I have a problem trusting people and feeling accepted? Must be due to how I’ve stood out, visually. I’m better able to "code-switch" and get along with different groups and cultures? Probably because of my mixed-heritage. I look much younger than all these white folks around me of the same age? Must be my Chinese blood.

It’s a wake-up call, in a way. If my youthful appearance isn’t due to my Chinese blood, what else might not be due to my ethnic combination? How much of the way I’ve ended up is actually just due to my random genetically-inherited personality and physical characteristics and not because of racial experiences?

In Psychology, you learn about people’s "personal narratives." In brief, these are the stories we create about our own lives and experiences. They’re based on what actually happened, but we have a tendency, as human beings, to want to find themes and connections – and so our brain tries to find a way to explain our own personalities and life-paths through a narrative structure. An example being the "rags to riches" story – where a "self-made" man or woman will tell their story (and even remember their lives) through the context of pulling themselves up all on their own, conveniently forgetting all those lucky breaks that actually had nothing to do with their own hard work. Got the job through a friend? Well, that was because of their networking abilities and jumping on opportunities, and not nepotism, etc.

And the crazy thing is – we fully believe those personal narratives. Our brain "forgets" things or actually changes our memories to fit the structure we’ve created in our heads. It happens all the time. It’s common human behavior. We’re a species that constantly looks for patterns – and is very good at finding them, even when they’re not there.

So . . . I look young, but not because I’m Chinese. That very clearly goes against the narrative I’ve created for myself. Which now makes me ask . . . what else might go against the narrative I’ve created if I really examine it? How much of my experiences have absolutely nothing at all to do with my mixed-blood? What has my brain created to make me believe that so many have?

That’s the new question I must ask myself. Now, and from here on.

Because I look young.

But not because I’m Asian.

* When I was 24, I was working at a middle school, and a random college student who was trying to run an after-school class tried to sign me up. When I told her, "Um, I don’t think I’m eligible," she still didn’t understand and told me, "but it’s going to be so COOL."

babyface grown sexy



  1. Nice food for thought. Cool questions. I’ll have to ask myself that too.

    As for the looking young thing, I’m fully Asian (though mixed) and I can often pass as being 5-15 years younger than my actual age depending on who I’m with at the time (other teenagers, colleagues, etc). But in my case, I’ve known that I actually do look young (baby face?) since my sister rarely gets told she looks younger than her age when we’re the same ethnic/racial make up.

  2. I see what you mean about how this could change so many things about one’s personal narrative. I feel like the “melanin makes you look younger” mentality creates an additional perk to being a person of color. A “Take that!’ in the face of racist society… but it is true that it tends to be specific people who look young.

    Maybe it is attitude? Young at heart, young exterior? Or we are lucky m.f.’s and should just be thankful : )

    I still get the why are you in the hall during class time look at high schools on occasion. Its really weird.

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