Lucille Ball of “I love Lucy” fame once said that the secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age. Had she lived in Korea, I have a feeling she would have actually looked older than her age from the stress of having to lie so often. “How old are you?” is a question liberally and commonly asked in Korea. A first-time female visitor above the age of 35 to Korea may immediately feel offended and jump to label the place as a nation full of rotten meddlers.
Now, a caveat before I continue: I’d be the first to admit that there can be a whole list of reasons for the prevalence of what one might see as such deeply private questions. Some would talk about Korean people’s general directness as a reason, some would point to Korea and North America’s differing views on what is deemed as “private”, suggesting that those from the individual-focused North American culture need much more personal space, etc. And inevitably, a discussion about the differing views on aging would emerge. On that note, I was shocked to meet so many women in Canada who confessed to their fear/hatred of being called “grandma”, whereas my own mom and other Korean women of her generation seem to express delight in the title.
Getting into these topics about national traits would require a series, not just a single post. Today I just wanted to console the sensitive first time female visitor to Korea by explaining that it’s probably not ill-intended – , in fact, it’s probably because they have to figure out where you fit in relationally.
Knowing where one is in the relational order is important to Koreans. First, the language changes even if the person you meet is merely one year older than you. Even a grade 7 student uses a range of honorifics when talking to a grade 8. Once it’s established who is older between you two, there are a number of expected common behaviours to address this hierarchy such as the younger person never calling the older person by the first name, and the older person being more likely to foot the bill for both at a restaurant, to name a couple. This is not to say that two people in different age groups cannot share a deep friendship that is also based on equality. But the acknowledgement and respect are not seen as cumbersome formalities even in the closest of friendships.
But why the fuss about knowing where you stand in a relationship? Opinions would vary on the degree of its influence in modern society but no one could deny that the old Korea – especially the last Jeoson Kingdom – was deeply influenced by Confucianism.
In Confucius’ doctrine, he outlined Five Morals [오륜] which include the following (Note the 4th line):
– Closeness between parent and child.
– Justice between ruler and subject.
– Distinction between husband and wife.
– Order between old and young.
– Trust between friends.
One more observation about the effect of this doctrine: in Korea, high school teachers are much less likely to be subjected to the kind of “us vs. them” mistrust from the students and the consequent “typical teenager” rebellious behaviours. In fact, many of the scenes from the film like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” simply would not happen there. True, Korean students wouldn’t dare to antagonize the principal in fear of jeopardizing their marks and reputation to get into good universities later. But mainly, students innately acknowledge the authority of their teachers, and a small part of this authority undoubtedly includes the naturally accepted order between old and young.
So the next time you get asked of your age in Korea, don’t get your feelings hurt, be frank and accept the respect that comes with being acknowledged as the older and wiser. Lucille Ball would learn to agree too.