This is a question that I have never been asked in Korea, or by a person who just came from Korea. I’ve also never been asked this by an older Korean person. This is more of a question you would probably hear from a younger Korean American or a Korean American who was raised in the United States. What does this mean? Why do people ask this question?
How Old Are You?
This question is more or less asking how old are you. But why don’t people just ask how old are you? Knowing a persons age is very important in Korean culture. Knowing how far apart you are in age will determine how a person treats you and talks to you. For example, the rule I was taught is that if a person is within 5 years of your age, they are more of your friend than your brother or sister. So a person who is 3 years older than me is not someone I would have to call 형 (hyung) or speak horrifically to. Likewise, if I am 4 years older than a woman, she does not have to call me 오빠 (oppa). We are friends, even though we are at an age where we can be brother and sister.
But asking a Korean person their age can be confusing due to the difference between Korean age and international age. Since Korean age starts at the moment of conception, and because the entire culture turns a year older on New Years, it is possible that a person could be considered to be 2 years old when they are born. So a person who is Korean American can ask you how old you are, but they will not be sure if you are giving your Korean age or international age unless you specifically state that you are giving your Korean age or your international age.
To prevent this confusion, you may simply be asked, “What year are you?” or what year were you born in. You would then answer with the year of your birth. So if you were asked that, and you were born in 1995, you would simply say 95 in English or Korean. The person would then compare it to the year of their birth to see if they are older or younger. If you were both born in 1995, they would then ask for the month you were born in. If that’s the same, they would ask what day of the month you were born in. (I know this because I have a friend that was born 1 day before me. But I jokingly call her 누나 and she calls me 동생.)
While not recommended, you can sometime get away with telling a person the year your were born in if you are asked how old you are. You could also get away with saying your full birth date when asked this question. (Example, if you were born on March 19th, 1995, the Korean way to say that is 1995년 3월 19일입니다.)
If a Korean person ask you your age, it is just to see how they should treat you. And if you are asked what year are you, it’s not because the person thinks that you are a car rather than a human. It is so they know the proper amount of respect to show you. So no matter who you are, be proud of your age. And always be proud of what year you are, no matter what year it happens to be.