This is 42: Addie Tsai responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"It feels refreshing and exciting to be able to really claim who I am, and not be so concerned with what others think of me..."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I’ve started “The Oldster Questionnaire.”
Here, artist and writer Addie Tsai responds. - Sari Botton
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
This is such an interesting question. In some ways it feels surreal to be in my early 40s, and yet, it feels distinctly different from being in my 30s (or any other age group). But, I think a lot of that has to do with the way that women and AFAB people are constantly spoken about in regards to 40s and up. So, let’s say that the age I am feels right, even if slightly uncomfortable.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I don’t feel old for my age. Physically (except for the bad shoulder I inherited from COVID as it intersected with my divorce and with online teaching and lack of exercise options that I prefer) I feel young for my age, but that has a lot to do with how I try to take care of myself. I’ve come to a place in my life where I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished, and am no longer focused (or fixated) with comparing myself to others in my own age group. That said, I’m very aware that with the advances of technology, that us Gen Xers and Xennials could be considered “behind” those who come up after us, because the Internet has really neutralized the playing field in terms of access and getting one’s foot in the door. Not that I’m complaining.
What do you like about being your age?
At this point, I’ve been in therapy over 15 years, and so I’ve learned a lot about what I need to feel safe, content, and grounded. Although I feel that forming healthy boundaries is an ongoing journey (that recognition also came with age), I’m thankful I’m at a place in my life where I know how to express my needs and assert them, which isn’t something I’d been able to do in my 20s, or even in my 30s, in the same clarity I am now. I also feel that I know myself in a very clear way, and am so appreciative of how much more I’ve been able to emotionally regulate at this point. I like my peers - I feel that I’m in good company. And I’m much more secure about who I am as a person, as separated from things like beauty and accomplishments.
What is difficult about being your age?
Mortality is scary. Once I hit my 40s, I became very aware of the mortality of my life and my body, of what’s ahead. I have great sadness about what is harder - dating, finding a partner, the reduced options in terms of having children. I find myself often around folks that are younger than I am, which is both exciting but also a bit isolating. There’s just something different about having your whole life ahead of you in your twenties - to make mistakes, to still conquer the world.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
The 40s are still young! There is still so much life to have! And I find the beauty of those in my age range is so intriguing and complex. I’m much more interested in it than in the beauty of youth, although that certainly has its charms. If you are able-bodied, you still have facility to be active, considering. It’s not the end of the road by any means. People in their 40s still have the power to start second careers. Or have children.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
Insight. Clarity. And it’s given me this kind of … hmm, I don’t have the bandwidth or desire to put up with things that aren’t honoring or enriching me or my life in the way I used to. In that same sense, it’s also what it’s taken away from me. My options feel narrowed in terms of who I want to/can spend time with and the possibility of ever becoming a parent. There are certain facts about aging and having a child that one cannot avoid, especially if one does not have money or other forms of access. I’m still navigating that.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
It has taken a long time for me to come to terms, to embrace, to honor my queerness, but also my gender identity. This past non-binary day of visibility (July 14, 2021), I sought a new term for myself, and landed on gentlefem. I define it as being a gentleman with femme accents or stylings. But it feels refreshing and exciting to be able to really claim who I am, and not be so concerned with what others think of me, whether that be family, friends, students, etc. It’s not easy to sit into my non-binary identity. It makes dating hard, it makes it hard to be part of “regular society,” but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think what happens as you age is that your sense of yourself has a kind of core, even if things fluctuate. That’s the thing I understand most at this age - my weight, my aesthetic, my gender, my relationship to all of those things may shift and change, but the core sense of self feels strong and unwavering. Uncompromising.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
I’m excited to become an aunt to an older person for my nephew, like when he becomes a teenager and a young adult, to get to connect with him in new ways. I’m curious about what this child piece will be for me - can this happen for me in a different way/timeline than I initially imagined?, and whether I’ll end up having a second career at some point. I’m open to the future. Will I have a second partnership (I divorced in early 2020)? What will that look like? I’ve learned a lot so if that’s in my future, I plan to go about it very differently.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
I would definitely go back to my early 30s. They were my favorite time - it still felt like I had so much time before me, and had really started to understand who I was and what I needed, and to relax a bit! Ha.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
Debbie Allen. I’m in such admiration at not only how she’s remained engaged and connected, but also has adapted to this weird modern age (even teaching classes on Instagram)! And Janet Jackson. She was one of my earliest celebrity crushes and inspirations in so many ways, and it has helped me to see how she navigates the world with grace and presence.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
When I was in my twenties, and even my thirties, I didn’t pay any attention to skincare. I’ve started to take some steps to develop a skincare regimen. I mostly follow it. During the pandemic I’ve slacked a bit, but I’ve kept up my morning routine for the most part. I’ve had to part ways with alcohol except on special occasions, sugar, coffee, foods heavy in flour. I just want to feel good in my body, and my stomach definitely can’t party like it used to! I should take vitamins more regularly, but that’s still a work in progress. I keep my hair short for a number of reasons, but at this stage of my life, I just want to simplify. I don’t wear heels much anymore. And concerts where I’m expected to stand for five hours straight aren’t really doing it for me anymore. I keep a fairly strict waking and sleeping schedule. Lately I haven’t been wearing too many wired bras, and have been sticking to bralettes for comfort. Always high-waisted underwear (and pants) and no thongs ever again!
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
Shopping at Chicos? Ha, but really it’s more of a mentality. I still want to connect to the world, to move, to wear things that make me feel connected to who I am.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I just had a birthday! I strongly believe in celebrating each year as much as one can. I have a three part ritual that I like to try to partake in every year, even if it all doesn’t happen on my exact birthday. I like to do something I’ve never done before - that usually takes the structure of a class, like a new dance class, or a skill. This year I played tennis (or what we called tennis!) and in a couple of weeks I’m going to take a class on horror writing with a writer I greatly admire. I like to buy an article of clothing that makes me feel good. And I try to make art, or write at some point during the weekend. I’m hoping to do that tomorrow night. It’s also really important for me to see the people I love during my birthday, even in these hard times. This year I also booked a night at a hotel room to unwind. I’m excited! Maybe I’ll add that to my ritual. Oh, and the last thing, is that I try to take at least one self portrait (usually a film photo with an old 35 mm or a Polaroid camera) that captures what I’m feeling at that moment in time, that part of my life.
Addie Tsai (any/all) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin. Unwieldy Creatures, their adult queer biracial retelling of Frankenstein, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in 2022. They are the Fiction Co-Editor at Anomaly, Staff Writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at justfemme & dandy.