As I explained way back last year before I moved to Korea, people here don’t count themselves as being one year older on their birthdays. Instead, everyone’s age goes up a year at Seollal, the lunar new year.
However, I incorrectly inferred from this information that Koreans don’t celebrate their birthdays. In fact, they do – with some similarities and some differences to our way.
For example, when it’s a teacher’s birthday, we have a little ‘party’ dinner in the school kitchen, with takeout pizza and chicken, and maybe a few bottles of beer. The principal gives us a token birthday gift. When it’s a child’s birthday, they have a party in their homeroom. They have a birthday cake, a banner, party hats, balloons….
However, one thing I don’t ever remember happening at home is that the birthday child comes to school in their very best outfit. Little boys wear waistcoats, shirts and ties, even bow ties! Little girls come in dressed like princesses in their floaty, glittery party dresses. But it’s not the whole class dressing up for a party – it’s only the birthday child. Everyone else is dressed in normal, plain school uniform, and they’re gliding around in formal attire. It’s a little odd having one little fairy princess in her elegant gown, sitting in an otherwise normal class of children, clutching her pencil and eraser.
I presume it’s to draw attention to the fact that today is their special day – not that they need to, for the second I’m in through the door on a birthday, I’m generally surrounded by several excited children shouting “Teacher! Today – Alice is – happy birthday!”, before I’ve even got my shoes off. It has taken me a long time to train myself not to respond with my instinctive, automatic response – turning to the birthday child and saying with a big smile “Oh, happy birthday! How old are you?”. That doesn’t work in a country where birthdays don’t have anything to do with age. They just look blankly at you, and you know that if they were capable, they’d be saying “Um, the same age I was yesterday, duh… why are you changing the subject?!”.
Another birthday tradition, and one I’m becoming particularly fond of, is that the birthday person gives presents to everyone else. Sometimes in the late afternoon I’ll be wandering down to the office to make some photocopies, and someone will shout “Eat some fried chicken! It’s Ellie Teacher’s birthday!” or “Eat some ice cream! It’s Lucy’s birthday!” – meaning that the birthday teacher or the birthday child(‘s mother) has brought in some deliciously unhealthy treat for all the staff. We have all learned to stick our heads into the office even if we don’t need to go in, just because you never know what might be sitting on the table. Today I went in to choose a new book for one of my classes, and found a platter of birthday cake, cookies, Korean rice cake, and my current favourite thing (after the aircon, obviously) – blue grapes. I sat there for a good half hour leafing through the books and popping one delicious grape after another out of its thick skin and into my mouth. Delicious. Hang on, I’m getting side-tracked.
Yesterday, I went up to my classroom and found a little gift bag of sweets on my desk, addressed to ‘Hayley 선생님’ in the careful handwriting of a dutiful mother. Once, I even got a pair of stockings, which I thought was a bit of a strange present to get from a 6-year-old boy, but I figured that his mother had probably seen me in my tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt one too many times and was trying to save me from myself. Korean women don’t dress like I do!
Another time, it was this beautiful cupcake/muffin:
As I sit here surrounded by sweets and think this all through, it occurs to me that it may not be such a mystery why I stopped losing weight soon after settling in here, after all…