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Birthday bizarreness

Last update - Thursday, May 6, 2010, 13:37 By Andrew Farrell

In Korea, one’s age can be a complicated matter - says ex-pat ANDREW FARRELL There has been a big increase in the number of native English speakers moving to South Korea in the past couple of years. The global recession and a huge demand for teachers has made both Korea and Japan very attractive locations for degree holders who find themselves twiddling their thumbs at home.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you come here is the hospitality of the locals. Conversations usually start with a question like: “How old are you?” The answer is critical because age plays a significant part in determining one’s social status.
To give an example, the older person will normally buy the alcohol, however the younger person is required to fill up the glasses. Also, during a meal the younger person can’t start his or her food until the older person has started – and the same applies to finishing your meal!
From a western perspective, age in Korea is important but only because it seems so bizarre. I was born in February 1984, making me 26 years of age. But in Korea I am a year older than that. It will take time to get used to, but you should always quote your ‘Korean age’ because the older you are, the more respected you are.
In Korea, a child is one year old at birth. According to a colleague at my school, age takes into consideration the nine months of pregnancy, and is then just rounded up to make a full year. So when teaching English to a class of seven-year-olds, for instance, it’s necessary to remember that they are in fact only six – and in some cases maybe even younger.
And it doesn’t end there. Not only are children considered one-year-old at birth, but from then on their age only changes on New Year’s Eve, regardless of what date of the year they were born. In other words, a week-old boy or girl born in late December will be considered two years old in Korea just a week later!
The impact this has on the child’s education is bewildering. Most private English academies start accepting children as young as four years old. But such a young child born late in the year will be considered four when in Ireland (and most of the rest of the world) he or she will be just two.
My school has some children who can barely walk or speak Korean, and don’t even have a full head of hair, but here they are learning a foreign language.
It’s important to respect the culture of another country, but in this case an exception may be made. The reason for this is not my opinion on the matter, as it has no relevance to my life, but I have a number of Korean friends and colleagues who are pregnant, or who have just given birth. All are and were trying for a child to be born in January, and not any earlier.
One former teacher was due to give birth in late December, but her doctor gave her some advice on exercise and diet that might, briefly, delay the birth of her child. The plan worked, and on 2 January 2010, she became a mother for the first time.
So the next time you think about your age, consider what it must be like to be a Korean ‘born’ on the same date of the year as everyone else. And then imagine how different your life may have been if you were born on 31 December in Korea; in Ireland you would be a few hours old, but in Korea you’d be celebrating your second birthday!

Andrew Farrell is working as an English language teacher in Korea

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