[CAMPUS COMMENTARY]Feeling ‘old’ in Korea at the age of 23Several incidents have occurred in the past several months that have reconfirmed my recent fear of growing “old.” I put “old” in quotation marks because I use “old” strictly in the Korean sense of the word ― I honestly believe that had I still been in the United States, I would not have had to face this problem until many years later.
First, I am almost always among the 10 oldest people in any given class at my university. The thing that I dread the most about going back to school in September (for what I hope is my final semester) is having to introduce myself in all my classes on the first day.
Second, more and more, salespeople at cosmetic counters all over Seoul have begun recommending that I use eye cream.
Third, no one at any bar, club, or other adult facility requests my proof of age anymore.
Finally, the question of what I will be doing after graduation is now a tangible, terrifying issue. No longer can I evade people’s questions about what I want to make of my life by answering, “Well ... I’d definitely like to go to grad school someday. But I’ll probably work for a couple years after graduating from college, you know, to build experience.” Last year, people would smile and nod. This year, they say, “Aren’t you graduating this winter?” This is my cue to change the subject.
When I was actually considered “young,” even by Korean standards, I naturally had no idea how bad Korea’s obsession with age was. But as each spring brought a fresh batch of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshmen, I caught on. Not because they did anything to make me feel old, but because each year I was just that much older.
I’m 23 years old, Korean regular age. I’m at the age when people expect me to know exactly what I’m going to be doing with my life, to have a certain amount of experience, and to have already somewhat established my identity, my sense of self. Every day I meet and speak to people who are struggling with the same pressures and overwhelming sense of responsibility. What?? You’re 26 and you still don’t know what kind of company you want to work at? Do you have no sense of responsibility? Aren’t you terrified? Yes, we are. Half of us suffer from anxiety attacks on a regular basis. Does that mean we deserve to be judged and have 50 million fingers pointing in our direction? No. So the old, cliched, grammatically incorrect phrase goes: age ain’t nothin’ but a number. While with age comes responsibility, being “old” should never mean having to feel like you have it completely together. Being of a certain age should never mean having to explain why you’re not married, or why you still can’t figure out what truly makes you happy.
So I decided to think on the flip side and feel flattered that until last year, they did card me at bars. I also caved and took the pretty saleswoman’s advice, purchasing my first-ever eye cream. But I will never, ever apologize to anyone for not knowing whom I will marry yet, for being the oldest person in class, or for not having the next 10 years of my life mapped out clearly. In fact, as long as it makes me feel uncomfortable or bad about myself at all, I reject the Korean notion of age. I’m not old. I’m 23 years young.
* The writer is the editor of SNU Quill, English news magazine of Seoul National University.
by Yoo Kyung-ha