In almost every first encounter made in Korea, it is essential to figure out the age of the person you’re talking to. Since the Confucian idea of respecting your elders still holds true even with a one year age differential, knowing someone’s age is essential to figuring out if you’re higher on the social ladder than they are.
Couldn’t you just ask “How old are you?” Well, you could, but let’s look at the hoops you would have to jump through to answer this question. The Korean word for age is nai (pronounced nah-ee, like Hawai’i), but numbers-sal (which would translate to years-old) is the way you say how old you are. So if you are 25 years old, you could say you’re 25-sal and hope that the person who asked is younger than you so you could lord over them, right? Well, no, because then the person would ask you to clarify. “Is that in Korean nai or man (actual) nai?”
Korean age? What on earth is this? Well, an easy way to think of it is to add one year to the oldest age you would be during the entire year. The Korean system relies on the calendar year rather than birthdays, so you grow a year older on January 1st. This coincides with the Korean custom of consuming tteokguk, a soup with sliced rice cakes, on New Year’s Day, which is why some people may posit the age question by asking how many bowls of tteokguk you’ve eaten. This is despite the fact that if you had actually consumed a bowl of tteokguk every New Year’s Day, you’d still be one bowl short according to the Korean age system. I guess it’s just a figure of speech. Anyway, if you were born in 1990 and were asked your age in 2014, you would be 25 years old according to the Korean system and either 23 or 24 according to the actual or Western age-counting system, depending on whether it was past your birthday.
So why add the extra year? The most convincing explanation that I’ve heard for why Koreans (and many other East Asians but particularly the Koreans) add one year to their actual age is that the extra year accounts for the time spent in the womb. So by the time you are born, you are already one year old. Never mind the fact that the average human pregnancy is around nine months, I suppose you can chalk that up to some liberal rounding up of numbers or the idea that Koreans are actually aliens who have convinced the humanity that they are actually humans and spent the extra three months of gestation in pockets of time-space that exist only in the uteri of Korean women or…something. Anyhow, it’s a practice that I don’t really care for, since it usually adds one or two years to my actual age and I’ve reached the age where I would prefer to stay as young as I can for as long as possible.
So I’ve devised a perfectly justifiable reason to strike down this odd age system that doesn’t consist of the argument that Koreans are supposed to be good at math and this flies in the face of that. You see, such a counting system implies that life begins at conception, which if you consider abortions of any kind to be murder is perfectly fine. However, if you aren’t, you should be troubled by a counting system that basically denies a key tenet of women’s reproductive rights. So if you believe in gender equality, say that you are the age you would say in any other country, which shows that day one of your life is the day you were born. And if you think a woman should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen (an expression I’ve never quite understood, it just seems unsafe to have bare feet around sharp knives and hot pans), by all means, add a year or two to your age, DENY WOMEN THEIR RIGHTS.
Of course, most Koreans don’t understand that the Korean age system has such anti-feminist implications (and some might think I’m just a spokesman for the buzz killing Ministry of Gender Equality and Family-more on that in the future), so they continue to use it. But a lot of people also use the Western system of counting age by birthday, and so it can get quite confusing, since the discrepancy can be up to two years. So to avoid that confusion which may cause you to mistake someone as younger or older than you and cause some regrettable social missteps, Koreans almost always ask for your year of birth. It’s an easy way to clarify your age and group people into fixed age-groups that don’t change depending on the date. If you were born in 1988 like I was, you’re basically the same age as me for ever. This is my favorite system, although I have to confess that I may rely too much on it. Sometimes I have trouble remembering what age I am (I always think I’m either 25 or turning 25 and I can’t be bothered to correct myself).
A variant of this birth year system is the grouping by academic year system. Because the Korean school year starts in March, the academic age groups start on March 1st and end on February 28th (or 29th). January and February kids can choose to be grouped with the kids of the following months or choose to hang with the cool kids of the prior year, in which they would be referring to as 빠른 (which means fast but in this context would usually mean early). So people who were born in January or February of 1989 would be in my age group as early 89s, although I have seen March and April kids sneak into this classification, so it can get quite messy. That’s why the lines between year groups sometimes get muddled and people revert to the easy hierarchy of class years.
I mean, that’s what these age systems are mostly about. Establishing hierarchies and your position in them to figure out which of the seven (though in practice three) Korean speech levels to use to address someone. I personally don’t care for these age-based hierarchies. I’ve spent too much of my life in the States where you can easily form friendships with people who are ten years older or younger than you. In Korea you could have these friendships but there would still be a certain lingering formality, and I hate lingering formalities. Down with the lingering, I say. Besides, due to the different academic years I entered college a year later so most of my college friends are a year younger than me (which might be why I still think I’m 25), and I have never given a second thought about that except when I turned 21 before them and flaunted my ability to purchase alcohol legally. But it’s something to keep in mind when you’re in Korea, especially if you are Korean. In which case you probably already know this. So I guess this introduction to the Korean age system is more for non-Koreans who find themselves in the midst of a bunch of Koreans and are trying to figure out the different interpersonal relationships so they can sow chaos and Littlefinger their way to the top.