Very Beautiful: A Cultural Perspective

I hoped he would go away soon. My friend and I were sipping our fresh coconut waters in a restaurant on an island in the Maldives. But the restaurant manager/owner was trying to be friendly, probably so that we would feel welcome to visit again and spend our tourist dollars there.

Sunset in the Maldives

“Hello, where are you from?” he asked.

“I’m from the US, and my friend is from Canada.” This chat won’t last over a minute, I thought.
“What is your age?” He smiled, but all I could think was, huh?
Why does he want to know my age? And who asks a paying customer from another country her age within one minute of greeting her? Okay, sure, in my Asian travels people have asked my age after an extended conversation. That’s because the questioner wanted to know how to respectfully address me, and my age would determine whether I would be “mother,” “auntie,” “sister,” or “grandmother.” I was rarely addressed as “grandmother,”—only by the youngest–and was usually “mother” or even the dreaded “madam”—a term most frequently used in India.
But as a customer sitting in a restaurant for a drink, this question seemed abrupt and unnecessary.
So the dark-haired man stood there, expecting me to tell him my age, and I didn’t want to tell him. I just looked at him, saying nothing, until he said, “Oh, let me guess.”
Danger. Yeah, DANGER.
Never, I have learned, NEVER allow someone to guess your age. Especially in another country. Especially in an Asian country, where people appear ageless, and their skin always looks smooth and beautiful. Where even wrinkled skin is beautiful. And never do this if you’ve not fully embraced and made friends with your wrinkles and your uneven complexion and your thinning eyebrows and sagging jowls and….you know what I mean. And don’t do this if you’re from a culture that is obsessed with appearing young, where people spend thousands of dollars on creams and makeup and diet pills and surgeries and “health” products all geared toward fooling the eye of the beholder. Including the beholder in the mirror. And don’t do this if your mother carefully applied her face daily and frequently commented on your appearance.
So here was this man—who was probably about my age, I thought–wanting to guess my age. I wish I had said, “No thanks.” But I didn’t.

Holding a screw pine fruit in the Maldives.

Maybe a part of me wanted to hear him say, “Fifty.”
Oh, to be fifty again…Or to appear to be fifty again.
“I can tell from looking at you that you were once very beautiful,” he said. He couldn’t wait to say that. I said nothing, and had to consciously maintain a neutral expression as my thoughts went wild. Once very beautiful? You mean I don’t appear beautiful now? I’m old and wrinkled and saggy and undesirable? Was he looking at my double chin? Furrowed neck? The creases around my mouth? Could he tell that I still apply highlights in my hair in a vain attempt to camouflage the creeping grey?
Did he think he had just given me a compliment?
I looked at my friend across the table. She was grimacing. Her turn was coming.
“I think you are sixty-five?”
“No, I’m sixty-four,” I replied. I didn’t just reply, I almost spat those words, and thought, stop now, buddy. Just stop.
I had just turned sixty-four. And he was even standing on my good side—the side of my face with fewer wrinkles.
Then he turned to my friend. Don’t do it, I thought. Just walk away…
“And you, I think you are seventy?” He smiled again, speaking slowly, mustering all the Maldivian hospitality he could. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. You see, my friend gave up coloring her hair years ago, and instead wears a lovely helmet of grey. I hadn’t seen too many Maldivians with grey hair. Or maybe I just hadn’t been looking. Of course, most of the women in the Maldives wear the hijab, covering their hair.
“No, sixty-five.” She wasn’t amused. How she managed to say her age with any semblance of pleasantness is beyond me. He was only one year off for me, but he had aged her by five years! Plus, he didn’t tell her she was once very beautiful…But wait, that wasn’t really a compliment, was it?
“Well, I hope when you return to the Maldives you visit us again.” He turned and walked off. He probably uses hair color, I thought.
My friend and I looked at each other, mouths open, heads shaking.Then we thoroughly discussed the exchange–that moment of cultural intersection that slapped us both on our wrinkled faces. We didn’t return to that restaurant during our visit to the Maldives.
We did try to laugh more, and explore, and appreciate the sunsets, and poke fun at one another, and enjoy the fact that two women in their mid-sixties were traveling in a remote corner of the world and enjoying the heck out of it.


Read more about my trip to the Maldives at my travelblog.

Warm waters in the Maldives



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