I have almost forgotten that I am actually 24, not 25. In fact, I won’t turn 25 until March 6th of 2015, but on January 1st of 2015 I will be considered 26 in Korea. What?!
Koreans count your time in the womb as part of your life span, so when you are born you are considered 1 year old. Age is incredibly important in Korea, and your age is labeled by the year you were born in, not the individual month and day. So, since I was born in 1990 and it is now 2014, I am considered to be 25 years old along with every other child born in 1990. When the new year changes over in January (solar) or February (lunar), there is a big celebration for everyone turning a year older. So in the year of 2015, everyone born in 1990 is considered to be 26 years old. Yikes, talk about feeling like time is escaping you!
One of the first questions I am asked by every Korean I meet is “How old are you?”. In Korea, you are considered “friends” or 칭구 (chinggu) with anyone in your same birth year. There is a very strict hierarchy in Korea, so even if someone is only one year older than you, you must speak to them with formal language and treat them with respect. On the flip side, if someone is younger, you are able to freely speak in more casual language. Obviously this can get even more complicated with people who are considerably older than you (parents age, grandparents age), as can sometimes lead to confusing work situations. For example, if a boss is younger than some of his employees, how does he address them? Formally because they’re older? Informally because he’s their boss? Do they have to use more formal language with him even though he’s younger? I’m just glad everyone at my school except one teacher is older than me!
At my school, my students do get to celebrate their birthdays each month. On the 1st, we gather in the cafeteria. The birthday kids get to wear party hats and a (very nice!) cake is bought from the local bakery. All the students and teachers sing the Korean Happy Birthday song and candles are blown out. Each of the birthday kids got a big slice of chocolate cake, while the teachers got to snap up the leftovers.
|All the October birthdays!|
|Couldn’t help but think they look like a wedding couple, cutting the cake like that!|
Our principal is celebrating her 60th birthday this month too! The entire party was actually a surprise–we stealthily set it up after volleyball and called her in. Her birthday is actually next week, but since Koreans don’t focus on specific days and months as much as they do the year, the staff wasn’t sure of exactly which day. We ordered a ton of Chinese food, and had plenty of beer and wine along with Coke and grape juice. Her cake was actually a rice cake, and while it wasn’t like cakes Westerners are traditionally used to eating, it was very good.
|My principal cutting her birthday cake.|
Interestingly enough, we sang Happy Birthday to her in English! My school staff is really sweet, and I can’t wait to celebrate the New Year (and all of our birthdays!) with them. I think they’ll make turning 26 while I’m still 24 a little more bearable. Marginally.