Dissecting The "Korean Age" System

The Messy System.
What if I told you that a baby in Korea that's born on Dec 31st is going to be 2 years the following day even though he or she has hardly lived a day? Makes no sense to most of us foreigners but for Koreans, this makes complete sense. The usual confusion among non-Koreans regarding how exactly natives here have two parallel ages (one foreign, one korean) with a difference of anywhere between one or two is palpable; many just resort to asking their birth year to clear out any misunderstandings. 

The root cause, or so it seems, is the language. Korea's strict hierarchical structure means that you ought to know whether you are senior or junior respective to the person you are talking to. That dictates the language you speak. Nepal too has a hierarchical language, however, Nepalese often get away without having to ask that awkward question of clarifying their age simply by speaking in a higher form of the language. "Hajur, yo kaha paryo hola?" "Dai, tapai bholi aunu saknu huncha?" That does not seem to be the case here-you have to be clear where you stand and only then can you start a proper conversation. Let's not even go to English. All you have to do is to open your mouth and you two are instant pals; whether that's the professor, janitor or your stalker. Good luck talking to your Professor in Korean as you do in English. 

Wait..so what's about that 2 year thing again?
Right. 

Korean Age as I Understand it:
There are three easy base rules to understand here. Firstly, the moment you are born you turn 1. Yep, fresh out from the womb, you become instant 1 year old. The logic is that because you have been inside mom for about 9 months or so, you round that number up and become a year old. Doesn't matter, if you step inside the world, you are a year old. That's it.

Secondly, every new year, you become a year older. Everyone in the WHOLE country becomes a year older. There will be cases where you actually become 2 years older in Korean age than you actually are. 

Thirdly, you don't bother adding a year to your age on your actual birthday. It's all downhill from here. 

The Korean education system has this weird way of categorizing students according to their date of birth. Because you want students to be of the same age or at least the age group, they group students from March of this year to February of the next. The person coming in March of next year (same as feb), has to go a class below the people who were born on feb of the same year. 

I will take three imaginary people who were born on October 1990, February 1991 and March 1991 to better illustrate my point. 

The person who was born on October 1990 is already a year old in 1990. Got it? When people start counting down the year 1991 and the clock hit's 12, he or she is 2 years old now. The two year Oct 90 will end up in the same class as the one year Feb 91. However, the one year March 1991, is not allowed to enter the same school year as the one year Feb 91 and lags behind to enter school a year later. 

This would have been completely fine if the language wasn't so hierarchical. The one year Feb 91 and the one year March 91 should have been using a simple language to communicate but since they are separated by a whole school year, the March 91 has to use the upper, respectful language to the the Feb 91 even though they are practically the same age. The Feb 91 on the other hand does not have to use the upper language to the two year Oct 90, because they are on the same education level. 

This continues on to university.

Then you have this thing called "working life." Once you start working in a company, the year you were born matters. Period. However the exception comes if you are on the same school year. For instance, the three people born on Oct 90, Feb 91 and March 91 end up miraculously in the same company. According to the working system, Feb 91 and March 91 are thought to be 동기 and use the normal "frank" version of the Korean language. The Feb 91 and Oct 90 also use the frank version because they were of the same school year. However, the March 91 has to use the upper, respectful language to the Oct 90 because they differ by year.

Yeah. clearly f**ked up. 

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