Thursday, January 21, 2010

Aging: It's a Cultural Thing

Last night in my ESL class, we had two new students. As we were going around making introductions ("My name is... I am from...") one of the older (meaning in the class from the start of the school year) students, who's originally from China, turned to one of the newer students -- a guy who's probably in his twenties -- and said, "How old are you?"

My jaw dropped, as did my co-teacher's. And since our job is to educate in American culture as well as English language, we gently explained that in the US it's not considered polite to ask about age.

Now it was the Chinese student's turn to be shocked. "You don't ask? Why not?"

Hmmm... How do you explain that one?

Uh...well, you see, we live in an ageist, youth-worshiping society, and sometimes people like to pretend that they're younger than they are...

Instead we just explained that in the US people sometimes don't like to talk about how old they are and left it at that. She was still shocked.

I found myself thinking (as I frequently do after these classes) about cultural differences. About why it's okay to ask about age in China. Yes, it's partly because older people are respected more. But it also occurred to me that in China people are defined by their birth year ("Oh, you're year of the dog? I'm year of the bull.") This would make it a standard conversational topic, on par with weather here. Or at least with birthdays and astrological signs.

On this topic, at this point in my life? I think I'd rather be Chinese.

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