Getting Old(er)

Do you know what happens when you travel to a foreign land and try out the local customs in the interest of exploration? Seaweed soup on your birthday.


According to Korean Tradition, pregnant women would eat seaweed soup, or miyeokguk, for about a month prior to giving birth. The vitamins and minerals in the soup (including iodine and calcium) gave the mother some badly needed supplements in the days before hospitals and modern medicine. Eating seaweed soup as a part of birthday celebrations became a way of honoring mom and all she went through to bring you into the world.

In recent years, Koreans have begun celebrating birthdays much the way Americans do: cards, cake, and presents. But miyeokguk is hardwired into the Korean brain, so in between chocolate cake and unwrapping that new sweater, you can expect someone to hand you a nice bowl of slimy green stuff. Eat up! Don't want to disappoint mom!

Most Korean birthday traditions mark milestones in life. Here's a few of the bigger ones:

Baek-ilThis is the celebration held when a baby has reached 100 days old. Tradition has it that the parents should share rice cakes with as many friends and neighbors as they can get their hands on. If 100 people eat the cakes, the child is guaranteed a long and healthy life.

Dol:This is the child's first birthday. Koreans traditionally celebrate by making offerings to an old school deity called Granny Samshin, who was in charge of childbirth, growing up, health and longevity. Rice cakes, red bean pastries, and seaweed soup are staples. Also, at some point, the child is surrounded by various objects (stethoscope, money, pens, needle and thread, etc). Tradition has it that whatever the kid picks forecasts his career. Moms have been known to rig it.

Hwangap:This is a celebration of your sixtieth birthday. Before the advent of modern medicine, reaching sixty was quite an accomplishment. Your whole village probably turned out for a feast in your honor. But these days, with Korean life expectancy edging into the eighties, the Hwangap has decreased in importance, replaced by the Chilsun (your seventieth) or the Palsun (your eightieth).

Obviously, I'm not celebrating any of those today. But I am older, so that's awesome. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to find some cake to wash this soup down with.


Want more info?

Korea 4 Expats article on Birthday traditions

The Official Korean Tourism Website has an article too.