January 18, 2011

same same... just Korea (pt vi)

Korean egg timers start at one...

In western society you reach your first birthday exactly one year after you slid out of the birth canal. You subsequently celebrate that anniversary every year, until the year there is no air in your lungs to blow out the candles (i.e. you're dead).

In Korea you reach your first birthday exactly as you slide out of the birth canal. If a baby is born, it is considered a year old in this country. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out that they were only conceived around nine months prior however, this doesn't seem to matter. The anniversary of this birth is kind of celebrated in Korea, but another candle is not added to the cake to mark the occasion. Candles are only added on New Year's Day, the same day that everyone in Korea ages another year.

For example, one of my students, Kate, now has a baby brother. He was born on December 22nd, and at the second he was born, he should have been given a candle to blow out as he was one year old. ten days later, he should have recieved another cake (this time with two candles) as the calendar flipped and we entered 2011. Kate's baby brother is now 2 years old, and hasn't been sucking air for even a month.

Your humble narrator (author, whatever) is currently 27 years old by Korean standards. I assure you that being called 25 has never sounded so good! Also, in case you were wondering, the western age system is used when it comes to all official government/legal matters, drinking and tobacco use. Yet when dealing with small children, age is important, and they always want to appear to be older. Most of us practiced this with our 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 ages (I'm not 25, I'm 25 3/4).

Are you old enough to be my friend?

Now that I have explained the Korean age system you can understand the second part of this post. This is something that has only recently been revealed to me, although it's been in front of me the entire time. In Korea you can only be 'friends' with people the same age as yourself.

Haha, I just made that sound confusing, yet it is simply a language translation problem. The Korean word for 'friend' is 친구 (chingu), and it is the word often translated with the english word 'friend'. In the Korean language though, a 친구 (chingu) can only be a person with the same age.

Now, refer back to the segment above, everyone ages at the same time. So figuring out who can be your friend is a lot easier as it is based on birth year, not birthday. Anyone born in 1985 would share my age of 27, therefore I could be a 친구 (chingu) with anyone born in that year. This concept works really well with school children, because how often are children of different ages interacting? Classrooms are also usually arranged by birth year (even in western societies). Therefore most of my childhood friends share my birth year, and I can call친구 (chingu).
Callie can't believe she isn't my 친구.
You start to encounter some issues with this system when you grow older. For example my friend, Callie (left), she is older than me in Korean years (and American ones). Since she is older than me, I can't correctly call her 친구 (chingu). I have to use another word, and refer to her as my older sister. It sounds strange, I know, because she is not my older sister, she is my friend. But that is just the way it works here. This is applicable on all fronts, and not just older sisters/brothers. If your friend is younger than yourself you would call them younger brother/sister.

Basically the western word 'friend' isn't universally translated in Korea, instead of being one word, it is many. The Korean language is very structured and places a high importance on status. This leads me to the fact that I have never really noticed this before. I stumbled upon it when my physiotherapist, whom I'd never met before that session, called me his friend upon finding out my age. I was a tad confused and thought he was a little presumptuous. I also had a student tell me about a weekend with his 4 older brothers. Yet, I knew that he only had a younger sister. Short inquiries into both situations enlightened me, and led to my understanding (hopefully) explained above.
I've since spotted another example of this in class. 
(the book asked for the students to talk with their friends about school)
Lucy: Sean Teacher (whine) I don't have any friends in the class. 
Charlie: She doesn't!
Olivia: Lucy is 11, we are 12... We aren't friends. 
Sean Teacher: That's okay Lucy, pretend you are 12.


  1. Wow! I've been watching a lot of Korean dramas as well as 2ne1 tv if you have idea what that is. They use those terms all the time and now I finally understand them. I knew Korea that status mattered a lot in Korea, but that drives it home even further. thanks for explaining this!

  2. I haven't really watched much TV. I haven't ever had Korean cable. I suppose that I should look into them more.