Have you ever wondered why when you check the birth date of your favourite Korean singer or actor, the stated age seems to be one or even two years older than seems right? Let us try to de-mystify the Korean ageing system in time for the Lunar New Year, and help you work out how old you’d be in Korea!
In the UK and most other countries, the age system is simple. The day you’re born is seen as the first day you’re alive. Therefore, your first day outside the womb is day one of your life. The following year you’re then one year old, and so on. This international ageing system is referred to as mannai/만나이 by Koreans. However, in Korea it’s different – when you’re born, you’re seen as one year old already as you’re alive in the womb (I know, pregnancy lasts for nine months only, but thinking about it too much is super confusing).
So, so far it seems simple that you’d just add a year onto your age to find out what your age in Korea would be. That seems easy enough, but when the Korean New Year rolls around, a whole lot more age confusion comes into play! To make this easier to picture, let’s take the example of a baby. Say a child is born in the summer 1980, according to the Korean ageing system, they are one year old at the time of birth. Usually, you would think that the next summer they would turn two. However, the Korean New year is a very important time. During this New Year, everyone becomes the age they would be for that year. Therefore, the baby would become two years old at New Year (essentially it’s already two by Korean ageing at around 7 months!). At its birthday during the summer, the baby wouldn’t then go up a year again, as the New Year has already made them their age that they would be at their birthday for that year. Make sense? Just so you know, individuals’ birthdays are celebrated with parties etc, the age just doesn’t go up again.
On the Korean Lunar New Year, the traditional way process to increase your age is to eat a bowl of tteoguk/떡국 (rice cake soup). Getting older by eating food sounds like a great way to go up in age! This is why you may see or hear the phrase “how many bowls of tteokguk have you eaten?”, if you’ll watch any Korean Lunar New Year specials, when referring to how old a person is.