Postechian Column: Challenging Korea’s Age Hierarchy
Postechian Column: Challenging Korea’s Age Hierarchy
  • Kim Yu-min (PHYS 22)
  • 승인 2023.12.05 20:35
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Kim Yu-min (PHYS 22)
Kim Yu-min (PHYS 22)

  I have had the privilege of socializing with individuals from various countries, living in Europe during my youth, fostering friendships with POSTECH exchange students since first grade, and now being able to deepen these connections by working as a PBUD this semester.
  A recurring observation in my interactions with foreign friends is their remarkable closeness, irrespective of age, arising from cultures that lack the rigid hierarchical norms in Korea. This characteristic, reflective of a culture that dismisses hierarchy, enables easy communication during initial encounters. This cultural trait extends to language, which lacks the two separate systems of informal speech and honorific language present in Korean. I consistently admire cultures where friendships develop effortlessly, regardless of age or nationality.
  In Korea, social hierarchies are structured based on the Korean age system, which is the year of birth. Each birth year serves as a hierarchical marker. For example, those born on Jan. 1, 2023, and those born on Dec. 31, 2023, will be in the same hierarchy, but those born on Dec. 31, 2023, and those born on Jan. 1, 2024, will belong to different hierarchies.
  Therefore, it is a common practice in Korea to inquire about one’s birth year or age upon the first meeting, a practice aimed at promptly establishing the social hierarchy dictated by age. Furthermore, the term ‘friend’ in Korea carries a narrow definition due to these influences, strictly dedicated to individuals of the same (Korean) age, diverging from foreign cultures that do not anchor the concept of friendship in age.
  The existence of an age-based hierarchy poses a formidable obstacle to the immediate formation of friendships, even when encountering individuals who are just a year older. This challenge arises from the nature of relationships structured not on a horizontal plane, but rather within a hierarchical framework. Even in cases where closeness develops, it often manifests as an association within the hierarchical roles of older and younger siblings, or seniors and juniors, reinforcing age-centric hierarchy; instances abound where individuals of higher hierarchical status adopt informal language when talking with those of lower rank, while individuals in lower hierarchical positions use a formal language.
  Moreover, although such occurrences are not prevalent in POSTECH, instances exist in some universities where seniors harass juniors based on their rank, subjecting them to disciplinary measures. In the middle school sports club that I attended, there were some instances in which seniors organized junior students in the hallway and physically assaulted them.
  As I made many friends around the world, I experienced a departure from this conventional hierarchy in Korea: Quickly becoming “friends” with individuals who are three to four years, or even ten years older than me, engaging in open and ‘horizontal’ conversations—a departure from the norm within Korean culture.
  It is crucial to avoid labeling Korean culture as inherently wrong due to these differences. However, in the modern society of the 21st century, we must reassess the logic behind ranking by age and maintaining traditions that restrain seamless interactions between different age groups, potentially inducing a rigid society.
  While the immediate dissolution of Korea’s hierarchical system may be impossible, and the abandonment of honorifics and informal language is difficult, it is crucial to acknowledge the inconveniences and pressures stemming from a culture that categorizes individuals based on age. I hope that even inside Korean society, everybody can become friends without the barriers of age hierarchy!