A NEW ROLE MODEL FOR AGING—THIS TIME FROM CHINA
by Eleanor Jaffe
A new role model for aging has emerged from China. Known as China’s “hottest grandpa,” Deshun Wang still works as an actor, artist, disc jockey, and designer. Last year, at the age of 79, he added “model” to his resume when, for the first time, he strode down a fashion runway, shirtless. As one reporter put it, “His physique caused a national sensation.”
Deshun’s approach to life defies Chinese norms for growing old. Although many Chinese exercise early in the day, he reports that his exercise time is from to 3 to 6 pm and that he swims about one-half mile per day. “Morning,” he says, “is my learning time. I read books and news.”
In a society where the legal retirement age for women is 50 or 55 and 60 is the retirement age for most men, Deshun Wang defies all stereotypes for aging in China, present and past.
Early in the 1980’s (not so very long ago), I traveled to China with my husband on a trip sponsored by the National Education Association. I vividly recall one of our stops at a worker’s home. Men and women, all of whom worked in nearby factories, lived in the large complex made of four-story apartment buildings that we visited that day. Once retired, these workers remained with their extended families, taking care of their grandchildren. We met one such family. Four generations lived in a single small apartment—an elderly grandmother, her son, his retired wife, their grown son and daughter-in-law, and the younger couple’s small child all shared the space.
It is the grandmother who remains most vivid in my memory. She was a tiny, frail, aged woman, and she sat perched on a high stool. She had been born and raised before the communist Revolution, during the time when young girls still had their feet bound. Those bindings grew more restrictive and painful as girls grew from latency to young adulthood when they would be married. Bound feet were considered beautiful, an asset in the marriage market. This old woman (who was in her 70s or 80s, whose son was about 55), wore no shoes, and her feet did not resemble any human feet that I had ever seen: they were tiny, but the toes turned way under the arch reaching toward her heels. They were extraordinarily deformed, like claws or talons which seemed to be growing into the fleshy part of her heels. Her feet could not possibly have supported her. I doubt that she could walk at all. Yet, this old woman represented, for probably hundreds of years prior to the Revolution, the image of what women should be like. An age-old model for aging.
I look forward to the day when China celebrates a new female role model: energetic, striding forward toward the future, regarded as just capable as men, perhaps even a government leader. Until that time, though, Deshun Wang is providing a new model, literally, for successful aging at least for men.
He has some words of advice about aging that, for me, transcend our cultural differences:
“One way to tell if you’re old or not is to ask yourself, do you dare try something you’ve never done before? It’s about your state of mind. It’s not about age. Nature determines age, but you determine your state of mind….People can change their lives as many times as they wish.”
Thank you, Deshun.