To Dye or Not to Dye: How Do We Honor Aging Gracefully?

By Kathy KyoungAh Khang 03-01-2010

I had never noticed them before. I'm sure I would have noticed them if they had been there just a few weeks ago. Without a doubt these were new, unwelcomed, and unwanted -- several white hairs peeking through my fashionably coiffed look. Maybe they were lost and on their way to someone else?

I had no problem with turning 30. By the time I celebrated my 30th I had been married 7 years, had two children and made a career change. It seemed right.

Turning 40. Well, I'm having a tougher time with that because friends who are telling me not to worry because 40 is the new 30 also had a tough time and are probably in denial as well. I don't feel like I'm falling apart, but the warning signs are there. The knees actually call an audible when I'm headed up and down the stairs. Late nights require more and more recovery time. And I'm just waiting for the day when the words on the page make me wonder if it's a lighting issue or if the copy is actually blurry.

But seeing those white hairs in the midst of my brown roots and reddish dyed hair made me stop to think about aging and what it means to age gracefully. So much of what I imagined has been internal -- a growing and deep winsome wisdom akin to Erma Bombeck and Madeleine L'Engle mixed in with a touch of Obi Wan.

Our culture's emphasis on external beauty is extremely unforgiving and unfair, especially but not exclusively to women (those "Just For Men" beard and mustache dye kit commercials are horrible). But I think we can agree that the scales are tipped against women more often than not. An older man on television communicates trustworthiness. An older woman on television is Betty White in a commercial. HD technology makes certain TV shows and movies come to life, but it has also meant that then evening newscasters will never look quite as glamourous. A nip and tuck or a chemical peel to the face in HD -- well, you get my point.

But the crazy tension I find myself in is that Asian culture honors its elders. We have a thing about age. Now, I realize that Asia proper is changing and, the way I see it, not all for good. Women in parts of Asia have a thing for cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams, and the market for men is increasing as well. Eyelid surgery. Nose surgery. Chin implants. Nothing is off limits. But there is still a reverence that is reserved for our elders, and that value came in the hearts and souls of Asian immigrants. When my extended family and I sit down for a meal, my parents or father-in-law will always be seated and served first. On New Year's Day we bow to them, acknowledging their place and the roads they continue to pave for us. We defer to them.

Aging in the Asian American community brings a special status of honoring and responsibility. Next week I head off to our national Asian American staff conference and what I hear over and over again is that I am one of the senior Asian American staff. Instead of waiting for an invitation to lead we are extending the invitations. Living in the tension of Asian and American I'm finding that with age comes experience and opportunity.

What does it mean to age gracefully? So much of my life was drawn out between absolutes -- Christians do this and not that. Success looks like this and not that. Children should be like this and not that. Americans do this, but Koreans do that. I suppose that is why my knee-jerk reaction is to make a list of do's and don'ts. Aging gracefully means letting my hair grow out in shades of gray and white and redirecting my DIY hair dyeing skills to my daughter's locks. Maybe? Maybe not?

portrait-kathy-khangKathy Khang is a regional director of multi-ethnic ministries for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and blogs at morethanservingtea.wordpress.com

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