I visited South Korea for the first time and the first thing everyone asked me was how old I was. So I told them the truth: I’m 26.
Later I came back home to the States and a month later celebrated my birthday! Again, everyone asked me, “How old are you?”
So I told them the truth: I’m 25.
So by now, you think probably think that:
A) I’m a pathological liar
B) I slipped through the cracks in elementary math (not wrong…)
or C) there’s some weird cultural-mumbo jumbo magic going here which makes me older in one country than another!
If you guessed C) then you’re 90 percent right. There is a cultural difference between the United States and Korea that makes your age differ in each country, except it’s not weird or magic and we’re going to clear the mumbo-jumbo right now!
First of all, Korea calculates age differently than the U.S., and most other countries. In Korea, when you are born, you are automatically 1 year old. That’s because, in traditional Korean culture, the months spent in a mother’s womb counts towards the time a person has been alive.
The second reason you’re older in Korea is that Korea also operates on not only the solar / Gregorian calendar (the one most countries use) but also the lunisolar calendar. Ages that depend on the Gregorian Calendar is usually referred to as Western Age. Age, as it’s done in South Korea, is usually called, Korean Age.
Everyone in Korea ages up at the beginning of the year (January 1). That means, rather than waiting on your birthday to come, you are automatically a year older on New Year’s day.
How to calculate Korean age
Still wondering how exactly I am 26 in South Korea, yet 25 in the U.S.? Great! Because now we’re going to learn how to calculate our age in Korea.
Calculating Korean Age the Simple Way:
If your birthday has already passed this year, take whatever age you are currently and add 1 year!
If your birthday has NOT passed this year, take your current age and add 2 years!
Question: “But what do I do after I have my birthday this year?”
Answer: NOTHING! The only difference after you’ve had your birthday is the gap between your Westen Age and Korean Age changes from 2 years to 1.
Another way to say it is like this:
“In a given year, before your birthday, your Korean Age is your Western Age plus two; after your birthday, it is your Western age plus one.” – Waegukin
Now, let’s break it down and figure out how all of this works.
Calculating Korean Age the LONG WAY
Calculating your age in Korean is NOT HARD. But the culture shock can be a little confusing at first, so we’re going to start using this simple formula:
(current year – year you were born) + 1 = Age in Korea
Hint: (current year – year you were born) just means, “How old are you right now in the United States?” Or in any other country on the Solar/Gregorian calendar. Not complicated.
So, however old you are now…take that and add 1 year.
Here’s where things get slightly more complicated. Since all Korean people age up at the beginning of the year, if your birthday has not passed yet, then you have to add another year.
For example, right now it is October 2018 and I am 26 years old. Let’s say my birthday was in next July. In the U.S, I would not turn 27 until my birthday in July.
But in South Korea, I already aged up one year on New Year’s Day back in January.
So I turned 27 in Korea on January, I am currently 26 in America, and I WILL turn 28 in Korea on January 1 next year, BUT I’ll only turn 27 in America in July.
How to avoid having to calculate your age AT ALL …
If you’re like me and you want to avoid doing math whenever and wherever possible, then there is a wayyy simpler way to talk about your age in Korea sans the headache:
Just say the year you were born.
So why is all of this important? Well, besides the fact that Korea also has laws based on your age that could affect you because of the differences, age is also extremely important in Korea because of the hierarchical system in speech, the workplace, and daily life. That’s why one of the first things a person in Korea will ask you is how old you are. Your age will determine the way they act and speak towards you in many cases.
So, to avoid confusing anyone, you could always just tell the person what year you were born, and they will automatically be able to put in you in the right place in Korea’s age system.