When I first came to the U.S., I had to be asked the question of “How old are you” for the first time when I checked out at a supermarket. It never occurred to me that I had to bring my ID to a store. I had been in America only about two weeks. I shopped with my American retired professor friend for groceries. He wanted to buy beer for his house guests. His gray hair and fatherly look could no way stir the cashier’s suspicion since you have to be twenty-one to buy beer. But it was me—a twenty-six-year-old Chinese who probably looked sixteen then—who spoiled my friend’s shopping plan.
“Can I see your ID?” a chunky middle-aged cashier asked. She deftly swiped the items on the belt across an infrared monitor.
“I don’t have an ID with me,” I said as if I was accused.
“I have my driver’s license,” my American friend said as he pulled out his ID from the black leather wallet.
“No, I want to see hers,” the cashier insisted. “I know you have no problem in checking out the beer. But I’m not sure about her.” She eyed me firmly.
“I don’t have a driver’s license and I don’t have my passport with me,” I said flatly.
“How old are you?”
“26.” I was shocked by the question. I was told it was impolite to ask a woman’s age. Good manners seemed to be played down this time.
“It’s the company’s policy that we should check young people’s IDs if they check out beer.”
“He bought the beer, not me,” I argued, feeling I had no advantage in this conversation.
“No. Since you and he are in the same party, I’ll still need to check your ID.”
Just when I was about to refute, my friend gave up and said, “All right, take out the beer.”
Thanks to the cashier who stuck to her guns, we didn’t get beer. My friend got it a few days later by himself. I can’t say if that cashier was too rigid or too responsible. I also can’t say if I should feel flattered when my young appearance on a legally-aged body causes an ID check before my drinking. But I now understand why there are many late teens Westerners on a binge in China and why many young Americans would like to party in Canada where the legal drinking age is 18 or 19. Isn’t this an American rendition of a Chinese saying—every policy has a counter-strategy?