Twenty going on Twenty-Two

Age is just a number? Perhaps in England, but in Korea, it is a much bigger deal.

In Korea, when you are born, you are automatically labelled as one-year-old. Before you ask, no, Koreans do not spend twenty-one months in the womb. Instead, they count the years they have experienced, as opposed to the years that measure their age. There are two main theories that can explain why Koreans age themselves as one at birth. One theory is that this tradition is rooted in an ancient numerical system which had no concept of zero. Due to their lack of zero, it was only reasonable to age their children as one at birth. An alternative theory attributes this as a rounded-up reflection of the time spent in utero. Factoring in time spent both during the pregnancy and pre-fertilisation it is easier to label this as a one-year time period.

From birth onwards, Koreans then age one year every New Year, opposed to on their day of birth. Koreans have historically placed significance on following the lunar calendar, this is one of the primary reasons why they focus on your year of birth rather than your age. An easy way to identify your Korean age is by adding one to the current year and subtracting the total from your birth year. For example, if you were born in 1998 you would be considered twenty-two as (2019 + 1) – 1998 = 22.

As a collectivist culture, communal ageing is yet another way equality and respect is maintained. By ageing together, it is easier to gauge the amount of respect to show toward others. Those born in the same year are considered peers; whilst, someone born a year older is considered an elder, even if it is a difference of a few days! As such, the elders are spoken to with respect and a higher level of formality. Age is such an important element within Korean society as it determines the way you are expected to address and interact with each other.

There are many ways to ask somebodies age in Korean based on the level of formality you wish to convey, but my favourite has to be: ‘how many bowls of tteokguk have you eaten?’. Tteokguk is a traditional rice cake soup eaten each year on New Year’s Day, and it is said that ‘in order to get one year older, you must eat your tteokguk’. It is a sweet saying that blends two traditions together: their ageing system and culinary rituals.

There has been speculation about removing this tradition as it can cause confusion among the masses. For example, on January 30th, Korean pop star Psy – born on December 31, 1977 – would be considered 43 by “counting” age, 41 by international reckoning, and 42 by “year” age. With the possibility to choose from three ages how do you know which to choose?

Alongside this, the Korean ageing system can cause anxiety for parents who feel like they are missing out on their children’s lives. Seo Hyo-sun told Japan Times that when she was taken into hospital for a caesarean on December 29th her ‘tears kept flowing’ as the doctor told her the baby wanted to come out. Despite the same amount of time passing, Seo Hyo-sun felt betrayed by the Korean ageing system as it was seemingly taking away time from her baby’s childhood. Chang-gun similarly told the paper about the pain he felt when his child was born: ‘he was this precious baby that we finally had, but I felt that all of a sudden two years had just gone by and yet I hadn’t done anything for my baby’.

While the Korean ageing system is engulfed in masses of tradition and history, is it causing more harm than good?

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