Growing up in a Korean household, I was very conscious of my age early on in my life. All Korean children have been told to sacrifice (양보 ‘yangbo’) and take care of younger children. Every Korean child has probably experienced the feeling of pent up frustration of having to give special treatment to younger children. At the same time, they are told to obey and be polite to older children. Kids did this because they learned that their age required such behaviour, and even amongst babies there is a hierarchy. But this was only the beginning.
Social Status Dictated By Age
In England, age was something that was only important once a year; when it was party time. At university, age was distinguished only through the different stages of university. When out in the real world, rarely did I mention my age let alone ask anyone else’s. After all, it is rude and uncomfortable to ask, but in a Korean setting, inquiring age is crucial for etiquette.
By knowing someone’s age, your social interaction and relationship dynamic shift immediately. Language, behaviour and body language shifts to accommodate the other person’s social ranking in comparison to your own. For females, and older person is called Unni (언니) or Oppa (오빠), and for males Nuna (누나) or Hyung (형). The older person takes on the role of an older sibling, being the carer, leader and has responsibility of the younger. Meanwhile the younger must take the submissive role and obey the senior by being agreeable and respectful. I have witnessed people with my own eyes having completely different personas when they are with people of a different age, like Jekyll and Hyde.
Someone who is the same age as you, known as ‘dong gab’ (동갑), can be referred to by name and is a ‘chingoo’ (친구) meaning friend. Whilst I enjoy the company of same-aged peers because I am able to be open and free without being conscious of hierarchy, there is an invisible social pressure from that word to instantly be close. A ‘chingoo’ is also someone who I can be directly compared to. In Korean society, comparing with others and ‘fitting in’ is important, so if my same-age friend was doing something and I wasn’t, I had in some way failed to keep up with my rank. ‘Friends’ as well as competitors.
Age And People’s Perception Of Me
My age has become an insecurity, because it has become one more thing that could be used against me. People who think I am too young, disregard me and assume I am immature, inexperienced and childish. Even if my views are perfectly valid, my young age is never an asset when standing up for myself. In any confrontation with someone older, your youth will be addressed as evidence to weaken my case. My age has been used to shut me up, especially when older people disregard the weight of my problems. I have seen the reaction from people when they hear my age, I can see them almost immediately be repelled and stop taking me seriously.
When being around people younger than me, it can be burdensome being the oldest as you are automatically raised to the position of a leader. Some people revel in being older and grip on tightly to their age as a source of seniority and power in their life. However, for some it is a reminder of social expectations, mortality and for women, a countdown towards ajumma-hood. Women especially detest being the oldest in a group because they are resigned to the mother-figure.
Having these expectations based on age have been a useful go-to method for everyday social etiquette and easily creating new relationships, but many people wonder if this age hierarchical system will last.
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