17 April, 2019
Lee Dong Kil's daughter was born on December 31, 2018.
She arrived late in the night – two hours before the start of the New Year. But two hours later, the baby girl became 2 years old.
She was not alone in aging quickly. Every baby born in South Korea last year turned 2 on January 1st, 2019.
Based on an unusual system for calculating ages, South Korea's babies become 1 on the day of their birth. They become an additional year older on January 1st.
Lee Dong Kil remembers sharing news about his daughter's birth on social media. His friends immediately sent him messages to congratulate him.
"An hour later, when the New Year began, they phoned me again to say congratulations for my baby becoming 2-years-old," said Lee. "I thought, 'Ah, right. She's now 2 years old, though it's been only two hours since she was born. What the heck!'"
By the way, Lee is 32 years old internationally, but 34 in South Korea.
Exactly how this aging system developed is not clear. Defining a full-term pregnancy as one lasting 40 weeks is one way to explain why babies are one when they are born.
But becoming a year older on January 1st? That is even harder to explain.
Jung Yon-hak is with the National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul. He suggests that perhaps ancient Koreans cared about the year in which they were born in the Chinese 60-year cycle. Without modern methods of measuring time, they did not care much about the specific day they were born.
Officially, South Korea has used Western-style calculations since the early 1960s. But many South Koreans still use the old system in their daily lives. The government has done little to get people to change over to the Western system.
In January, lawmaker Hwang Ju-hong proposed a bill that would require the government to put international ages in official documents. The bill also urges citizens to go with their international ages in everyday life. It is the first legislative attempt to end "Korean age."
The goal of the bill is to end confusion "caused by the mixed use of age-counting systems," Hwang said in the proposed legislation.
His office said a parliamentary committee discussion and a public hearing on the issue are expected in coming months.
Opinion studies in recent years showed more South Koreans supported international age. It was not clear, however, how seriously they wanted a change.
"If we use international age, things could get more complicated because it's a society that cares so much about which year you were born," said Lim Kyoung Jae, head of the Seoul-based Miko Travel agency. "We should also definitely count the time of a baby being conceived and growing in its mother's womb."
Lim's employee Choi Min Kyung, who is 26 internationally and 28 in South Korea, disagreed.
"It's good to be two years younger ... (especially) when you meet men" on blind dates, Choi said with a laugh. "There is a big difference between 26 and 28."
I'm John Russell.
Hyung-Jin Kim reported on this story for AP. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
calculate – v. to find a number or answer by using mathematics
What the heck! -- expression informal – an expression of shock or misunderstanding
style – n. a way of doing things or expression
cycle – n. a period of time
complicated – adj. hard to understand, explain, or deal with
conceive – v. to become pregnant
blind date – n. when two people who do not know each other meet and decide if they may want to have a relationship
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