By Jian Ping
“You've made a good case to show life really starts at 50!” An email I received recently
from a close college friend shocked me. It has been nearly three decades since we studied
together at Jilin University in China. Over the years, we managed to maintain sporadic
contact with each other until emails made it convenient. I must say seeing “five” and “zero”
side by side was quite jolting, to put it mildly. After staring at the message on the computer
screen for a while, I decided to focus on the whole sentence and regard it as a compliment.
Truth be told, my life has taken a new direction in many aspects at this no-longer-young age.
I know that in the United States, people’s age, especially that of women, is often a
forbidden topic. I know how mortified some of my American girlfriends are if their age is
mentioned in a casual manner by a male friend. This has brought a smile to my face,
because in China, age is an open book, both for men and women.
“How old are you?” People pose the question to children, grown-ups, and elders all the
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time, particularly when they first meet. When the question is raised to a child, it’s usually followed by comments about how
cute or smart the child looks for his or her age. And when it’s posed to an elder, a show of respect is to follow. The older the
person, the more respect he or she would command. There is no cultural taboo against revealing one’s age.
subsequent discussions, not to mention the rewarding
feeling I had when, from time to time, someone would
come to me with a resonating story to share.
More recently, with the introduction of a friend, I
ventured out to realize a long cherished dream of
becoming a journalist—I began to write features and
other coverage in both English and Chinese for a major
news agency in China. It is this last step that has
prompted my college classmate to make the comment
that “life starts at 50.”
At this point of my life, standing on top of the hill, I feel
the advantage of being able to see with a broader vision
and act with more openness. I figure that going along the
path “down” the hill can take its time. I don’t know
whether it will be short or long. But I want to treat every
day and every year as a new start.
Jian Ping's column
Life starts at 50
Jian Ping (middle) on her 50th birthday with
husband Francis and daughter Lisa.
I spent the first 26 years of my life in China. Perhaps because of that, it never
bothered me when other people asked me about my age. Well, I must admit
that was the case until last year when it occurred to me I was approaching a
Ten years ago when I first heard the term “over the hill,” I laughed it off. At
40, my daughter was attending a boarding school. I took full advantage of the
“empty nest” and started playing tennis and taking writing classes. That year
I also committed myself to write my book Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.
In many ways, I felt it was the best time of my life and truly appreciated the
freedom and independence to pursue my new interest. Besides, in China,
that “hill” top is not marked at 40, but more generously, at Ban Bai, “half a
I forged forward with energy and enthusiasm, more so than I had ever
After Jian Ping's arrival in the
United States, she had picked
up racquetball and swimming.
remembered. I had always been athletic since I was a child, playing ping pong and
participating in all sorts of school’s track field events such as long jump, 60-meter to 200-
meter races and medley relays. After my arrival in the United States, I had picked up
racquetball and swimming, and five years ago when I moved to downtown Chicago, I began
cycling on the winding trails by Lake Michigan as a form of exercise vs. transportation, as I
had done in China. At 40, I felt blessed to be in good health and able to pursue my new
hobbies and passions, which I did vigorously. The idea of being “over the hill” never
occurred to me.
Ten years flew by without my giving much attention to aging. I worked out almost every
morning and loved it. When I beat an opponent on the racquetball court, particularly one of
the guys, I really felt good. However, over the years, my racquetball partners at the gym
came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice that my husband Francis and I were the
oldest players in our cut-throat or doubles games.
I could defy aging, or rather, deny it. But nature finds its way to get to you.
Last year, when I finally approached the Chinese moment of “over the hill,” I was forced
to face reality by the sliver streaks that slowly invaded my black hair. For the first time in my
life, I was reluctant to celebrate a birthday. I stayed further away from the bathroom counter
where I looked at myself in the mirror each morning, and I began to feel the slight but sure
expansion of my waistline. Even my regular exercise efforts couldn’t prevent it from
happening. And worse, now an episode of a strenuous workout or
a couple of extra racquetball games often leaves me sore the
But despite that, at heart, I must say I still feel young!
So, being consistent with the defiant spirit of the “mulberry
child,” I continue to forge forward.
Last June when I turned 50, the most exciting project in my life
was the making of a feature-length documentary film based on by
book Mulberry Child. I was and still am most fortunate to have a
team of professionals dedicated to the project. Not only have I
involved in the film as a main character to relate my life story, but
also in the logistics of our filming to China. Now, as the post
production of the film is about to finish, I will be working with the
marketing and public relations of the film as well. I have very much
enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal in the process.
And turning 50, I continued to give talks to social groups and
organizations about my book and China. I liked the opportunities of
meeting with people. I learned a lot from their questions and the
|At Jilin University in China, Jian Ping (5th from right,
middle row) posed with classmates.