In Korean society, age is more important than in other societies. The establishment of hierarchy according to age is derivative of Confucian thought, where a younger person owes their senior respect and an older person owes their junior concern. While this of course exists in many other cultures, it is not so entrenched in the language, mannerisms and every day interactions as it is in Korea.
This is why Korean people are so quick to ask you your age – not because they are nosy but because it is important in deciding how one regards and addresses another person. A young female student, for example will refer to another girl only one year her senior as oni /언니 (big sister) and speak to her using an honorific form of speech. The older person (big sister) does not have to call a younger person, ‘little sister’ and the older person does not need to use a higher level of speech. This is the case all the way across society, because whether you are older or younger than someone determines the relationship you have with them, and the way in which you address and speak to them. Therefore determining how old someone is has to be done quickly and right when you meet a new person.
The method of counting age is different as well – your Korean age will always be either one or two years more than your real age. To add to the confusion you don’t gain a year on your actual birthday. Actually, all Koreans gain an extra year on the same day, on a holiday called Seollal /살날.
How do you count Korean age?
Getting your head around Korean age can be a bit strange at first:
u When you are born, you are one rather than zero.
u With every subsequent lunar new year (at Seollal - usually around late January or February) you gain another year.
Your Korean age will therefore always be either one or two years older than your actual age. Here are a couple of examples to demonstrate how it works:
à Example 1: Theoretically, you can be two when you are only, say, six weeks old. A baby born at the end of December is already one. Then at the turn of the lunar new year, six weeks later, the baby turns two.
à Example 2: Let’s say you are 25 and were born in September. You are automatically 26 because Koreans are born age one. Then you remain 26 until Seollal when you turn 27. At which point you are two years older than your international age.
àExample 3: It’s also possible to ‘catch up’ one year to your Korean age. So, say you turn Korean age 30 at Seollal in 2013 and your real birthday is in July, between Seollal and your actual birthday your Korean age will be 30 and your real age 28 (a two year difference). Then on your birthday in July, you real age will go from 28 to 29, while your Korean age doesn’t change and stays at 30 (now there is a one year difference between your Korean age and your actual age).
History of Korean Age
The age counting method here isn’t solely a Korean thing but an idea that has its roots in China. Other countries in Southeast Asia adhere to this way of counting age too. Lunar New Year, or Seollal in Korean, celebrates the end of one lunar year and the start of another. It takes place on the second new moon after winter solstice. On this holiday, all Koreans gain one more year. One of the most enduring Korean traditions involves the eating of ddeokguk/떡국 (Korean rice cake soup) which Koreans say symbolizes and makes official a person’s gaining another year old. So Koreans actually all get one year older on the same day!
Why is it so important?
As mentioned earlier, the relationships between people are determined by age. So age is used to establish the seniority, and therefore respect, of elders over juniors. If an elder pours you an alcoholic drink at the table, you will be expected to take it. You must wait for the eldest person at the table to start eating before you can begin. Expectations like this have their origins in Confucianism but are still strictly adhered to today.
A Korean only has friends that are born in the same year as him/her. This is because if someone is older than him/her, he/she must pay the elder respect. This makes the relationship formal and slightly uncomfortable. It is hard to be close to someone who is an elder in Korea. It also goes the other way too. A Korean cannot be friends with a younger person because the younger person has to speak and act formally towards the elder. So in order to have friends, everyone must turn the say age older at the same time.
Facts about Age
u Koreans believe life begins in the womb rather than after birth, which is one of the reasons you start life age 1.
u The system for counting age was previously used in Japan until 1902 when a law was introduced to change over to the international style. People were still using the old method though, so another law was passed in 1950 to reinforce the switch.
u Plenty of 28/29 year old foreigners are distraught to learn that in Korea they have already turned 30!
u In Korea, a baby’s one hundred day anniversary is celebrated. In the past, infant mortality rates were high and this was considered a landmark day.
u Koreans refer to international age as man-nai (만나이), meaning full or actual age.