Old Before My Time: The Concept of Korean Age
As an international traveler, you are used to the idea of various countries using different measures to refer to the same thing. The same size-four dress in Australia will translate into a size-five in svelte Japan. That which we call a size-eight trainer in London will smell as sweet in L.A. – OK, maybe not – though it will be labeled a size-ten (and will be called a sneaker). Even so, I found it exceedingly weird to board a Korean Air flight in New York as a 27-year-old and disembark thirteen hours later in Seoul at age twenty-nine. I knew I had flown across the International Date Line; was there an International Age Line that nobody had told me about?
For you fellow Korea travelers who are new to this idea, it goes like this: When a child is born in Korea, he or she is reckoned to be one year old, the logic being that this accounts for the time spent in the womb. That’s fine if we are talking about zebras or bottlenose dolphins or some other animal with a twelve-month gestation period, but it fails to explain why humans should not be considered nine months old at birth. If you’re willing to grant that you are one-year-old the moment you were born, you are then told that you age another year, along with every other person in Korea, every Lunar New Year.
The result of this system of age reckoning is that your so-called “Korean age” and your – let’s call it your “actual” age – differ by at least one year and as many as two, which produces a margin of error that shrinks as you get older, but which is larger the younger you are. For example, a child born one day before the last Lunar New Year (February 3rd), though only five weeks old at this writing, is reckoned to be two years old. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, this is a deviation of around 2,000 percent! A lot of people say age is just a number, but it’s the Koreans who put their money where their mouth is and cavalierly assign it a grossly inflated number with a fuzzy correlation to the actual time elapsed since your birth.
This system has its benefits. For starters, Koreans forever appear two years younger than their stated age and are pretty much guaranteed a lifetime of flattery (“How do you do it, Minji?”). But there are drawbacks too. While it works well enough among Koreans, there is sometimes an awkwardness when contrasting the Korean age with the other, you know, whatchamacallit age when speaking to everyone else.
What do you call it? Let’s be honest; the phrase “international age” is ridiculous. Nobody outside of Korea uses it, and Koreans themselves don’t use it unless speaking to non-Koreans (the phrase they use to refer to their actual age for official purposes is man nai, which translates to “full age”). Saying “My international age is thirty-nine” makes it sound as if your age were some grand and noble compromise like Esperanto, hashed out from a multitude of mutually incomprehensible systems, when in fact, it is a few holdouts (Korea, Vietnam, and parts of China) who figure it differently from the rest of the world. For the same reason, we have to discard “Western age,” as that makes it seem as if we’re talking about some special quirk of French or American accounting. If I say my “real age” is thirty-nine I am condescending, as if the “real” is a wink to my listener that says, “Well, no matter what you say, the fact is I’m thirty-nine.” And if I try to be cute and clever about it and say something like “I am thirty-nine Earth years old,” I succeed in sounding like a cute and clever jerk. My age – a seemingly cut-and-dried fact like my height or my SAT score – has suddenly become kind of hard to explain.
My solution? I just don’t explain it. When asked, I give my age as I reckon it – “I’m thirty-nine” – and leave it to my Korean friends to mentally add two. Like kimchi for breakfast, “Korean age” is a concept that I appreciate, but have not assimilated even after having lived here for several years. Korea can be as old as it wants to be, and I don’t even care how old they consider me privately, but I’ll be forty when I have to, and not a moment – or two years – sooner.
In Korea, when a woman asks you how old you think she is, the universal rules for reckoning “female age” still apply: silently estimate her real age, then subtract five years and announce your guess with a straight face. Don’t forget to act surprised when she reveals that she is exactly as old as you thought.
When in doubt, it is always safer to address a Korean woman as agassi (“young, unmarried woman”) than as ajumma (“indomitable force of nature who always gets the last available seat on the bus.”)