Age in Korea is very important. Far more important than it is in Europe or the USA. Often the first question that people ask is ‘How old are you?’ Age is important not just for things like whether you are old enough to buy cigarettes and alcohol, but for a whole variety of social interactions in Korea.
People use different language when speaking to people of a different age. They expect people to act differently, with younger people expected to pour drinks, or older people expected to pay for things. Even the way you refer to your friends is based on their age; if they are a year older than you, they might be your 누나 (noona) or 언니 (eonni), if they are younger, they will be your 동생 (dongsaeng).
With all this importance put on age, answering the question ‘How old are you?’ is very important. But the answer to the question might not be as simple as you think it is.
Age in Korea is different from age in other countries. You may be thirty years old whether you are in the USA, France, or Russia, but as soon as you arrive in Korea, you magically become thirty-one or thirty-two. How can this be? Well, Koreans have a different way of calculating their age than people in other countries.
People in most countries calculate their age based on their birthday. If you were born on April 1st 2000, then you would turn 17 on April 1st 2017. However, in Korea, age isn’t calculated based on your birthday.
A Year in the Womb
If you are born in the USA, then on the day after you are born, you are considered to be one day old. The nine months that you spent inside your mommy’s tummy are not considered part of your age. In Korea, on the day of your birth, you are considered to be one year old; the time you spent in the womb counts as the first year of your life (despite it only being nine months). Because of this, your Korean age is always at least one year higher than your international age.
Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday Too!
Everybody in Korea shares the same birthday: January 1st. Well, not really. Everybody has their own birthday, complete with cake and candles. But on your birthday in Korea, you are not considered to be one year older than the day before. Instead, Koreans all age on the same day. January 1st. No matter when your birthday is, if you were 40 years old on December 31st, then on January 1st, you will be 41. Korean age works as if everybody was born on January 1st.
Calculating your Korean age
If you did happen to be born on January 1st, then calculating your Korean age is very easy. Just add one year to your current age. For the rest of us, things are a little bit more complicated.
First we need to add one year to our current age to represent the time in the womb. Then, if you haven’t had your birthday yet this calendar year, you need to add one more year to your age. So, for example, if today is February 14th, and you were born in July, you would add two years to your age. If today is February 14th, and you were born in January, you would just add one year to your age.
All of this seems very unfair on people born in December, who spend most of the year being two years older in Korea than they would be in other countries.
If you want to calculate somebody’s age mathematically, you can use this simple formula:
1 + Current year – Year of Birth = Korean Age
1 + 2017 – 1990 = 28
Obviously, there is a large chance of confusion when non-Koreans talk about age with Koreans. The way that most Koreans avoid confusion is to use the terms ‘Korean age’ and ‘international age’ when talking about age.
한국나이 (Hanguk nai) – Korean Age
만 나이 (man nai) – international age
저는 올해 스물 살이지만 만으로는 열아홉 살이에요.
(jeoneun olhae seumul salijiman maneuro yeolahop salieyo.
I’m twenty in Korean age but nineteen in Western age.
Other terms you could hear:
You may also hear these terms when people are talking about international age. They all mean the same as ‘만 나이’.
국제나이 (gukje nai) – international age
미국나이 (miguk nai) – American age
외국나이 (oeguk nai) – foreign age
When is international age used in Korea?
As a general rule, Korean age is used for social interactions with people, whereas international age is used for more official things. For example, the age limits written on alcohol, cigarettes, movie posters, and so on are based on international age. The legal age for most things in Korea is 19. This means international age ‘19’.
Wow, we are the same age!
As age determines a complete host of social interactions in Korea, being of the same age as somebody can make everybody feel more comfortable. If somebody that you have just met finds out that you are the same age as them, they will often be excited. This is because if you and your friend are the same age in Korea, neither person will have any of the social obligations that come from being a different age from each other. Being the same age as another person has a special word in Korean: 동갑 (donggap). You will often hear the expression 우리는 동갑이다 (urineun donggapida) which means ‘we are the same age’. As the Korean age system is based on year of birth, rather than your birthday, you will always be the same age as this new friend. Even if your birthday is the very next day!
Now that you know the difference between Korean age and international age, calculate your Korean age. But don’t be upset that you have suddenly become two years older. Age is just a number, after all.