Tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday. She isn’t Korean, but her birthday made me think there are some things about Korean birthdays that the world doesn’t know that are interesting. In fact, one thing about Korean birthdays, the world should really know because that one thing is like Chinese birthdays, and Chinese birthdays caused trouble at the Olympics a few years ago. Korean birthdays are changing, but there are still several things about them that are different from the rest of the world.
Korea is a peninsula, except for the border of north Korea, they are completely surrounded by the sea. Many of the dishes they eat come from the sea. It makes sense that the early Koreans began eating sea weed. Now a days, there are whole aisles at the grocery store that are nothing but a big selection of different kinds of sea weed they have packaged for different purposes.
To begin with, when a Korean has a birthday, their mother, their wife, or their girlfriend will probably serve them sea weed soup. There was a time in Korea that they had never heard of birthday cakes, and the only special food you got on your birthday was sea weed soup. I know, you are thinking, “Sea weed soup?” How is that celebrating? It isn’t even sweet. Okay, there was a time in Korea that sugar didn’t exist, so they didn’t even think about something sweet on their birthdays. They eat sea weed soup because of the symbolism involved. Wet sea weed is slippery. When we are born, we slip out of our mothers, so they eat something slippery on their birthdays. Expectant mothers are also supposed to eat a lot of sea weed soup because it is slippery and will help them give birth and because sea weed is very nutritious. To people from the west, sea weed soup sounds really strange and they may be thinking it would probably taste awful. However, the truth is, if you can get over the fact that you are eating sea weed, it tastes much better than many things the Koreans eat. In fact, I like sea weed soup.
Yes, now a days, Koreans have birthday cakes. However, they are not like birthday cakes from the west, and mother doesn’t make it. Korean women don’t bake. There are no ovens in Korean apartments, and if you see an oven in an apartment, they probably don’t know how to use it. Koreans buy their cakes at bakeries, and there are lots of bakeries in Korea. Their cakes don’t have as much sugar in them as our cakes. If you are afraid of getting fat when you eat cake, in Korea, you probably won’t. There is sugar in them, but very little. They are not as rich as American cakes, but they still taste good. The bakery always asks you how old the person is who is having a birthday and gives you the appropriate number of candles and matches. They also supply you with a plastic cake server and often, with confetti too. Often, friends buy cakes for their friends on their birthday here. They are tasty cakes even if they don’t have much sugar. They eat the cake with chop sticks.
On Korean birthdays, technically, yes, the person becomes one year older, but traditionally, they don’t become a year older until the Lunar New Year that is usually in February or occasionally the end of January. There are two calendars, one where the days are counted by the sun, and one where they are counted by the moon. In the west, we use the calendar that is counted by the sun, but traditionally, here in Korea, they use the calendar counted by the moon. However, now a days, they use both calendars. The older people like the Lunar calendar better because that is what they grew up with. I was born in June, so on my birthday, I am not really one year older. I would be one year older on the next Lunar New Year. However, my daughter was born in November, and I am not sure how this works, but because she was born at the end of the year, they say that her age would be two years more than what we would say in the west. For example, if your birthday is in December, and you are 25 years old in the west, in Korea, they would think you are 27 years old. However, if you were born in August and were 25 years old in the west, they would say you are 26 years old in Korea.
The mix up at the Olympics a couple of years ago with the Chinese gymnast happened because of the way age is looked at in the east. I don’t know all the cultures here very well, but I know this works for China, Korea, and Japan. When they are born, they have been living for almost a year inside their mother’s womb, so they are already considered a year old. When you encounter someone from one of those countries and they tell you their age, but you learn what year they were born and decide they are lying bout their age and are actually younger than they are, they are not lying. It is just a cultural difference in how birthdays are counted. And remember, if they were born at the end of the year, they may even be counting themselves two years older than someone in the west would count themselves.
As for my daughter’s birthday, she really likes ice cream cake. I used to always make cakes for all my kid’s birthdays, but when we were in Romania, my older daughter saw an ice cream cake in a store one day and was intrigued. She asked whether or not she could have that for her birthday, and I got it for her. It was the first one we had eaten on someone’s birthday. My younger daughter loved the idea. Ever since, on her birthday, my younger daughter has asked for ice cream cakes on her birthday. Here in Korea, we have bought them at Cold Stone, an American chain ice cream place which went out of business here, Baskin Robbins, another American chain ice cream place that is all over Korea, and this year, we got it at Dairy Queen for her. It was the first time we got one from Dairy Queen. She wanted to try something different. She insisted on going alone to Dairy Queen to pick her cake, and she also picked up Dilly Bars. Since she will be working all day tomorrow, on her birthday, we actually celebrated her birthday on Friday because both she and her husband had off from work on Friday evening. He bought her a Nintendo Game Boy, and I gave her the Christmas Stocking I made for her. There were no birthday parties this year besides just with the family because our apartment is just too small for parties right now, so it was just the three of us.