When I was young, age to me was enough of an accomplishment. It was, after all, a grownup world and, being young, I was in the sidelines, waiting impatiently to have my turn in the center
While there is nothing new about any generation looking down on the next one, generation gap has been overused, mainly by the young to justify their departure from norm or, at the risk of sounding tyrannical, from what’s good or what has been considered good. Dare I say it, but no generation has been more defensive of their time—or their way—than today’s kids.
They’re not all to blame. When I was a kid, I thought 25 was old, but in fairness to me, while I was growing up in the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, 25 did behave like old, dress like old, speak like old. It’s different now, I would tell friends. No one really acts their age anymore and, thanks to advances in science and technology and the prevalence of self-care, not everyone looks their age anymore, either, especially among us Asians. I mean, in my mid-40s, it was nothing out of ordinary to be carded at New York clubs, though, looking back, I wonder why I thought it was such a feat that I still enjoyed clubs at that age. It’s a mystery to me that I felt that way about clubbing.
How old was Diana Vreeland when she was hanging out at Studio 54? How old was Truman Capote? How old was Andy Warhol? Warhol was one year shy of 50 when Studio 54 opened in 1977, making as much as $7 million in its first year because it was that hot and happening. In my time, however, or just among us friends, the joke was that you knew you were old when you walked into a club and found it too dark, too loud, too crowded—and who the hell are these people?
But now, it’s the kids who are saying who the hell are these people? Like I said, they’re not all to blame. Some adults act like kids, so why get surprised that the kids treat them so, or they give in to the kids’ demands so easily, or they walk around these kids as if on eggshells, afraid to hurt them, afraid to have them crumble into pieces as though they were made of precious, fragile porcelain?
In a college class I taught recently, I had negligible cases of tardiness and absenteeism. The dean called me to her office. She said that was good, but what was even better was in that same class, I had 100 percent submission of requirements, not to mention a good rating from the students.
“What’s your secret?” I was asked. No secret, I said, except that “in that class I was the sole authority,” I said while thinking what other things I could have done that had earned me such dutiful students.
But yes, I was the teacher, I was the adult, it was my rules. I assumed that everyone made it to that class because they could hack what it took to be in college, one step away from being grownups, despite constant warnings from my colleagues that I shouldn’t be too harsh… “because, you know, some of them have these conditions…ADHD, for instance, or depression or some learning disability.” I might be wrong, but I thought the kids did like authority, that I was firm when, as some of them asked to write their essays elsewhere, I said, “No, you write it here, in this classroom. Journalists write while bombs are falling in their direction.”
But yes, now the kids are like “This is our time, leave us be.” As if we have left the building and so we have no more rights to say, “Didn’t they teach you how to say hello in college?” Growing up, I don’t think I ever gave myself that privilege, not that I ever felt the need for it. It was just the way things were and, being young, I understood it was I who had to adjust.
But a generation that knows only how to travel, can they teach a generation how to arrive? ―Ursula K. Le Guin
It wasn’t so difficult to adjust. I was, after all, in awe of grownups, so as a kid I considered it an honor to behave like one. I was forbidden to participate too much in adult chatter. Sometimes, they would whisper in Bikolano, assuming I couldn’t understand a word, and so I let them think so, while I eavesdropped on their strictly-for-adults-only conversations.
My point is, in my youth, I did look up to the adults around me. Age, to me at that time, was enough of an accomplishment. It was, after all, a grownup world and, as a child, I was—and I didn’t mind being—in the sidelines, waiting impatiently to have my turn in the center.
Thus, I sought the company as well as the advice of the adults. I picked their brains. I observed their examples. I followed in their footsteps. I immersed myself in their stories, mapping out the way to my future based on the steps they had or had not taken to get to theirs, not necessarily by taking the same steps because I was equally fascinated by their missteps, their detours, and their deviations, even their shortcuts. To me, every adult, including the laundrywoman or the old man who lived in a shack down the street, was a history lesson, as well as beacon by which I could navigate the maze that was my own youth.
If you think I was a good kid, think again. I’d had my brushes with authority and I was the opposite of the teacher’s pet because I challenged them every chance I got, but always with respect. Little did they know that it wasn’t independence from them that I craved—they were my resources, the signs on the roads I had yet to take, the star in the dark sky by which I decided whether to go this way or that, they were the Pied Piper of my Hamelin whose music I chose either to follow or run away from. They paved the way for me, for sure. I mean if they had been that way, only to encounter a deadend, then thank you, I need not waste my time negotiating a path that would take me to that road block. I will go this way instead.
So thank you, dear adults of my time, for not putting me in a box. Or maybe you did, but then following you around, I didn’t get contained in that box, rolling about in it and collecting all the resentments. If I did get stuck in that box, I knew I would grow out of it.
It was just a matter of time.