Today is my Korean 30th birthday. In the real world, I’m only 29 years old today but Koreans (and the Japanese apparently) believe that you are already a year old when you are born. In addition, everyone gets a year older on New Year’s Day. Whether it’s New Year’s Day according to the solar (Western) calendar or the lunar calendar seems debateable. Before you start panicking and wondering if Koreans who report their age as 126 years old are really only about 35 years old in reality, let me clarify…
Basically, everyone celebrates their birthday each year at the same time – your actual birthday is rather inconsequential – unlike western countries where we celebrate individual birthdays. I’ll give you a personal example to illustrate just how confusing this approach to age can be: A colleague of mine recently had twins. They were only due in early February but, as with most twins, were born approximately six weeks earlier than anticipated. When a baby is born, it is already considered to be a year old so these twins were automatically a year old at their birth. However, they were born in the week after Christmas which means that by 1 January, they were already considered to be two years of age.
When I think of a two year old child, I picture someone who can walk and talk not babies who were actually born prematurely and are still catching up on the six weeks of womb time that they’ve missed thanks to their early arrival! Ironically, as Koreans get older (especially women), they seem to favour their real ages more than the Korean ages as a last ditch attempt to hang onto their fading youth. This explains how, since I currently live in
, my 29th birthday turned into a ‘dry-run’ for actual 30th birthday in 2012. Fortunately, I can see the humour in this system and find it quite exciting that I get to celebrate two ‘30th’ birthdays. Korea
I spend the morning with my Canadian friends in Jeonju where we run a few errands and they help me out by taking me to a few useful places in Jeonju. They then take me to lunch at TGI Friday’s which, apparently, is an American restaurant and one I’ve never been to. There, we order the most amazing chicken sandwiches for lunch and it’s good to eat food that doesn’t involve kimchi for a change. At the end of our meal, their daughter runs to the staff to tell them that it’s my birthday and soon our table is surrounded by all of the staff with a variety of instruments - guitar, tambourine, maracas and hand drums - who proceed to sing me a birthday song in Korean. I feel my cheeks warming as a blush slowly rises in the embarrassment of all of this attention but it’s interesting having a Korean style birthday. They actually sing very well so it’s nowhere near as painful an experience as having staff at Spur or Steers in
sing happy birthday can be. We then make our way back to Gunsan where we got to Coldstone for ice-cream and a chat before I go home. South Africa
I then meet Catfish at Lotte mart where there is a skincare and massage shop. The idea is for both of us to get massages but they can only fit in one of us. I finally have the massage that everyone keeps telling me to do and, combined with a facial, it’s so relaxing that it doesn’t take long for me to fall asleep. Catfish, meanwhile, entertains herself at the pet store opposite the salon.
Swimming With Catfish
Since the facial was unexpected, and I’m rather vain and insecure, our first stop after leaving the salon is Skin Food where I buy basic cosmetics to re-apply some of the make-up that was removed for the facial treatment. We then head to the restroom where I quickly apply some foundation, mascara and eye shadow before heading out again to go for dinner. Catfish is just busy telling me about the guy she spoke to this morning at the mobile phone counter in Lotte mart when she walked past after having her eye examine when we pass this particular counter. She points out the guy who quickly turns away in what we presume is shyness before turning back and calling her over to say hello, gives her a high five and slips a piece of paper into her hand. We walk away in laughter as Catfish unfolds the piece of paper that contains his name and number.
Dinner involves pizza at Mr Pizza followed by coffee at a coffee shop around the corner from the pizzeria, Holly’s Coffee. Here, I am presented with my first Korean coupon card which I can’t help but admire since everyone I know gets given coupon cards all the time and I always seem to be missed over. Catfish and I have a rather philosophical discussion about ourselves and come to the general consensus that we’ve spent far too much time together over the past seven days – we need a break from each other! Before we know it, it’s nearly 23:00. We walk about halfway to Lotte mart together before parting ways for the night: Catfish to her apartment and I to Lotte mart.
As I walk to Lotte mart, I’m just starting to wonder if my family is actually going to phone me for my birthday when my phone rings. Listening to my seven year old nephew sing his version of Happy Birthday over the phone and playing 49 questions with my nine year old niece whose favourite questions are “Why?” and “What ya doing?”, I realise just how much I miss having them around and a momentary pang of homesickness hangs over me. It’s been a great birthday but now it’s really time for bed.