I became bold lately: by posting online photos of a few fun and seemingly challenging Yoga poses I did at home the other day, I made it known to my Facebook friends that I turned 50 this year. Yes, that number in all caps–FIFTY. On May 13th, I celebrated this half century milestone quietly with my family— no drama, no hype, just like many other birthdays I had celebrated in the past. But why such a big deal now? Well, lately I have given some serious thoughts about what turning 50 means to me, and often I find myself dancing around the two radically different cultures about youth, age and mortality.
Last June, my family took a trip to the beautiful Croatia. Swimming in the crystal clear Adriatic Sea, strolling along the gorgeous Dalmatian coast, indulging on hearty Mediterranean food…I enjoyed every minute of the incredible experience. Unprompted, my then 10-year-old son took a picture of me and my husband standing on a rock against the magnificent Dalmatian coastline. Both clad in swimming suits—me a one-piece cover-all and him a simple swimming trunk, we looked happy and healthy. Excited, I posted the photo on my Facebook wall. A friend of mine–a younger, fun-loving and quintessential Yogi girl, teased me about not wearing a bikini. Ever so conscious and embarrassed, I immediately took down that photo. “Come on, you are 50, and you are not the centerfold of “Sports Illustrated”!” I kept hearing that roaring voice in my head—that inner Chinese voice which was so strong and condemning as if I had done something seriously inappropriate. On top of that, an amplified version of the voice only an introvert could hear ten times louder.
Here are the points I want to make. You see, in my “old” culture, the one in which I was born and deeply-rooted, a woman does not have to feel pained or embarrassed to reveal her age. As a matter of fact, she gains certain privilege and respect with each year advancing to the next. Wisdom and experience count, we say. “The bridges we have crossed are more than the roads you have paved” is something we would often hear from older women, be our mothers or grandmothers. While commanding respect is admirable for an older woman, the idea of being older has also added a certain expectation in a twisted way. No longer a risk taker, an older woman is expected to be less daring but more complacent. The vitality, the energy, the passion, the curiosity…all things associated with youth and being young are lost in the years. Light has dimmed, curtain has closed–life has become less dynamic but more static. “I am old” has become a trademark excuse for many of us who take a comfortable back seat, watching exciting and exuberant life unfolding right in front of our eyes. If we are lucky and get upgraded into grandmotherhood, we are expected to immerse ourselves happily in the joy of taking care of our grandchildren, as if an older woman’s life can only be extended through her children and her children’s children. I often feel ambivalent and perhaps a bit heavyhearted about my role when I get to that “not so inspiring” age. Sigh…
Now enter my “other” culture, the one which I adopted 25 years ago and have since adapted to, more or less. This is a culture that embraces and celebrates youth wholeheartedly. Being young means being fabulous, beautiful, sexy, full of life, and most importantly, being desirable. The consumer market targets the young ones–have we not noticed that Victoria Secret’s models are all 18 or 20 year olds? The media focus on the glamorous but plastically reconstructed ones—have we not noticed that many familiar faces in Hollywood and on television all have frozen smiles, puffy lips and stretchy eye lids? The pop culture tailgates closely the ins and outs of the Kardashian clan—have we not noticed that these women are the epitome of narcissism but lack of substance? Alas, the list can go on and on and on.
Talking about another kind of expectation…A few days ago I made an appointment for my annual mammogram. Upon taking down my name and age over the phone, the receptionist asked me a question that almost floored me: “Do you have any breast implants that I should be aware of?” Not sure if I wanted to laugh, cry or do both, I replied with a bitchy sense of humor: “So if I tell you that my breasts are 100% of my own, does it make me an unwanted 50-year-old outlier?” I could hear the uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line, and then she said, “Well, I have to ask you this just because…” I have no hard statistics on how many women these days choose to have breast implants for cosmetic reasons, but I can easily believe the numbers are increasing.
It reminds me of a Facebook profile I’ve stumbled upon recently while researching for my blogs. A woman turned 50. She opted to have a facelift and posted photos of its entire procedure online—from having her face cut open, to her chin pulled tight, and to her skin stitched back together… Never comfortable seeing blood, I quickly skimmed through the pictures, but paid close attention to the many comments other women wrote on her post. “Inspirational”, “brave”, “courageous”, “role model,” “trailblazer,” “paving the way” are just a few examples of the overwhelmingly positive feedbacks she received. I am not here to judge as she may have many reasons behind her decision. But honestly I still can’t quite process why a woman goes so far as to self-inflict permanent scars and then hide them behind the ears and under the chins, just in exchange for a less-wrinkled forehead or more stretched-out cheeks?! It is lost on me. Besides, what’s so bad about having a few extra lines on our faces? It is called life and living.
But here is the thing. We live in a society where women are expected to look and behave younger than we are. Judging and self-judging has become part and parcel of our life. If an older age is the sole culprit of a man’s wandering eyes, or can hurt the potential love life prospect or squelch the hope of getting promoted at work, then who wants to show the sign of aging? Perhaps we will not be surprised at why a woman would carefully guard her age and forever celebrate the 29th birthday? Perhaps we will understand why a woman would resort to extreme measures to modify, enhance and repair her otherwise beautiful face? Sigh…
So what does turning 50 mean to me? Well, to me 50 is not the new 20, it is not the new 30, and it is certainly not the new 40. Don’t get me wrong. 20, 30, and 40, these are all wonderful years–so much to dream about, so much to aspire to, so much to cry over…but none has allowed me to fully be me. At 20, I was riddled with self-doubt, at 30 I pursued relentlessly the “American Dream”– whatever that was, and at 40 I walked gingerly between the fine line of a career and new motherhood… I’ve searched. I’ve paused. I’ve examined. I’ve let go. Finally I have gained the ability to see life from a different perspective. It’s like in Yoga, our constant inhaling and exhaling have finally brought us to the point where we can feel the whole being of ourselves. Yes, the whole being–this is the 50 I am having and aspired to have. Simply put–to do, to say, to be.
I am lucky to have lived and experienced two cultures where a woman’s roles and identities crisscross. It allows me to reflect on both, weave together the wisdom of both, and also critique the nonsense of both. It broadens my view on differences: rather than dismissing them, I empathize with them, and most importantly, I embrace them.
The new 50 allows me to continue to challenge myself in the context of myself. I often gush at the impeccable Yoga poses some of my younger Yogi girlfriends can do—the grace, the beauty, the strength, the power, the artistic expression… I can only dream of. If these are not artwork made out of human bodies, nothing else is. I cheer for my friends and cheer for their incredible artistic and athletic capabilities, but I no longer try to be like them. I probably would if I were in my 20s or 30s, but not in my 50s. I still do all these crazy Yoga poses –the wheel, the grasshopper, the flip-the-dog, the hand stand, the pretzel like twists and turns I can’t even name … I try, I fall, I try again, and I fall again. Some days are better than others. I will keep trying, but at the same time I will not sweat if I need to use one arm to fake my grasshopper pose or if my back bends are not as bendy as say, 5 years or even 1 year ago. But in the end, I only challenge myself, and I see the changes in me.
The new 50 allows me to rethink what’s more important in life and be able to say “to hell with the societal norm.” I still work as hard as ever before, strive to be the sought-after subject matter expert at work, and will not give up my career for the sake of anybody else, but I no longer aim to obtain a crown jewel of a glamorous corporate title like VP or SVP. I won’t feel pained to see younger women, and even encourage and help them, to step ahead to fulfill their career ambition. But if there is a schedule conflict between my son’s piano recital and a corporate function, I will not by a heart beat miss the opportunity to watch him perform on stage.
The new 50 allows me to relax and enjoy myself more. I still watch what I eat and manage my body weight, but I also indulge myself from time to time with calorie-loaded and sugar-laced junk food and then work twice as hard to get back in shape. Even if I can’t get back in shape quickly–hell, the ever slowing down metabolism at this age–I won’t feel ashamed to have a few extra pounds sit stubbornly on my love handle, saggy belly, or that politically incorrect location–fat butt. There is just more to love myself. Besides, paper thin body is not a vocabulary we “older women” should feel elated when talking about mature elegance.
The new 50 allows me to inject a sense of humor into the otherwise all too consuming menopause. That bitchy hormonal roller-coaster ride—the mood swing, the hot flash, the out-of-mind forgetfulness, and the extreme fatigue, a full spectrum of discomfort and embarrassment. I used to think I was invincible until a few months ago when I had completely transformed from a night owl to an early riser. And I still need more rest. Hey I am not ashamed to admit it. Still I loved turning 50.
The new 50 also allows me to fear less, mind you, only FEAR LESS not FEARLESS, about the prospect of getting to that extremely advanced age one day. I may not be able to enjoy a full range of the things I used to take for granted, I may not be as sharp intellectually as I used to be, and I may have to trade my independence with reliance on other people’s help. But for now, I choose not to dwell on a mere number; rather, I will only marvel at and be thankful for “What a ride I have had!”
I have no plans to hide my years, no matter how advanced they get. This is the beauty and benefits of getting old and I look forward to the second half of my life!