Sunday, November 28, 2010

That Time of Year

It's that time of year again--Thanksgiving? Cold and Flu season? College bowls? Well, yes to all that, and still one more--today is officially my birthday, once again. I never make a big deal about my birthday (after all, it's just a matter of survival), or usually, any amount of deal at all, but ths year I become fifty, the Big Five-Oh, in the Korean way of reckoning these things.

Which, if you haven't heard yet, is different than any other country on earth. Koreans count their age as "one" starting at birth. One of my co-workers started to mention my "American age" vs. "Korean age" and I had to jump in there. No, no, no. Not American age. Whole-rest-of-the-world age. This is not USA vs Korea. It's Korea, one year old, the world zero years old, okay?

Koreans also advance to the next year's age on the same day: lunar new year. By which I mean, everyone in my high school first grade classes are all sixteen--and they stay sixteen all year long; they will turn seventeen all together on lunar new year next February. Oh, they do celebrate their individual birthdays, yes; but to the Korean world, it doesn't count quite yet.

Why do they do this? you may ask. The answer is embedded in the Korean language with its extensive use of honorifics and respect terms, and the Confucian elitist age-ism it signifies: in most situations, people don't refer to each other by name, but by position or relation; for instance, older brother to a co-worker who is older than you, or little sister to a younger female, or mother of Jinsu to talk to Jinsu's Mom. It would be problematic if some students in a class were considered older than others, and could therefore "lord it over" their classmates.

Another interesting feature of Korean birthdays is that many of othem aren't, especially among the older generations. For example, my pal Jung-su who runs Chicken Mania was showing my his passport when he came back from Shanghai: his birthday was sometime in May, 1958. But actually, he told me, he was born in November of the previous year. In those days, infant mortality was so high that parents often didn't bother registering a live birth until it looked like the little blighter might pull through. Of course, giving birth in a hospital was not an option for most Koreans until the 1970s. Such rapid progress this country has made!

Anyway, back to me! I consider myself fortunate in my experience in Korea to have some co-workers with whom I have developed very friendly relations. I received a rather expensive Rotring fountain pen for my birthday from one, and another gave me a really nice pair of Kangaroo gloves (brand not leather). Mr Hwang insisted I come to dinner with his family tonight, and they fed me samgyupsal and chocolate birthday cake! Then the kids sang a song, and gave me birthday cards; the boy made his by hand--he swears he did it all himself:


Sweet, isn't it?

8 comments:

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

That's awesome, man. Sounds like you had a great birthday. It also sounds like you have a great relationship with your co-teachers.

Chris said...

생일축하합니다
let's compare fountain pens next time!

kevin.thurston said...

that's nice. happy birthday!

Adam said...

This is something that has me really intrigued. I too am in Korea and have jumped up a year in age. However, I have been told that age goes up on January 1. This is especially vexing to me. I am 38 now (and thus 39 in Korea) but if this reckoning is correct then I will turn 40 in Korea on Jan 1, a full month before I get the chance to turn 39 in America. And that's just too fast.

I would love some confirmation on the Lunar calendar thing though, which could possibly put my Korean birthday after my real birthday.

Tuttle said...

Thanks to all for your comments and well-wishes!

Chris: it's not a competition, only an exhibition. Please, no wagering!

Adam: You may be right about Jan 1 as distinct from Seollal, but I went with the latest answer on this I got from a certain co-teacher. Seems everyone knows something different about how this came about.

Practically, however, it doesn't matter, since both dates are after the old school year ends and before the new one begins....

SuperDrew said...

Tuttle & Adam - Some people use the Lunar New Year and some people use Jan 1 for the date their birthday jumps forward. Most people (as far as I know) use the Jan 1 date.

However, for people born in January or early February, placing your birthday on the lunar calendar will make you fall in with the previous year's births and therefore have some sort of perceived advantage by going to school a year earlier.

That is why if you look at various Korean forms that have a space for a birthdate, they often have a spot to signify if your birthday is on the lunar calendar.

Chris said...

it's possible to be born on 31 Dec, then the next day you would be 2 years old! Pretty cool...

Charles Montgomery said...

LOL...

Happy late bday man....

Mine was just yesterday, making us both the best sign in the western astrological chart, the noble, brilliant, and handsomely chiseled Saggitarius!