Oppa, Gagnam Style – The Importance of Age in Korea

Koreans are extremely fixated on age.  The concept of oppa, unnie, hyung and noona is deeply ingrained in this society.  Each of these terms refer to a specific gender being older than another, and the roles and responsibilities associated with this form of relationship.  These roles and responsibilities apply irrespective of whether the older person is one year older or 20 years older, and because of this, it is starkly different to the nearest concept in Western society of ‘respect for your elders’.

The role of the older person in the relationship (and by relationship, I’m referring to platonic i.e. friendships and acquaintances, as well as romantic relationships) is to pay for the food and drinks of the younger person, including basic things like a weekday lunch and also just generally take care of them.  It is so ingrained, that I’ve heard from a Korean that when their aunt and uncle were experiencing financial hardship, they had to decline all social events as they couldn’t afford to pay for all the young people.  Some young workers pride themselves on the number of consecutive days they can go without having to buy lunch for themselves.

Alongside the financial aspect, there is also respect.  Older people get more respect for their thoughts and opinions from younger, but the downside of this is that sometimes the thoughts and suggestions of younger people are disregarded, regardless of whether they may be better/more credible.

The song Gagnam Style, that most of us have sung, danced or bopped along to at least once, has a deeper meaning with the term ‘oppa’ at the start.  Psy sings that he’s an older male figure for women, with Gagnam style – referring to the new/expensive area of Korea.

I have only been at CNU for about 4 days, however my age has been a topic of discussion with every person I’ve met.  It’s definitely been in a positive way, as they all seem a little shocked and surprised to find out I’m older than they expected, however it’s very bizarre for me to repeat the exact same conversation with every single new person I meet.

In Australia, at uni, I have had similar conversations with other students but it tends to occur about halfway through semester or randomly in passing – it’s definitely not the second question you ask of everyone you meet.

Universally, one thing that most people in their late teens and early twenties don’t seem to realise is that I am genuinely proud of my age.  Proud to be where I am in life, proud to be grounded, mature, and at the same time, enjoying things like video games and dancing.  They can’t seem to comprehend that when I go clubbing from 11pm till 4am (like last night), it’s not out of character for adults.  I know many adults who could out drink and out party them, but 20 year olds seem to think 30 is this incredibly old age where we all just whither away and cease to have fun.

I’m enjoying dispelling their misconceptions of being ‘old’.  I hope that by being around me, they will fear adulthood a little less, and look forward to financial freedom, independence and the ability to enjoy every single night of the week – not just the weekend or when they’ve gotten paid.  Yes, us oldies get to be smart arses too.


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