I am currently taking a course on modern Korean society. I recently completed an assignment for this class in which the task was to write a paragraph describing in detail how “Korean age” differs from “western” age. I was to complete this assignment as if I was explaining “Korean age” to someone who does not know about it. I thought this assignment might be nice to share on this blog, because some of my readers may not know how Korean age is calculated. Korean age can be very confusing; you may have heard that a Korean baby born on December 31st would be considered two years old the next day, on January 1st. Below is my answer to this assignment, with some additional information added for clarity. Please keep in mind that this was a short assignment, so there will be some broad generalizations made. Furthermore, this is Korean age as told by a non-Korean; I may have made some mistakes or overlooked something, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I apologize in advance for any mistakes and encourage you to do your own research if this is something you are interested in learning more about.
In Korean culture, one’s age is much more important than it is in Western cultures. This is because your age is used to rank you and place you in a social hierarchy. In contrast to Westerns who like to feel that they are equal with others, Koreans feel comfortable being placed in a hierarchy and knowing who ranks above and below them. This emphasis on hierarchy comes from Confucianism and its strong influence on Korean society– Korea is the most strongly Confucian modern society. The influence of Confucianism is felt even more strongly in Korea than in China, where it originated. Confucianism dictates that superiors must be respected and also that people must aim for social harmony. Social harmony can be achieved when people know their place in the social hierarchy and fulfill their role as prescribed by their hierarchical rank. Thus, age is used as one way to determine rank and superiority in Korean society. As a result, age has become an extremely significant part of Korean culture. “How old are you?” is often one of the first questions asked upon meeting someone new in Korea, so that the speaker can determine your relationship and whether you rank above or below them in the hierarchy.
The first thing that is necessary to know about Korean age is that the Korean perspective on age and time is different from the Western perspective. In Western culture, one’s age is on a time continuum with each individual having their own spot on the timeline depending on the year, month, and day they were born. In Korean culture, a year is like a box. The year you were born in is the box you belong in, but you do not have your own individual spot inside the box. Everyone who was born in a certain year (box) is considered to be on the same level with others who were born in the same year (box). Following this perspective, Koreans are not considered to be a year older on their birthday, but rather, they all turn a year older on January 1st, the new year. Everyone in the same box turns a year older at the same time.
To make this more complicated, however, Koreans used to be considered a year older depending on when they began school, because all children who started school together were considered to be the same age. This, again, follows the idea that everyone belongs in a particular box (school year), and they have the same rank as everyone else in that box. Since the Korean school year begins in March, children born in January or February can start school a year earlier than others born in the same year and are said to be a year older than those others, despite being born in the same year. Although this practice ended in the 21st century, those who began school while it was still in place still base their age on this system.
The last thing you need to know is that Koreans are considered a year old when they are born. If you think about it, this again matches the Korean perspective of age and time. The birth year was traditionally important to Koreans, rather than the number of months the baby has been alive, but it does not make sense to say a child is 0 years old. Again, a year is like a box, so when a baby is born, it is not actually that they are considered 1 year old. Rather, they are considered to be in the “Year 1 box”, or “in Year 1.” Thus, a baby who is born December 31st is not actually considered to be 2 years old the next day on the New Year, but “in Year 2.” Koreans are born in one year and their age changes as the year changes.
The confusion that Westerners feel upon learning about Korean age stems mainly from a difference in linguistic expression and what is lost in translation from one language to another. Although Koreans do not literally say “I am in Year 25″, “I am 25 years old” means something different in Korean than it does in English because of the different perceptions of age and time. The Korean perception of age seems to follow the collectivist and Confucian nature of the culture, as individual birthdays are not important and everyone born in the same year turns a year older at the same time. Meanwhile, individualistic Western societies view everyone as having their own special spot on a continuous timeline that marks their own age. It makes sense.
I tried to make this post as concise as possible, but somehow it became quite long. I’m not sure I’ve done a great job explaining this topic, but I did my best. It’s still pretty confusing to me, and in fact I had to leave a couple things out because I myself still don’t fully understand them. If you are curious about my age, I am 20 in international age and 22 in Korea. I was born in February 1996, so I am considered to be one of those children who got to go to school a year early. As a result, my Korean age is 2 years older than my international age. Unfortunately, I don’t think that means I look young for my age here.