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Posts Tagged ‘duty of elders in Korea’


Do you remember how important age was in elementary school? If you were even a year older than another kid, you were the boss. And kids two or three years older were viewed with a certain awe. It’s kind of like that in Korea, except the obsession with age continues all the way through until death.

Praise or blame Confucius for this, because it’s his system of philosophy that places such importance on age. And nowhere does Confucianism hold such sway as in Korea.

Confucius teaches that there are five basic relationships: king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother (or old-young), and friend-friend. In his teaching, only one of these relationships is egalitarian – friend-friend. The rest are hierarchical, with the subservient party owing a duty of deference and the dominant party owing a duty of care, basically.

This duty of care manifests as a freewheeling propensity for top dogs to dispense advice (wanted or not) and give orders – as well as to pick up the tab at dinner, which makes the previous aspects at least somewhat bearable. Since the dominant party is very typically older, age is held to be very important.

Whereas Westerners will ask someone they’ve just met things like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”, Koreans very quickly get down to the business of figuring out who is the oldest. “When were you born?” is a question that gets asked fairly shortly after two or more Koreans meet for the first time.

If the gap in age is small, say one or two (maybe three) years, everybody can relax a bit. The potential for a friend-friend relationship exists. If the age gap is bigger, however, most Koreans will not feel that friendship is possible. They can be friendly but not friends. Instead, they will adopt the elder sibling-younger sibling relationship. In cases where the gap in age is very large, the older party is almost like a king or queen. Lots of deep bows and attentiveness from the juniors.

So here’s where we are so far: Older outranks younger.

Simple, right? Well, no, this is Korea and they don’t do simple. Just to make things fun for foreigners trying to figure out the culture, the system of age hierarchy has at least one interesting wrinkle. I’ll explain.

Back in 2003, I visited Korea for the first time. I taught ESL in Vancouver then and had lots of Korean students, so I knew a fair bit about the culture before I left to meet KJ’s family and get their blessing for us to get married. I knew how important age was.

In the first three weeks of our visit, I learned the myriad ways age affects everyday life. Smoking in front of elders was a big no-no. Hold your glass with two hands when a senior pours alcohol for you and hold the bottle with both hands when you pour alcohol for a senior. Use two hands and turn away from your senior when drinking alcohol at the table. Never use an older person’s name. It goes on and on.

Finally, Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving) arrived. Well, I was very excited, because KJ’s cousins and nieces and nephews were coming. Finally, I’d have more than just KJ’s two sisters to outrank in age.

Not so fast, outlander! What nobody told me is that since I was marrying into KJ’s family, I got demoted in terms of age – taking KJ’s age and losing five years in the process. This meant that KJ’s older sister (who is younger than me) and her youngest cousin (who is younger than me) are older than me.

If I were Korean, then KJ would move up the age hierarchy in my family by taking my age. She would, therefore, be older than my sister – despite the fact that my sister is older than she is.

Confused? I’m glad, because that means I’ve done a decent job of giving you some idea of what it’s like to be a foreigner in Korea – a land overflowing with unknown unknowns, where the obsession with who’s older than whom continues far beyond elementary school and never ever ends.

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