Attempting to age gracefully in Korea

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Attempting to age gracefully in Korea

My 30th birthday wasn’t traumatic. Really. I turned 30 like a big girl, while traveling alone through New Zealand for two weeks last year, just as I had planned. I didn’t want to throw a party and make a public spectacle of my departure from my 20s, which were fun but were also marked by insecurity and many moments of bad judgment.
Now that I’m past that stage of my life, I find that I’m enjoying my 30s, while still indulging in the occasional bout of bad judgment.
I’m more secure and confident in my identity, but that’s what I say now. I hope I’m not going to be one of those women who lie about their age, although I do admit I take more care to stay out of the sun these days.
So if I’m feeling so comfortable now, when Koreans ask me how old I am (and this happens all the time here), why do I refuse to give my Korean age?
For those not familiar with the Korean way of adding up the years of your life, this is how it goes (as I understand it):
You’re already a year old when you’re born. Then at the beginning of every new year, you add on another year to your age. But when you have your birthday, you don’t add on a year. That means that you are either one or two years older than your Western age depending on whether you’ve had your birthday or not.
Confused? I am, so I choose to ignore the whole thing. Besides, I’m just not ready to think of myself as 32. It takes some time, and I just got here.
In the United States, I used all of my 29th year to mentally prepare myself for 30. Halfway through that year, I started telling people who asked me about my age that I was 29, “but I’ll be 30 in six months.”
My friends thought I was nuts, but I felt it worked for me. When 30 finally came, I was ready for it, and the day passed without trauma, if you don’t count the eight-hour hiking tour I was on.
But I’m not ready for 32 at all. How can I be expected to be ready to jump a couple of years in just a matter of weeks?
So far, no Korean has asked me whether I’m talking about Korean or Western age, which is something of a relief.
I’ll take it as a compliment too, because that means they think I’m actually 28 or 29 in Western age. I do get a lot of “Oh, you don’t look your age” in a surprised tone, which is gratifying.
But I’m sure there will come a time when that phrase will be used but for the opposite reason. That day, I may consider turning 30 again, and maybe every year after that.


by Sei Chong
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