The first time I genuinely felt that I was getting old was sometime in my early thirties. I was hanging out at the tiny plaza outside of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, waiting as a bunch of musicians set up their equipment. Around over a decade ago, when the Hong Kong indie music scene was still promising, there were monthly free shows at the centre that let up-and-coming indie musicians perform. I was there to see the band The Yours with The Unpublishables co-founder Doretta, as we were both obsessed with one of their songs, “Tasteless”, but had never seen them perform before.
It was one of those really humid and hot Hong Kong evenings that make you feel like someone left a massive oven door open while roasting a chicken. There was a decent amount of people there; the band wasn’t just known among hipsters but also had a local following. Then the band and their friends–all about a decade or so younger than I am–showed up in their black, New Wave, neo-beatnik outfits. They were completely covered up, and one of the young women was wearing a hat. Needless to say, they were perspiring so much, they looked like they were having coke sweats (I’m also not going to rule this out, but I obviously don’t have any evidence) but they were doing their best to look unbothered and cool.
Watching the sweat trickle down their faces, I felt this sudden sense of clarity: Thank God I’m old. If you’re over 30, you know what I mean (I hope). Suddenly, things that matter so much in your twenties, like being right or being ahead or having the right job or even having fun, kind of seem pointless. If I may paraphrase Sophocles in Plato’s Republic, “I am only too glad to be free of all that; it is like escaping from bondage to a raging madman.”
Now, it’s not like I suddenly became a permed auntie overnight doling out Po Chai from my tissue-filled purse. It’s just that all the things you’re supposed to do when you’re young feel less like something you have to do and more like something you can just enjoy whenever you felt like it.
Regardless of whether you’re privileged or not, your twenties are likely to suck because modern civilization places too much value on youth. When you’re expected to think of your twenties as your peak, it creates a sense of FOMO–that you should be happier, more successful, and better looking than you actually are or feel like. And that leads to bad decisions that push you towards what you think you ought to be rather than what is actually good for you.
When I look back at my twenties, I think I wasted a lot of time hanging out with toxic people and feeling alone and miserable when I was supposed to be having a great time at a club or a bar. I didn’t appreciate the kindnesses I received and was too pettily obsessed with the unkindnesses instead. I had a hard time imagining the good things that could happen to me in the future because I didn’t have faith in myself. It didn’t help that I was working in the music industry and was subjected to low-grade abuse by assorted people.
My twenties angst didn’t disappear overnight when I turned thirty, although I did rather enjoy the evening of my birthday, which I spent alone on an abutment on the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence. In a fit of over-the-top Interview with the Vampire mega emo-ness, I stood dramatically at the pointy edge of the abutment watching the river flow past while listening to Maria Callas sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” on my iPod over and over and drinking from a bottle of vino da tavola I got from the osteria across from my flat.
Yes, I realize it was the wrong bridge for the song, but there were too many caribinieri at Ponte Vecchio.
Getting older doesn’t make your life automatically better, but there’s a relief in not having to live up to being in your twenties. It’s also a huge relief to no longer be so ignorant and dumb, and sad to say, everyone in their twenties has to go through that. Just having survived slogging through so many years and dealing with so many humbling things on a day-to-day basis makes a difference because you start to not care about a lot of things anymore.
And watching the kids from The Yours on that day, I suddenly felt a huge wave of empathy for people who are still figuring things out and are still drawing the line between who they think they should be and who they are. These kids are now probably older than I was when I watched them perform in that stifling heat, and although they haven’t made any music recently, I hope they’ve also unshackled themselves from the madman that is youth.