Sincerely Asian American: The unfortunate curse of looking too youthful

Growing up, most kids try everything they can to look older. Even if it’s something as simple as wearing “big kid” clothing to try to appear taller in order to ride a roller coaster at Six Flags, the younger generation wants to be perceived as more mature. Though nearly everyone will grow out of this somewhat irritating stage of life and eventually be treated like adults, younger looking Asians like me aren’t usually so lucky. 

I’m not sure if I was handed the worst genes in the pool, but it honestly seems like I fell into the fountain of youth when I was a kid. I’ve been in almost every “little-kid” scenario; from being told I looked two grades below my own in elementary school to my most recent debacle of getting my ID checked at an R-rated movie. And even though it has gotten to the point where my friends and I joke about it, the underlying fact is that it’s important to remind others to not enforce such stereotypes that essentially judge someone based on appearance.

Among the now countless episodes, I vividly recall a demeaning event that still haunts my thoughts to this day. My family was flying home from summer vacation on the East Coast, and we were given seats in the exit row of the plane. Unlike every other seat, exit rows require passengers to be able to assist the flight crew in the case of an emergency and have a designated age restriction of 15 or older. As the flight attendant was quickly assessing everyone’s ability, she stumbled upon me and asked to confirm I was 15. Her face swiftly became aghast that I told her I was three years over her estimate. To say the least, I made sure to choose any other seat other than the exit row for the next few flights to avoid the chance of any age confrontations.

Before continuing this point, it’s important to first acknowledge that my thoughts on this issue aren’t rooted in remaining selfishly agitated toward those who guessed my age incorrectly. Obviously, most of their remarks end up being light-hearted misconceptions and have usually resulted in a compliment telling me to feel lucky about my youthful features, and how much I will value this when I am older. I’m not trying to say I don’t appreciate these comments — what’s upsetting is the sheer obliviousness and the blatant disregard for the impact of assuming someone is younger simply based on their appearance.

A recent occurrence that underlines this tone happened to me this summer at the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. After finding out we could get a tour of the facility from a relative who worked in the building, my mom and I made our way over one morning. We were greeted in the lobby by ambassadors who told us that all adults need to sign in. The woman only offered my mom the form. When I revealed to the worker that I was 19, she quickly remarked that I looked “so young” and had a surprised expression as if I was exposing one of my biggest secrets to her.

While stories like this may be humiliating, these “misjudgers” are not intentionally meaning to inflict any harm. The ambassador’s remark was likely a genuine reaction. And even though it still hit a sour note, no actions were purposely taken to demean and put me down. And there was no age minimum for the tour, unlike the plane exit seat.

However, my most recent experience at my local DMV showcased a perfect example of blatant disregard toward age. With the new domestic air travel restrictions for driver’s licenses, I decided to try and obtain an updated “REAL ID” version before mine expired in a few months. The appointment went smoothly and right as I thought every employee I met was going to treat me professionally, I arrived at the photo desk with the loudest greeting of “kiddo” I had ever received. This was more belittling than the hundreds of times I’ve been called “buddy” by waiters. As we went through the final steps of the appointment, he asked some general questions, and I was able to reveal I was a sophomore, which he, without a doubt thought meant I was in high school.

In the end, I’m not trying to say I don’t understand where these people’s assumptions are coming from. I clearly look young, and I have for my entire life. My problem arises from a genuine discomfort based on the lack of awareness people exhibit when first meeting me. Looking youthful can definitely be both a blessing and a curse. And maybe if I wasn’t Asian I’d be able to grow a beard, and then people would recognize my age.

Vincent Leo is a sophomore writing about Asian American identity. His column, “Sincerely Asian American,” runs every other Thursday.