Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, September 29, 2014

Age Old Questions

I am starting this blog post on day 10 of a 12 day Round the World trip. I just boarded the Shinkansen in Tokyo. In a little over 2.5 hours I will be in Osaka. Hopefully in less than an hour I will see Fuji san (aka Mt Fuji). It is always hard to predict from the weather in Tokyo whether Fuji san will be hiding in the clouds or reveal herself.

Unfortunately Fuji san was hiding this time so I can only show an old picture

Watching the Japanese “urban countryside” rush by usually puts me in a reflective mood and today is no different.

I was a relatively young man when I started traveling the world but as the years pass I find myself on the upper end of the age spectrum in meetings. During my first trips to Japan, I often was 20 years younger than the people I was meeting or negotiating with. The logical part of my brain and the mirror tell me I am getting older but I keep waiting to “feel” it with the exception of a gimpy right knee worn down by decades of morning runs.

For some reason in the past several days I have been asked my age in four countries. Being asked your age in Asia is more common than in the US. In Japan age is more closely linked to rank in a company than it is in the US. In general, older people are treated with more respect in Confucian societies than in America so the age thing isn’t all bad.

The first time I was asked about my age in the recent past didn’t bother me because it was on my home golf course in North Carolina and a Japanese playing companion who is bigger and stronger than I am noted that my drives were 10 to 15 yards past his on almost every hole. Finally on the back nine, he said “Joe-san, may I ask your age?” “Showa san-ju-ni nen”  I responded stating the year of my birth in terms of the reign of the emperor at that time. He did the five second calculation and said “wow!! ”. “Yes, I am that old” I said but had the last laugh on the scorecard.

Looking back, my biggest age crisis came when I turned 19. My life seemed to have rushed by and I viewed the onset of “20” with trepidation. Age 30 was noted but since my 10K times were still dropping, it didn’t bother me. I didn’t even take note of 40 and 50 didn’t seem like a big deal until many of my younger peers told me it was hard for them to accept that I could be 50. “You will get your turn soon enough" was all I  could say.

The year I turned 50 we went on a family holiday to Viet Nam. On New Year’s eve my wife entered me in a kayak race which turned out to be several. That is, since I won my first heat, I moved on to the next the round and the next. I wound up in the finals with a 25 year old and was a length ahead half way through the race only to be nudged out at the finish line. A few hours later I was reading a book by the pool when I suddenly felt four shadows looming over me. A delegation of young hotel workers had come to congratulate me on my kayak exploits in the nearby river. Their English was ok but they struggled to find the right words to explain my failure at the finish line. “We were really impressed, you know you if, if, if you …..” I said: “don’t worry I understand - if I wasn’t so damm old I would not have lost at the end”. Well since I had brought it up they confirmed – “yes, that is right for somebody your age, you were impressive”. I stood up, smiled and said “thanks – I think”.

Last weekend, I met someone I knew ten years ago when I lived in Japan. We shared a meal and caught up on our lives. As we were saying goodbye, he said “how old are you now?" I was caught a little off-guard, stated my age and then wondered to myself why he asked.

The final blow in the recent round of age questions came early this week. I was at a Starbucks with some people I used to work with.  I mentioned meeting one of the senior executives in their company a few days earlier in Shanghai. They wondered aloud how much longer he would be in his current position and his chances of getting to the very top of company management. They mentioned his age and then, for some reason,  wanted to confirm mine. I was not sure how my age fit into their calculation of another person’s upward mobility  but clearly I was somehow a barometer of “senior status”.

Having a senior moment on a golf course near Tokyo
Tomorrow will be my last full day in Japan on this trip. Fortunately I am playing golf with three friends that are 3, 6 and 22 years older than I am respectively. They know how old I am and are unlikely to make age a topic of conversation.  For a few hours,  I will be the young man in the group again.