It is a truth universally acknowledged that most Asian people look younger than their actual age. Rigorous beauty regimes, typically healthy Asian food and an obsession with pale skin (and staying out of the sun) are just some of the explanations people have pointed to.
However, a much simpler answer could be that east Asians calculate their ages differently. A baby is already considered a year old when they are born, as opposed to Western cultures where the baby is zero at birth.
But it’s a lot more complicated than that, Dr Gregory Evon, Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University, explains.
“There are other factors like the new year and solar new year, which makes it very complex,” he tells SBS.
“The simplest way to explain it is - a baby is one year at birth and then gains another year at the new year, so it means you can have up to two years in difference to the Western age.”
Age reckoning originated in China, where it’s believed that a baby’s age starts from its time in the mother’s womb.
If that still doesn’t make any sense, there’s even an online calculator that does all the work for you.
Age reckoning originated in China, where it’s believed that a baby’s age starts from its time in the mother’s womb. The practice is also common in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. The traditional age is also used in fortune-telling, particularly for important events like finding out the best time to get married or bury someone.
However, the practice has been abandoned in Japan for “much more practical reasons,” Dr Simon Avenell, Director of ANU’s Japan Institute, tells SBS.
“A law was passed in the 1950s banning its use for official purposes. Until then it was acceptable to use either method, which could lead to confusion.”
Dr Avenell explains there seems to be three reasons for the law:
“One; it was supposed to have a positive effect on Japanese people because they would be one year younger.
Japanese communities in Australia also do not use the traditional ageing system kazoetoshi.
“Two; it eliminated the disadvantages of being born right at the end of the year which meant you turned two years old at the beginning of the following year. For example, this could impact your marriage prospects if you were a woman.
“Three; it was felt that the Japanese age system needed to be brought into line with standard international practice.”
Japanese communities in Australia also do not use the traditional ageing system kazoetoshi, “although older Japanese born before the war may still use [it],” Dr Avenell says.
One country that continues to use the traditional age even in its expatriate community in Australia, is Korea. As an Australian-born Korean, I’ve grown up with two ages and it often gets confusing. My non-Korean friends are even more confused, as one demanded answers when she watched a Korean movie on a plane and saw that the age warning was 19 on the screen but at the bottom said 18 in the English subtitles. It doesn’t stop there - the Korean legal age to purchase alcohol and cigarettes is 19 (in Western years) and is printed so on the products.
With the exception of Japan, it seems the traditional age system is alive and well in much of East Asia and its respective migrant communities in Australia. Dr Tuan Ngoc Nguyen, Senior lecturer in Vietnamese studies at Victoria University, says tuổi ta is “still popular in the Vietnamese community, especially among the old people in Australia.”
So the next time you ask an Asian their age, keep in mind it may be one or two years more than their Western age - or they just have good genes.
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