Last week I became the next Executive Director for the Vietnamese Friendship Association. One of the things I’ve had to wrestle with–especially as a young and new Executive Director–is the age difference between me and a lot of veteran leaders in this field and community. I’ve previously written about a generational gap and what we can do to support emerging leaders in our community.
While I believe I have the skills and experience to guide the organization and be a strong advocate in the community, I’ve also found that looking older affords me instant street cred.
In the Asian culture, there’s a strong association between age, experience and respect. In some ways, this is reflected in American culture as well–like when we hang on to every sweet word Morgan Freeman says. Naturally, we assume that those who are older have more experience (knowledge or wisdom…) and thus deserve more respect.
Don’t get me wrong, people with experience and knowledge and wisdom deserve our respect. In fact, we owe our unqualified respect to every human being we meet. However, for a young Asian American professional, the perceptions of age and youth are still very challenging to overcome precisely because of cultural expectations. I can’t tell you the number of times people have mistaken me for a high school student. Do you know how hard it is to run an organization when everyone thinks you’re a volunteer? It’s defeating–like being down 16-0 at half time.
At times, I have found myself changing the way I look, the way I talk, even the way I walk, in order to project the appearance that I’m older. It is exhausting! To my fellow Asian Americans, if you’re finding it hard to get the respect and opportunities you need to succeed, try one of these tricks below to “enhance” your age and get you on the fast track for success.
Rule #1: Become a doctor. Just kidding. That’s a terrible idea.
Start smoking! There was a study that compared identical twins, “one of which had been smoking for at least five years longer than the other.” They found that “smokers’ upper eyelids drooped while the lower lids sagged, and they had more wrinkles around the mouth.” Basically, all I took out of this study was that smokers looked older and therefore got more respect!
Visit a tanning booth: Can’t afford a lifetime of smoking? Tanning beds are your next best option. They instantly add years to your age. You can take a quick nap inside one of these and wake up ten years older! Btw, for those who care about “science,” tanning beds emit an unsafe concentration of UVA rays which is damaging to your skin and can lead to skin cancer. Worth it?
Wear hipster glasses: Whenever I walk into a meeting where I want to look older and wiser, I put on my favorite pair of thick rimmed hipster glasses. These glasses add between 2-4 years to my appearance. In Asian years, I’ll look equivalent to the age of an undergrad. Ok fine! Middle schooler…
Dress Professionally: A friend and mentor once told me that I need to come into meetings well-dressed. Not suit and tie per say, but respectable, which meant no jeans or t-shirts. “You never know who you’re going to run into at these meetings,” he said. “So you don’t want them to think you’re a student.” He had a good point.
Eat lots of junk food: Researchers have found that high levels of phosphates accelerate signs of aging. Where does one get phosphates? Sodas and processed foods! So this is an easy win. If you want to look older, simply park it on the couch, turn on the tv and grab a Coke and a smile.
Practice effective sleep deprivation: WebMC writes that “chronic sleep loss can lead to lackluster skin, fine lines, and dark circles under the eyes.” It’s true. Ask any stressed out millennial; they look like they’re already nearing retirement age. Toss in some hipster glasses, and you’re basically telling the world you’re ready for an early grave.
Become an Executive Director: This is my first ED role and already the number of grey hairs on my head have increased by 30%; I’m waking up with back pain; and I’m pretty sure the hearing in my right ear is starting to go out. Bottom line: If you really want to fast track looking older, then become an Executive Director.
Wear a turtleneck: Turtlenecks are so effective at making you look older, even Justin Beiber does it. Check out the before and after photo below. He instantly goes from a baby to a solid 8 years old.
Just to be clear, most of these are pretty terrible ideas if you want to look older–except maybe dressing professional and wearing hipster glasses. They are actually safe and effective.
The truth is, we shouldn’t need to change who we are in order to confirm to other people’s expectations. Young professionals have all the skills and talents needed to make meaningful contributions to their work and community. We just need opportunities! Next week I’ll share how I have personally navigated these complex social and professional situations.
In the mean time, I’d love to hear everyone’s experience with age and youthfulness. Has it impacted your work? Do other people perceive you differently? Are you getting the right opportunities? What’s your relationship been like with bosses or managers? Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.