“Is he your foreign exchange student?” When you’re a white woman who looks older than her Asian husband

Actually, he's my husband.
Actually, he’s my husband.

I never thought a simple trip to the grocery store with my husband would give me one of the most embarrassing experiences I’ve ever had.

It happened while we were checking out of a grocery store in the US. My husband, as usual, started bagging our stuff while I pulled out my credit card to pay for everything. It was just another typical checkout experience – until the cashier, a white woman in her fifties, started chatting with me.

“Nice to have some help,” she said, referring to my husband who had already bagged everything and placed it neatly in our shopping cart.

“Yeah, he is pretty great.” I couldn’t help but smile with pride. Who doesn’t love it when her husband is the envy of others?

Or so I thought, until the cashier opened her mouth again.

“So, is he your foreign exchange student?”

That’s right – a casher in America actually mistook my own husband for some foreign exchange student I was hosting.

A flush of red mounted my face as I realized exactly what this meant. One, that she had noticed my thirty-something husband was a foreigner and thought he looked old enough to be an undergraduate in college or younger. And two, that she thought I looked too old to be his wife.

She might as well have pointed out every single wrinkle on my thirty-something face, because that’s exactly how embarrassed I felt.

I cleared my throat. “Actually, he’s my husband.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” The cashier seemed genuinely apologetic, right down to the way her own cheeks turned a self-conscious shade of scarlet.

But it was too late for that. She’d already put the idea out there. And let me tell you, I never hurried out of a checkout line faster than that moment.

I never thought a simple trip to the grocery store with my husband would give me one of the most embarrassing experiences I’ve ever had.
I never thought a simple trip to the grocery store with my husband would give me one of the most embarrassing experiences I’ve ever had.

Honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Long before this ever happened, relatives and friends doted on John’s youthful appearance. In fact, it seemed like a month never went by in America without my dad saying, “John, you look like you’re still in high school!” They schooled me a reality that had remained hidden to me until I married an Asian man: the popular belief that Asians look younger than white people.

But until that moment in that checkout line, I was blissfully unaware that some Americans might actually think I was old enough to, say, be a guardian to a foreign exchange student. And might mistake my Asian husband for said student.

Of course, I’m not the only white woman in an AMWF relationship who has had an embarrassingly personal reminder of how Asians look younger than white people, as Constance of Foreign Sanctuary reminds me in her post My Taiwanese Husband & His Most Amazing Moment in Vegas!!:

While dining in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, my 30-something year old husband (who, might I add, is two years older than me) heard the most magical words from a waitress when he tried to order a beer.

‘May I see your ID, please?’

Smiling from ear to ear, his dimples as defined as ever, like a kid in a candy store, he turned to me and asked me for his passport which I was holding for safe keeping in my bag.

He passed her his passport and she began to examine it. She looked at his passport photo, she looked at him, and then back at the photo. She continued by checking the edges, clearly thinking that it must have been a fake one.

Then, she said ‘Oh my God! You are in your 30’s!!’

Talk about inflating someone’s ego with one sentence!

Trying to salvage some dignity, even just a little, I casually asked the following question.

‘Would you like to see mine as well?’

And to add more salt to the wound, to drive the dagger further into my heart, she made the following reply:.

‘No, that’s fine! You’re OK.’

Oh, the humiliation! The embarrassment!


I’ll be honest – for the longest time, I swore I would never go public with this encounter in the grocery store. I wanted it to be like the diary I used to hide under my mattress in grade school, forever safe from scrutiny. Who wants to admit before the world that, in fact, people think she looks old?

(John to me): Is that a gray hair?
(John to me): Is that a gray hair?

Yet, the older I get, the more I realize the importance of accepting myself, warts and all. After all, aging is a reality for everyone. Maybe some of us are lucky enough to look younger (ahem, John), while others are not so lucky (ahem, me!). But in the end, we’re all headed in the same direction.

And honestly, who hasn’t seen the person with the dyed hair that’s obviously there to hide the gray and isn’t fooling anyone? Or someone like the late Joan Rivers, with so much plastic surgery and botox she doesn’t even look real anymore?

I cringe over the extremes we turn to just to hide our real age, when the treatment we really need is simple — accepting ourselves exactly as we are.

I also recognize that looking younger isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, as Mabel Kwong points out in her post “Asians’ Youthful Looks: A Blessing or A Curse In Disguise?”

Besides, my husband still thinks I’m the sexiest woman in the world. He can’t keep his hands off me – wrinkles and stretch marks and hidden gray hairs and all. He loves me just as passionately as that night over 12 years ago when we first kissed beside the West Lake.

So what if he doesn’t “look” like he matches me in age to some folks? I know he’s my perfect match and that’s all I’ll ever need to know.

Picture 462

Have you ever had an experience where someone mistook you or your boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse for a different age? How did it make you feel?

P.S.: This post was inspired by Constance’s post My Taiwanese Husband & His Most Amazing Moment in Vegas!! Head over to Constance’s blog Foreign Sanctuary and read her post, as well as the comment section, which is packed with examples of other people who have had embarrassing experiences of their own!

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50 Replies to ““Is he your foreign exchange student?” When you’re a white woman who looks older than her Asian husband”

  1. Luckily, this never happens with my husband. He is seven years older than me so that probably helps. We might look the same age to some, but he doesn’t look younger than me.

    On a related note, I was mistaken for one of my friend’s mother. It was Black Friday last year and we were chatting with a woman waiting in line ahead of us. My friend told her she was there to buy something for her 8-year-old son. The lady turned to me and asked if I was a proud grandmother.I was really confused for a second and then I told her no, I was only 30 and nobody’s grandmother!

  2. Thanks for including a piece of my article, Jocelyn!

    ‘Yet, the older I get, the more I realize the importance of accepting myself, warts and all. After all, aging is a reality for everyone.’ – So true!! I have notice the more confident and self-assure I am, the more positive people perceive me.

    I am not sure if you saw this or not but there is a buzz now about aging now on the internet. Although I don’t really follow ‘celebrity news,’ I just happened to glance on an article posted on Yahoo the other day with a picture of Renee Zellweger. Now, I remember her from Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones’s Diary but the woman’s picture didn’t resemble her at all. Then, I thought I must have gotten the name mixed up or something, but no – that was her after some plastic surgery.

  3. Ouch! Wow.
    That’s happened to us a couple times – my husband got ID-ed to buy a protein drink (since you have to be over 16 in the states to buy some)… when he was 26! I was still 22 and they didn’t card me.

    Everyone seems to think my husband is younger than me – even though he’s really 4-5 years older.

  4. Oh no!! What an embarrasing moment :/ But I’m sure the cashier was not remarking that you looked old, but that he looked young! And probably the thought of a white woman being married to an Asian was too weird for her so she didn’t even consider it 😀
    But I agree with you. Aging is part of life and I can’t understand the obsession with trying to look younger, specially when it implies surgery. I saw th Rene Zellweger pic that Constance is mentioning and she doesn’t look like herself at all anymore!

    Until now I haven’t had age-related mistakes in China, but I’ve been asked if I was pregnant… Come on, I’m not that fat!!

    1. Marta, maybe that was what she was thinking. I never thought about it like that, but it could have happened that way too. Non-Asian women dating Asian men are a rare bunch indeed!

      Yeah, that Renee Zellweger picture looks horrible.

      I’ve also been asked if I was pregnant before by one of my husband’s friends. 😛

  5. This is a brave post, Jocelyn, and Constance’s story is hilarious. Yeah, the difference in apparent age is something that AMWF couples have to contend with, and if the woman is insecure about her looks she may find herself in some mental distress.

    And it’s interesting that white men in WMAF relationships don’t seem to be troubled by this issue. Maybe it’s because people are used to seeing beautiful young women on the arms of old, disgusting men regardless of the racial combination of the pairings.

    1. Thanks D-Maybe!

      Well, if the world believes that white people appear older than Asians, then WMAF couples aren’t breaking the traditional standard — that’s it’s OK for the guy to be (or appear to be) older than the woman. But yeah, there are some HUGE age gaps (a la Rupert Murdoch when he was still married to Wendi Deng) that are just, well, shocking.

    2. My Chinese girlfriend is often taken for a teenager in Europe, and I guess I’m that “disgusting old man” in other peoples’ eye. I’m 38. And I am also younger than her 🙁

  6. My (Chinese) husband and I were grocery shopping when we decided to sample the wine a vendor was offering. He grinned like a schoolboy when the vendor insisted on seeing his ID. The vendor laughed when they saw my husband was 33.

  7. So far I’ve been lucky enough to avoid encounters like you and Constance have mentioned, but I suspect it’s more because we’re 99% of the time in Japan. My husband’s Japanese business colleagues and customers often mistake him for being almost ten years younger than he is though… I dread to think what age they would guess me as!

    For him it seems to be a genetic thingーYJ’s maternal grandfather is often mistaken to be younger than my FIL! ^^; (I guess it’s a good thing he takes after his granddad…)

    I love your conclusion about loving yourselfーand being loved as you are. I think it’s easy to forget that people are people and flaws (perceived or real) are part of their beauty.

    1. Thanks for the comment Ri! Yeah, I never had these experiences until I left China with my husband, so if we were like you and your husband, this embarrassing experience in the post would probably never have happened!

      1. I see! So maybe if I just make sure we never move abroad, I won’t have to worry about awkward comments… (I can dream, can’t I?) ^^;

  8. I once had an encounter that was the exact opposite of yours. A Chinese woman thought that I was way younger than my husband (he’s 6 years older, but I think she thought that he’s way older than that and that I’m younger than I really am). I’ve often been mistaken for younger in the past in China, I think it’s connected to people not being used to foreign faces and therefore not being able to see how old you really are (it has only happened to me in China, not in Austria). It hasn’t happened that much recently, but there was a time in my mid-20s when people here used to think I was 17.

    I agree with you a 100% , it’s important to accept ourselves and all our wrinkles. Just think about all the experience and knowledge you have now compared to a younger you. People constantly thinking you’re younger than you really are can be a nuisance too (because you might not be taken serious).

  9. After reading this post, I actually remembered a time when I had asked a waitress in a restaurant if she were pregnant, with her to respond with a ‘no’, then swiftly walk away. I felt so embarrassed and sorry that I had asked what I had asked! 🙁 Sometimes it’s best to just not say anything, because we never really know people’s circumstances unless they are told directly to us.

  10. Oh no, so sorry to hear about the cashier experience. That’s terrible, it sounded like you wanted the ground to open up and swallow you whole! I’m sure your husband wasn’t exactly amused with the situation at all. From the way the cashier spoke, it seemed she didn’t think to highly of inter-racial couples.

    Once I was queuing up with a bunch of Caucasian guys (in their late teens, younger than me) waiting to go into an 18+ concert venue. All of us got ID-ed!

    Aging is a part of life. The older we get and the more we embrace our “imperfections”, the more confidence we will feel. A lot of us have difficulty accepting ourselves because we feel the need to conform to how others look and behave. All of us are different and have different experiences, fact. So we really should embrace ourselves for who we are 🙂

    p/s: thanks for the mention in this post!

  11. My boyfriend and I have always had the opposite problem. He is first-generation ABC, is pretty tall for an Asian guy (5’10”), and has always had a long ponytail as well as a beard. On the other hand, I’m a really short white girl (5’1 on a good day) and have kind of a round baby face. Boyfriend is only four months older than me, but when my mom first met him five years ago when we started dating, she thought he was a grad student, between five and ten years older than me! We were both 19 at the time. I started getting a lecture from her on the dangers of older men until I could interrupt and correct her.

    Also, once at the county fair, a guess your age/fortune teller guy guessed that boyfriend was 33 when he was actually 21 at the time. I do agree with the comment that foreign faces in general are harder to guess or read for some people. I think how you wear your hair and or beard also makes a huge difference! Normally it’s just funny when someone is so off with their guess about his age, though occasionally it can be embarrassing like the moment with my mom.

    When I went to China with his family no one really had any weird issues or guesses about my age but my boyfriend did get asked (right in front of me) by several aunties and female friends of his mom… Oh my son is studying/living abroad in Europe/Canada/America and says he cannot find a Chinese girlfriend, I will tell him to look for a white girlfriend like yours! How did you get a white girlfriend? Etc.

  12. Do they bath in virgin’s blood or what? Why Asian men keep looking so young? You can ask Linda, that in real life if Sing has his glasses he has a face of a 12 year old. I’m 5 years younger but his whole family who didn’t know my age thought we’re the same age which made me cry, but I think it wasn’t as bad as your experience. Remember – it’s not how you look, because you look really young and your skin tone is so fresh 🙂 but it’s somehow their baby-face-forever. We will reach our 50s and 60s and they will still stay forever21 😉

  13. When I was teaching at a university in Korea, I had an embarrassing moment like this. I was teaching freshmen English classes. My husband, a Chinese graduate student, and I had met in a level one Korean language class and just began dating. One day my boss approached me and said he’d seen me with my boyfriend and then asked me if he was one of my students! I quickly said no, that he was a grad student, that we had met in Korean class. My boss replied, “Oh, good. Because it would be a problem if you were dating your student.” No, really?!

    This continued the whole three years in Korea, including after we got married. I moved on to teaching in-service classes for Korean secondary school English teachers, so mostly people in their 30s-60s. Every one of them who saw me with my husband outside of class asked me if he was one of my students.


    In America, I’ve also had the experience of being in a casino where my husband was carded but I wasn’t. *sigh*

  14. Really interesting experiences are mentioned here!

    I have also a few stories but the main one which is always on my mind when it comes to this topic was at my wedding. (I wrote about it also as a comment on Constance’s Blog”Foreign Sanctuary”)
    At my wedding my elderly uncle (in his mid 70’s) thought that my 52 year old mother-in-law was my wife! Back then both my wife and I were 26 so you can imagine the laughter it caused, how happy my mother-in-law was by this and how very upset my wife was 🙂

  15. My Chinese husband is 8 years older than I am. When they were younger, the kids looked more like him. When I took them to the playground, the other parents used to ask if I was the babysitter. However, another time, someone who was barely an acquaintance asked me if my husband had married me in order to get a green card. How nice. Yet another person asked me if I was a “trophy wife.” It proves that:
    1) people have different and often strange preconceptions.
    2) people lack filters on their mouths when it comes to asking appropriate questions

  16. Im 38 asian guy but they still look for my ID. Lol thats why I will never dated a white girl near my age. She will look older than me. I have a gf now she is 22

  17. This post definitely entertains a lot of readers at Jocelyn’s her own expense. Actually such post is quite similar to Confucius way to be self-pity and self-mockery to make other people feel better in order to reduce tension and achieve harmony. Maybe Jocelyn is picking up Oriental way of thinking over the years.

    In official ancient Han languages, an common person often refer himself as 小人 (lowest one ), an educated person called himself 鄙人(not sophisticated one); an official called himself 卑职(lowerly ranked); even emperor called himself 孤 or 寡人 (lonely one). From top to bottom, every one called himself in such inferior way to make others feel better. They tried to avoid any terms to make other feel inferior.

    In other part of world, such behavior is totally alien and counterintuitive. English culture is only exception which also has a lot of self-pity and self-mockery. Most English humor is about making fun of oneself. Humility and modesty are very unique product of mature civilization.


    Only self-actualized people do such self-mockery (Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.) Self-actualizers are mostly elites in their societies.

  18. I really don’t think she was commenting on your age! Like others have suggested, I think it was a combination of the fact that he looks SO young and that AMWFs are so uncommon that it’s not people’s first thought! I understand why you’d be embarrassed, but it’s not a reflection of you!

  19. Haha as my Chinese fiance is balding people don’t mistake him as younger but his parents are CONVINCED I am 10 years older than I am if that’s any consolation!

  20. Good article, and something very true for many of us I believe. I know I’m heading where you are now, I’m 29 and may already look the same age (or slightly older…) than my 33 year old boyfriend. I’m sure that within a few years, I will look older and he will look the same as he does now. People currently believe he is in his mid-twenties, but he could pass of for a university student just the same.

    Although none of us like being estimated older than we are (somebody asked me a few years ago if I was my aunt’s younger sister… ouch), I agree with you that getting older is just part of life. And frankly, since I recently lost a very close relative who was in his mid-twenties only, I celebrate life and every year that I grow older now, as never getting older than 25 is definetely not the better option!

  21. This is strange. I’m constantly over judging people’s age here in China. They look OLDER to me, not younger than their age. Maybe it’s because most Chinese live hard lives, are over worked, stressed, experience a bad environment, etc.

    To me, that first pic of you two like the other pics I’ve seen, both of you look the same age.

  22. Perhaps it’s not necessarily an Asian thing, but an ethnicity-you-didn’t-grow-up-with thing. I’m white, male, 34 years old. White people rarely ID me. East Indians almost always do, and Asians it’s about 50/50. I had a woman a few months ago say “let me guess, 1994″ (my reply: ” That’s the year I got my drivers license”), and another last year who refuse to sell to me, convinced that I had a fake ID. The only exception is people who, judging by their accents, were born here.

    1. Well, it is certainly true that we tend to have more difficulty in determining the age of people from racial backgrounds that we’re not familiar with. However, there’s no denying that Asians, perhaps more than any other racial group, appear especially young for their biological age — it has to do with the neoteny that is characteristic of Asians.

  23. I haven’t aged so much within 10 yrs but I look more muscular :). I always tell everybody to eat more fruits, vegetables, fibers and exercise 4-5 times a week. You need to build more muscles to increase your testosterone level and burn more fats etc. Also, you must know how to relieve stress. Maintaining a healthy life and body is extremely difficult!! I’m having a hard time too right now due to injuries and stress at the office. One customer always comes to my office once a yr and says ” you still look the same. you have changed at all” Wth man! He doesn’t know that I exercise at night and eat lots of fruits , veggies and green tea. You also need to smile and laugh a lot everyday. That’s my secret.

  24. When I was 38 one day my manager told me he had looked in my personnel file ans was surprised because he always thought I was about 25.
    I once knew an AMWF couple where there was a 15 year age gap – he was in his early 50’s an she was in her late 30’s but most people thought they were about the same age.

  25. It hasn’t always been like this. Do recall that most Chinese men are chain smokers, and it wasn’t until recently did this nasty habit start to taper off. By the time they hit 30, many chain-smoking Chinese peasants look like wreaks.

  26. I don’t think it’s so much an age thing. I don’t think you two look so far apart in age. I think what it comes down to is the expectations that you two would be together. It’s a rare occurrence to have AMWF combinations so I think they might have just been looking for a way to explain it.

    I have a friend who hosts foreign exchange students in her home every year and their family is known for it. So if the cashier talks to the family member with them in the store, they might ask the same question.

    To be fair, I have also had a similar situation here in Shanghai. I was out on a first date in a local restaurant, where the server asked if I was his boss. I didn’t understand at first as he was better dressed than I was (suit versus casual dress) and we look the same age roughly (or I think so) but there was an awkwardness when we heard this and we had to explain. He was not happy when we left and wouldn’t say much, but eventually things got better when we talked about it later.

    I think it made it much easier to convince him to engage in more PDA here. We don’t get questions like that anymore.

  27. It doesn’t matter if a woman looks older than her husband. I personally like mature looking woman. Most young-looking girl looks like underage girls (especially Asian girls), which are the biggest turn off to me (i’m not a pedo 😀 ).

    So, looking pretty and mature is the best thing in women.

  28. Happens to me all the time! I’m 30 and my husband is 37, we’ve been together for 7 years. I’m a tall, curvy appealing girl and he’s my height but very skinny, easily confused by a teenager. When we started dating I was quite chubby and that didn’t help. Losing some weight came to my advantage, but he still looks younger than me, specially when he shaves his face. We hear all sort of comments and I must admit it used to bother me a lot, but I’m working on that. It all comes from the stereotype of having a bigger partner to protect us women…

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