Thursday, February 6, 2014

Korean New Year, a little bit older

Here in South Korea, we just celebrated Seollal, or the Korean Lunar New Year.  Those of you who follow my Korea blog (I'm sure that's all of you) know that Tara and I had a fine adventure in Seoul last weekend, observing some new year's customs.  But there's one thing I didn't put down in the most recent blog post, a little custom which I'd like to talk about now.

In many east Asian countries, there is an alternative way of reckoning a person's age.  You might think that the question "how old are you" does not require much analysis, but like most things reated to counting, much depends on where you start.  Korea does have the western-style age system of counting completed years since the date of one's birth.  However, this is mostly a matter for the legal system: the traditional system is far more commonly used.

It goes like this.  On the day of your birth, you are considered to be one.  It's often said that this takes into account the preceding nine months of womb time, but I am not fully convinced that this is the reason; it may just be that the people who dreamt up this system didn't think that being less than one made sense.  So you start at one, and your age increases by one at a fixed point each year: not your own birthday, but rather the first day of the Lunar Year.

There are a couple of interesting consequences for this choice of counting.  Everyone born in the same year is the same age, of course, which is a little more convenient from an astrological point of view (and traditional astrology is by no means out of favor here).  It also means that the many babies born late in the year find themselves two years old within a few months of birth.  Koreans tend to count early childhood ages by days rather than years, but it's still a little disorienting to think of all those precocious agers out there.

And then, of course, there is the disorientation that comes into the humble western expatriate's life.  By western reckoning, I am twenty six years old (my birthday is in late February, so I am a few weeks from being twenty seven).  By Korean reckoning, however, I turned twenty eight last weekend, along with all my cohorts in the year of the Rabbit.

All of this, of course, is a very extended way of saying that I feel old and Korea is not helping.  I like being twenty six.  Rather, I don't want to be older than twenty six.  I'm still mourning the loss of twenty four.  I've spent the past year making peace with the inevitability of twenty seven.  And now all of a sudden, I'm twenty eight?  That is not cool.

Twenty eight is plenty young, I know.  And I'm out traveling the world, which is a suitably young-person-ish thing to do.  I don't really have that much cause to mourn a wasted youth (maybe a little, but certainly not "much").  But it takes you off guard, counting yourself older than usual.  It's like looking into a very scary, future-revealing mirror.  You may learn things you aren't ready to know.  You might accidentally trigger an early mid-life crisis.  Before you know it, you're riding an exploding motorcycle off an exploding dam.

Still, twenty eight isn't that bad so far.  I still have most of my hair, anyway.  But I should probably get out of here before my fellow Rabbits start turning thirty.

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