Guessing other people’s age

The other night we went to a massage place close to our apartment. C.’s masseuse was a chatty young woman from Henan province. She asked where I was from. “Xinjiang”, I joked. Xinjiang is a province in the west of China and, many years ago, when foreigners were a rare sight in China, Chinese people would ask if they were from Xinjiang. “Xinjiang?”. The masseuse sounded confused but seemed to believe it, which I was not expecting. Then she asked C. where he was from. “Also Xinjiang”. “Really?”, she frowned. “You don’t look like you are from Xinjiang. What are you doing in Suzhou?”. “I sell jades”, C. replied. I couldn’t help chuckling and she heard me, but the charade went on. “And how old are you? You look very young”. “I am 18”, replied C. “And she (referring to me) is 17”. I laughed again. “More like each of my legs is 17”, I said, but I don’t think she understood the joke. It is a Spanish way of speaking.


We’ve been told we look younger, but 18? Come on…


This conversation reminded me of something that happened when I was working in the Spanish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 5 years ago. One day I was in charge of the fast-track entrance. This entrance was only for pregnant women, the disabled and old people over 75 and the idea was that they wouldn’t get tired lining up to enter the pavilion, as the queues usually were more than 2 hours waiting. Two tall male foreigners that looked perfectly healthy and in their early 60s approached and I told them they needed to line up like the “common folk”. Some foreigners would play the foreigner card to try to sneak into the pavilion without queuing, but that wasn’t going to work with me. I was firm in sending them to the normal queue. Then one of them said, “But I am 75 years old”. “Yeah, right. And I am the Wizard of Oz. I need to see some ID to verify your age”. He took out his wallet to show me his driving license. They were in a good mood, not angry at me, and I asked where they were from. “Sweden”, they said. The driving license was stuck and he couldn’t get it out. He seemed so determined that I backed down. “It is ok, I believe you, you can get in”. “No, no, I really want to show you”, he said. Then he finally got it. The birth date said 1935, he was indeed 75 years old. “Wow”, I said, “I really wouldn’t think you are 75, I thought you were like 60 at most”. He was so happy he kissed my cheeks.

I always have a hard time trying to guess people’s ages just by looking at them. In China it gets even worse: young people usually look younger to me, and old people, especially people who has worked outdoors their whole life, look older than they really are. The street sweepers in our Suzhou neighbourhood look very old, like more than 70. Once I asked C. why 70 year olds were cleaning the streets. He said they were not 70, maybe only 55. But they really looked older.

What about you? Are you good guessing other people’s ages? Do you think it is harder when they are from a different race?