The other day, a friend of mine was telling me a pretty funny story about how her younger brother was adopted. Her parents had applied to adopt a child from South Korea, but were put on a wait list. Months later, it just so happened that when her dad was on a business trip in South Korea, a baby had become available for him to take back to their home in Michigan. The family was ecstatic to have a new addition to their family.
The adoption papers had listed the baby as one year and three months old, but the family received an infant child. Needless to say, they were pretty confused. It may sound like some riddle your elderly family member tells you for amusement, but I kid you not — this is real life.
For anyone who’s afraid of getting older, I’ve got some bad news: you’re actually one to two years older in Korea.
Although it’s not clearly explained why, Koreans use the East Asian age reckoning system when it comes to figuring out how old someone is. The system originated in China and has been used in other countries including South Korea and Vietnam. Japan used to use the system, but converted to the Western age system officially in 1902.
Once a baby is born, the infant is automatically one year old. No matter what day of the year you were born on, you’re automatically the same age as everyone else born in the same year as you. So, you can say goodbye to all of your precious zodiac characteristics because they’re being thrown right out of the window.
Since you’re no longer “aging” on your actual birthday, how do you become older? The simple answer is that you gain another year each New Year’s Day.
Now, here comes the real kicker: If you’re born on December 31st, you’re actually turning two years old on New Year’s Day in Korea. Since everyone’s “birthday” is on New Year’s Day no matter what day you were actually born on, you automatically get another year on the holiday. Your U.S. birthday twins would be turning just two days old while you’d be turning two years old.
In Korea, your age is determined by the year in which you were born, but when Koreans travel abroad, they are forced to embrace their “American age.” Even though someone may be 21 in Korea, they’re technically not old enough to buy liquor in the United States.
The age system confuses a lot of Americans, but it’s pretty easy to calculate your Korean age. Subtract the year you were born from the current year it is, then add one. For example, someone born in 1992 would be 25 in Korea.
As weird as the system is for any Westerner, it’s easier (and better) to say your kid is two years old instead of saying they’re “21 months.”