A farewell to youth, and a love letter to youthfulness
Words by Jackie Zhou
You’re only valuable if your resume is as extensive as the list of dreams you promised you’d work towards but other adult obligations have forced you to do anything other than that.
When I was a kid, I thought I was invincible.
I had all the time in the world, and I only had one responsibility: don’t flop at school. And I didn’t, so I could do whatever I wanted, eat whatever I wanted, sleep whenever and have a sore back and not think it was the end of my life.
Three years out of high school and I look back at the days in which I had a routine and the stability of going to school, I did the work I needed to do, and then came home and did whatever you wanted. It suddenly kicks in.
I can’t go back anymore.
I will no longer feel the excitement of listening to newly downloaded songs on the bus ride to school every morning. I will never get the same giddy feeling the night before a primary school excursion that left me unable to sleep. I will no longer feel the same exhilaration of seeing Harold the Giraffe’s van parked outside my school— knowing that this school day will be different from the others. Most importantly, I will miss the feeling of playing pokemon on the DS with my best friend, but only in my wardrobe because it felt more secret and fun in there compared to my room.
My childhood skin has been shed, and my turbulent twenties have started. The shared excitement for the potential you held as a child is replaced with a critique over what you have accomplished as an adult. No longer is your value based on how well you do on your maths test, instead you’re only valuable if your resume is as extensive as the list of dreams you promised you’d work towards but other adult obligations have forced you to do anything other than that.
Oops, too far? My apologies, I’ll save the existential stream of conscious ramblings for my therapist.
But all of this groaning and grumbling about growing up and being in the midst of figuring yourself out (as you do in your adulthood) has got me thinking: what is youth? Why is my entire identity, especially as a woman, surrounded by youth? Am I wasting my time staying in bed mindlessly scrolling on tiktok in an attempt to avoid my responsibilities, while women my age like Billie Eilish are topping Billboard charts?
Alas, I must forgive myself for giving in to these thoughts when the value of youth is constantly reiterated in everything I see and hear. The saturation of women between the ages of 20-30 in most forms of media I have consumed doesn’t seem to ease the stress of living every day of my youth to the fullest. Simply because once I am no longer fertile or serve the male gaze, it seems that I will no longer be of value anymore. I have expired, I’ve served my purpose, and now I must wait in mortal purgatory for the day I die.
And yet, I hear artists like Mitski writing beautiful verses of womanhood beyond the youthful archetype presented to me throughout my years of being alive, and I see women in my life find happiness and warmth in snapshots of life I never bothered to give a second glance; I am then reminded that youth is not as one dimensional as I always believed it was.
The idea of youth has been purposely shaped and sculpted, made iridescent and tantalising to the point where it is strived after by even the most indifferent individuals. So who did this sculpting, and why? Can such ephemeral creatures like ourselves strive to immortalise it in our own lives?
Unfortunately youth, by its very definition, cannot be immortalised, and perhaps that is what makes it so valuable to us. But I believe youthfulness can be, and it is a matter of whether or not we can remain open to the idea that our experiences in life are fluid. In the same way that nature has its own timeline, so too do our lives - and this is incredibly difficult to grasp when you are my age.
Youth has no expiration date, and consequently, neither does my value as a person.
Your 20s are a tumultuous time, with many unspoken expectations to have been met like a besmirching to-do list that will ultimately determine your worth: you should have your first kiss by now, and you should have moved into your first home. You should have had your first full time job, your first degree, your first car, your first child, your first marriage, your first mortgage that you will spend the rest of your life repaying, and if you haven’t gotten all of these things, you are falling behind and your life is crap and everything is awful and you’re an irredeemable lost cause, a poor individual fated to a cursed and tragic end.
And so oftentimes our youth is sacrificed in this grand journey to find who we are while trying to keep our heads afloat. However, youthfulness never has to be sacrificed, and I don’t think there is a better example of this than my mother, who allowed me to witness her journey back to youthfulness firsthand.
As a first generation immigrant, my mother has one very simple philosophy that she lived her life by - she wanted me and my siblings to be happy. The seeds that she worked her ass off to sow, water and shelter were so my siblings and I had fruit to eat when we got older.
Nobody ever told me how hard it is to watch your parents age - to watch the exhaustion of age catch up, and listening to their own existential musings about their funerals and how they have less and less time on this earth. But also, nobody told me that youthfulness can bloom in everyone, no matter the date on their birth certificate, if you give it the right environment to grow in.
Though the lines on my mothers face continue to be carved by the winds of time, she had never shed what was left of her childhood skin. Her silly songs that she sings over absolutely nothing of importance, her dirty sense of humour, her willingness to learn new English words she had never heard of before, her nervous demeanour she employs when she has to make a phone call to a branch of the government - I’m sure these aren’t the first things that come to mind when we imagine a 56 year old woman living in the suburbs of modern Australia.
All of this reflection of my mother as the person I love the most in this world made me reflect on my own perspective of youth - am I youthful despite being young? The answer is …maybe?
Because I turn into my eleven year old self when I purchase a new book and I want to read it under the covers of my bed with a little torch to light the pages. I am thirteen years old when I get excited about making new friendships, and I am 30 when I rekindle old ones. I am six years old when my mother’s bed is the only place that coaxes my anxious mind to sleep, and I am sixteen when I get excited about listening to a freshly curated playlist on the train ride to uni.
Youth has no expiration date, and consequently, neither does my value as a person. I am a piece of the universe experiencing itself from a mortal perspective, in one ephemeral epoch at a time, and it takes a lot of disconnecting from the environment I was raised in to come to peace with that.
Perhaps it is the impermanence of my life that makes it so valuable - the youthfulness I am able to preserve and the inner child I am able to protect from erosion.
Jackie is a Chinese-Australian Marketing and Arts student at Monash University with a keen interest in all things art history, textual analysis and portrait photography. As a strong advocate for diversity in the art world, they hope to one day be able to amplify the voices of creatives. Do not ask her how she intends to get there unless you enjoy watching people spiral. For real, don’t do it.
If they aren’t having an existential crisis over the uncertainty of a career in the arts and daydreaming about running away from the responsibilities of contributing to society, you can find Jackie exploring new volunteering opportunities surrounding sustainability while dabbling in graphic design jobs for student run publications. She is passionate about healthy conversations surrounding any social issues and the ways in which they can be managed. You can find them on Instagram @miss.beifong for her latest hyperfixations.
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