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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

You're only as old as you tell


Here is a scenario that happens in the first hour of every single new English conversation class in Japan _ a sort of annual rite of spring.

The teacher allows the students a few free questions. Sooner much rather than later someone raises an eager hand and asks, "How old are you?"

The class titters and the teacher flutters his or her eyelashes -- then responds with one well-picked word:

" . . . Guess."

The first time I experienced this rite I was fresh out of college. The student I pressed to guess my age flicked her eyes around the room while classmates nudged her and snickered. Then she floated her answer:

"53?"

Two decades later I am still much younger than 53. Unfortunately as I have aged, so have the guesses. So much so that my Japanese wife is often teased for having married such a hoary old man.

But only by people who don't know us well. For the truth is... my wife is older than I am.

Why do Japanese people look so young? This has to be one of the great mysteries of all time -- right up there with who built the Sphinx and how come Richard Gere divorced Cindy Crawford.

When I first dated my wife, her age was one of my prime concerns. She could have been 10 years older than me or 10 years younger _ I had no way to tell. To find the answer, I had to result to some subtle probing. As in:

"Hi. Would you like to go out tomorrow? And by the way...how old are you?"

As forward as that might have been, I have two foreign friends who didn't bother to ask that question until their relationships were beginning to steam. Both in their 20s, one guy was stunned to find his Japanese girlfriend to be 41. But the other fellow lucked out. His girl was only 38.

Meanwhile, when I first took my bride back to America, friends wagged their fingers in my face and "tsk-tsked" me to no end.

Cradle robber! Baby bandit! Doesn't Japan have laws about this sort of thing?

Getting my friends to believe my wife's age was one thing. Getting any sort of drinking establishment to do so was something else. It was only years later, after our kids were born, when such places finally stopped carding her. She still looked too young for alcohol, but had somehow developed an inner resolve that sent a cryptic communique to every bartender. The message?

"Don't mess with me. I'm a mom."

By those days I was already shedding hair faster than a summer spaniel. To compensate, my eyebrows were coiling into thick spools of barbed wire and my nose developing its own eco-forest. Two of them, in fact.

Thus, over the years my wife and I have physically diverged. While I have zoomed toward a crusty middle-age, she has instead clung doggedly to the sweet bloom of youth. Naturally I think this unfair. Yet, if it was the other way around, I confess I wouldn't be happy either.

Since the Japanese populace is graying rapidly, a smart question to pose might be: "Where does Japan get all these old-timers?" Especially as so many people can pass for 10 or 20 years younger?

Enter a friend of mine with an idea she calls the "Big Dang Theory."

She states Japanese people, when they reach some undefined, mysterious age, just wake up one morning to find themselves older. They yawn their way to the washroom, glance in the mirror and are shocked to find a puckered, old prune staring back. Whereby, they shout:

"Dang!"

Another foreign friend insists that Westerners age from the head down, while Japanese go from the feet up, with everything all covered equally at about age 70.

To prove his point my friend likes to yank off his shoes and have everyone admire his youthful feet. Which do indeed look much younger than his age! Unfortunately, they smell just the opposite.

If my friend's theory is true, my wife and I should now appear of equal age at precisely the area of our belly buttons. Getting my wife to cooperate in a proper comparison, however, has been rather difficult. Her typical response being:

"Get away! I'm too old for such nonsense!"

But not me. In fact, when it comes to nonsense, I have always been just the right age. Which means either that the pundits are correct when they claim you are as young as you feel, or that I have breached the senility barrier decades early.

My childlike zest has been somewhat ripened, however, by marrying an older woman. How much older, you ask?

You mean, to be precise? Oh, about six weeks. Which, as I am fond of telling my wife, is virtual eons in the life of some bugs.

More than this, we got married right between our birthdays. Meaning that it was she who was the nipper nabber, not me. I was the nipper nabbee.

Of course, after years of marriage, one might think I would let her forget this fact. But then one would be thinking wrong.

For I enjoy being a year younger. Even if it's just for a few days. How young exactly? Well, there is only one acceptable answer for that question (flutter, flutter; wink, wink):

. . . Guess.



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