That's usually the standard reaction I get from most people when they realize that I'm a 20 year old freshman. That expression of incredulity is most swiftly followed by watching them struggle to do math backwards to find out what year I was born, along with some sort of slow revelation on their part, usually something along the lines of: "Woah... So you can get us booze next year?" Yeah that's right, looks like I might get a lot more popular come February next year.
Sometimes I do wonder though: What do people think of me when they find out how old I am? Does their opinion of me change? Am I some sort of walking fossil, a freak anomaly that somehow ended up in the wrong class?
To be honest, it's been something I have struggled with in the past few years. Spending time working for NGOs and activism in Malaysia, taking the unconventional route of doing the International Baccalaureate program under a scholarship, added to the already late nature of the idiosyncratic Malaysian education system made me a year or two older than many of my classmates.
When I was doing the IB in ISKL (International School of Kuala Lumpur), I felt almost defined by my age. At times, I found it difficult to let go, to let loose and just have some crazy, unfettered fun. At the back of my head, always there was a nagging feeling that there were larger things at stake, be it the economy, politics or some lofty ideal. There were times, especially when seeing friends of the same age go into higher education while I was still in high school, that I wondered deeply if I was making the right decision.
It came to a point when I almost felt embarrassed whenever someone asked me how old I was. I would skirt around the question, answer indirectly, allude, hint, imply, and just do anything short of actually stating flat out that I was 19 years old. And of course, the dreaded "Ah that explains it." Much of what I had done or achieved felt diminished because of it, that somehow it wasn't that I was out-competing people or studying harder than people but more because I was just older than people. It was as if my age had become the primary explanation for all my actions and accomplishments, my entire existence as a student stood upon a number I had grown to distance myself from. Most frustrating of all, was to see how some of my classmates would use age as a reason to reassure themselves they could not do anything about their own situation. I wanted to tell them that age should not matter, and that so many of them could do way better than I did if only they realized it.
Outside of school life, where I volunteered for NGO groups, wrote research papers and organized protests, I received the same reaction but to a different slant. In these activist groups, I would most often be the baby, the spring chicken of the group and people would be genuinely surprised that I was still in school and not a working adult. A lot of people responded positively to this, praising me effusively for "maturity beyond my years". Though well-intended, such comments often held somewhat disparaging assumptions about "people my age" and predicated a lot of merit based on my age.
Really though, I was just a conflicted teenager like everybody else. The two worlds collided frequently, and made me feel too young and too old at the same time. I felt like some kind of circus freak, walking on a tightrope, straddling a thin thread that divided two worlds, one a blistering inferno and the other a freezing arctic wasteland. In short, Katy Perry's “Hot & Cold”.
Initially, I found it rather difficult. Straddling both worlds as old and young; the two extremes pulling me apart created an underlying resentment. There was always this cloud hanging over me, pressuring me to "act my age". I tried to hide it. Suppress it. Pretend it was never there.
Things went by like that for a while, until I recognized there were others with the same struggle. In particular, there was this guy in debate, an Egyptian called Ahmed Elkady. Ahmed is a brilliant guy, funny, smart, and mature. The only thing was he was a senior, and he was 15 years old. Like myself, much of his high school experience had been defined by his age. We were in the same boat but at different ends. There were others like Ahmed, who by the way, I consider today one of my closest friends.
Gradually, I came to terms with my age. More than that, I embraced it. I took pride in my role as the default big brother (though not in the Orwellian sense). I played and teased on my "long years of worldly experience" (I can barely type this without laughing). I took it as a cue to be patient and humble, when so many people younger than myself were doing so many great things I would never have been able to do. I rejoiced in being chauffeur, driving people around and being able to introduce my friends the hidden secrets of Kuala Lumpur restaurant and bar life.
At the same time, I also took on with ever greater fervour the perks of being young. Chatting away the wee hours of the morning on the merits of Games of Thrones, dancing and looking like a complete fool in the process, and just YOLO-ing the simple things in daily life.
My age stopped becoming a rubber band that was being stretched by opposite forces. In the midst of the late night debates, the chauffeuring and the eating, the fire and ice had melded together to form a lukewarm pond, its waters tranquil but for the occasional foray of an animal or two.
I stopped conforming to what my age group was supposed to be. Oddly enough, the whole age crisis had spurred a change in me. It wasn't that I was more mature, or more happy-go-lucky or anything else. I'm not sure how to describe it, but I felt that for the first time in my life, I wasn't acting or behaving my age.
All my life, I had fought against categorization, from the issue of my race to gender to religion. I had faced all of them head on, confronted them, and exposed them in writing or in action. But my age, this was the elephant in the room I had not deigned to look at. Once I did though, I realized that age was another one of those social constructs imposed upon people to make them “behave”, to teach people to think what an ideal person of age so and so should be like. It was another lazy category to explain away things. “Ooh, Malala Yousafzai is so young!” Her deeds are incredible for any age of any circumstance, and though it truly is remarkable that one so young should be so strong, it’s not the sum total of who she is. It should never define or diminish her accomplishments.
By the end of it all, I was no longer 18 or 19 or 20. I was no longer old or young, a fossil or a baby. I was just, simply, me.
Somewhere, somehow, in the process of coming to terms with my age, I had broken free.