“How old are you?” I ask my new local acquaintance. I ask this question timidly; while I am wincing a little inside as I push my cemented cultural boundaries which have taught me that age is a private matter and certainly not something to ask someone you don’t know so well, I know that I will not be considered rude. I am in a bar on a night out in mid-week sleepless Seoul; inquiring about age to someone you have recently met is as routine as exchanging comments about the weather in the UK; though possibly a bit more important, as here it helps your acquaintance locate your position in the social ladder and maybe decide how to address you (if you speak Korean that is).
I eagerly wait for an answer. Mostly because I can never guess the age of our asian counterparts. To me they all look ageless. However what I hear is not what I expect: “which age? Korean age?”.
I pause for a moment. I hadn’t considered this complication. Like many of the things that I had read about this country before moving here and that are still defying me I had forgotten about this intriguing fact regarding age in Korea.
“Which age!?” I had never been faced with this dilemma in my life but all the sudden I realise that age is not as universal as I originally thought.
This concept truly makes me question its true value. ‘Age is only a number’ is the mantra that I keep on religiously repeating myself every year to feel better.
The bad news is that in Korea apparently, I am systematically two years older; however I ponder on: the good news is that if I tell my age as I know it to a Korean maybe they’ll perceive me as younger since a 39 years’ old in Korea is in fact the equivalent of a 37 years’ old in Europe.
If I think of it this way, all the sudden it doesn’t seem so bad.
I have basically found an innocent way to lie about my age. Imagine the beaming smile on my face.
As my birthday approaches dangerously all the sudden this seems something extremely comforting to deceive myself with.
By now you may be wondering how all the sudden the concept of age has become so relative.
It turns out that in Korea age is counted from the womb: this means that when you are born you are already considered one year old; then to complicate matters further additional years are counted on each 1st of January. This means that you could be born on 31st December and be 1 year old at birth and by the following day, on 1st of January you’d be already in your second year of age.
But don’t worry, age is only a number; for everything else there is plastic surgery*.
Cultural differences. I love this world; it’s ever so interesting.
* plastic surgery and plastic surgery tourism is very popular in South Korea.