Age Appropriate

I belong not to one age, but all of them. Well, three of them. Sadly, I’m not a Time Lord. Just an American in Korea, trying to figure out how old she is.

You’d think I’d have this down by now. In Korea, “How old are you?” is the first question anyone asks (followed closely by “Are you married?”). It’s hard to express how important age is around here. For instance, the Korean word “friend” (chingu) only applies to people with the same birth year. Everyone else is a “junior” or “senior.” I’ve had four-year-olds reprimand me for incorrectly calling a younger child their friend.

So this is the one question I should be able to answer. But I just can’t get my head around it. Because depending on context, I could be any of three ages right now.

There’s my American age, of course. Straight-ahead tally of years on planet Earth.

Then my official Korean age, which is one year older. Babies here are born age one, as seems appropriate given Korea’s bballi bballi (hurry up) culture. This is the age that goes on any paperwork.

But conversationally I’m two years older, at least for a couple weeks yet. I discovered this when a new teacher at school asked my age.

“Let’s see.” I did the requisite math. “In Korea, I’m 34.”

“Erin Teacher,” another coworker interjected, “I’ve seen your birthdate. I’m sorry to tell you, but you are 35.”

I double-checked my addition. “Pretty sure I’m 33 in the US right now.”

“Oh, yes,” she agreed. “But did you eat tteok guk at Lunar New Year?”


“Then in Korea you’re 35.”

“Come again?”

It turns out that the entire country ages together at the new year. It’s a simple idea, so long as you don’t think about it too hard. Do so, and you realize that a baby born in December becomes a two-year-old a few weeks later. That’s not a holiday—that’s time travel.

Korean’s celebrate Lunar New Year with tteok guk (rice cake soup). It’s the first meal of the new year. Ergo, eating tteok guk makes you one year older. Of course, I’d had some. I just like the soup; no one told me it was a fast forward button.

So I have to wait until my birthday to catch up with myself. Then I’ll be back down to two ages, which, frankly, is all the time distortion I can handle.