Korean Age vs. American Age
I remember when I was a kid, my cousins and Korean friends would ask how old I was. But when I answered ‘I’m seven’ or whatever age I was at the time, they’d say “What year?” They did this to figure out ranks, if you will.
In Korean culture, for those of you who might not know, age is a big deal. And I don’t mean in a “younger is better” kind of way.
The youngest person usually has to do the grunt work and you are expected to show respect to everyone who is older than them in speech and in action. However, as the oldest in the group, you’re expected to always pay for meals.
The Korean language is set up so that there is formal speech and informal speech. You always use formal speech with anyone older than you, unless they give you permission to lower your speech.
It’s like if said, “Thanks Mr. Claus.” And he replied, “You may call me by my first name, Kris.”
So if you’re in South Korea, or are otherwise asked by a Korean, how old you are, they’re not trying to discriminate against you because you’re too young or too old. It’s because they’re trying to figure out whether they should speak to you formally and treat you with some reverence.
Okay, so how is age determined?
Whenever you tell a Korean person how old you are, they’ll tack on another year. That was cool when I was a kid because what kid isn’t in a hurry to grow up?
But now, I’m like…’No-no, I’m Korean-AMERICAN, so let’s go by the Western age.’ 😆
In South Korea, you’re one when you’re born. And everyone turns another year old on January 1st.
That means if you were born December 31st, you’d turn TWO the next day! So you, in all your newborn glory, would be considered two years old.
However, this makes it much easier to figure out the whole ranking by age system I described earlier. There’s no narrowing age down by what month and doing that math because everyone born in the same year turned another year older on the same day – January 1st of the following year.
By the way, when I was a kid, I used to think they added a year because of the time difference! 😂
But what about birthdays?
Birthdays are still celebrated on your actual birthday. No one celebrates turning another year older on the collective aging day January 1st. Well, unless your birthday is actually January 1st!
All of this confused the heck out of me when I was planning my baby’s first birthday celebration (dol 돌). I panicked for a moment thinking I had missed his Korean first birthday!
But no, everything was good. Yes, according to the Korean aging system, he was already two when we celebrated his first birthday. But the dol is still celebrated on the anniversary of the day of birth, aka birthday.
So hopefully this has cleared up why you’re one, or maybe two, years older in the Korean aging system and why Koreans always ask how old you are.
Need more clarification or have other questions? Put it in the comments!