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The curious case of Korean age (and why it makes no sense)

Korean age.

I love this topic. It’s fitting too, because a few days ago everyone just got a year older. Plus that Brad Pitt movie made me think about crazy age systems.

But before I get into this, I’ll have to apologize for beating a dead horse. This topic has been covered in countless blogs, forums, and usually tops a beginner’s guide to Korean culture. Of course, the good people here at KC101 covered this topic in Culture Class #4. So, why is it so hard to understand sometimes? And more importantly why break the mold? Why does Korea differ in how age is recorded?

First off, I’d like to volunteer a piece of something personal. I am discalculic. I don’t get along with numbers. So, even the “normal” western system provides plenty of confusion for me. I genuinely struggle with some math concepts - age included. So, I am certainly not poking fun at anyone who struggles with this system because I most definitely do.

Having established that, when you add new rules to the already confusing game of life, it makes me sad inside. But, let me try to rationalize this system - not for you, dear readers, but for me.

  • In Korea, you are born one (1) years of age. Call it a really long pregnancy
  • In Korea, you increase your age count on January 1st of every year, not on your birthday
  • In Korea, your chronological age is factored in for horoscopes and astrology, not for age counting
  • In Korea, you make Matthew frustrated

I like to think of it like Diablo II or World of Warcraft - you’re still you,  just +2 dexterity, +1 agility, or in this case, +1/2 years of age. So you are still born in the same day, month, year as you always have been but now you must gauge the situation and pull out your Age of Revivification Circlet +15% or Mithryl Gloves of Leech (depending on whether you want the added age or not). You, but better!

Allow me to demonstrate:

Korean Age Graph 2.1
It throws me for a loop every now and then when I talk to parents of small children. When I ask them how old their child is, they always catch me by surprise with the age. They tell me an age that seems a little over the typical developmental level of an young child (think: the terrible twos fours) “Shouldn’t he have been already crawling for a year or two by now? Why is it such a big deal that a three year old is learning to talk?”

Young (but surprisingly old) Korean Kids

Either way, it’s a system that works in my favor for the time being. I was born in September of 1983 so I soak up the extra two years added for nine months out of the year. I dig it now, but that might change if I’m still unmarried in my forties. I might want to change back to the non-Korean system then. Or find a new pickup line. Either way.

So to sum up, I don’t know why Koreans do the funky chicken when it comes to recording age. What I do know is that age plays an important role in initiating and maintaining  friendships. Social age is likely more important that chronological age in Korea, so I can appreciate the idea of everyone “aging” all at the same time. And truth be told, I do like to hear that even some Koreans find their system daunting. Solution? Ask what year you were born and just gauge from there. If the person responds in the same year, you guys are 동갑. Call it a day - the year is the most important. Even I can grasp that :) 그럼, 몇년생이세요?

Thoughts?

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