How old are these kids, anyway?

The mystery first revealed itself in February. What on earth was their Vietnamese age??

For some reason, it appeared that all my first graders were the same age. Possible, of course, but… statistically improbable, no?

But there it was: in response to a lesson that included the question “How old are you?” I got a solid week of “I’m seven years old!” (Note for later: this was in the second semester, post-Tet 2014.) Hours and hours of “I’m seven!” Improbable. Not impossible… but very strange.

I didn’t think about it much, except for what a boring and monotonous exercise that was for them (and me!), until later in the semester.

Towards the end of the school year, I was presented with a class roster which had their official ages on it. You guessed it… all seven years old. What was going on here??

If we were in a western country, there would naturally be a spread of ages. Some kids would be younger, and some would be older. Some would have their birthdays in the middle of the year, and some would have there birthdays in the summer, outside of school. This idea was so basic to my mind that I wasn’t even able to envision a different system, until it was shoved in my face.

It turns out that Vietnamese, along with a few other SE Asian countries, have different traditions for tallying the years of their existence.

Birthdays themselves are not always that important. True, as the country falls headlong into the future, the urban youth have started to appropriate the western custom of making a bigger deal out of their birthdays… but even given that, it’s not the Vietnamese Traditional Way. (And why, as I’m sure many people would ask, should they not celebrate them all? The more the merrier!)

As far as I can understand, it works like this:

First: When you are born, you are 1 year old. Even though those 9 months inside your mother’s womb
are not a year, and the most you’re doing as far as gaining experiences is developing functioning organs and all your arms and eyes in the right places, it still counts. (Except when it doesn’t, of course.)

Secondly, everyone in Vietnam (everyone!) becomes 1 year older together at the lunar New Year (Tet), which occurs annually in late January or early February.

So, Maths: I was born in the summer of 1982. My Vietnamese age would now be one year older than I am now.

Birth, Summer 1982: 1
Tet 1983: 2
Summer 1983: Still 2 (chronologically 1)
Tet 1984: 3 (chronologically 1.5)
Summer 1984: 3 // 2, really, honestly
And So On.

Of course, this tradition is just that, a tradition, and varies from family to family, generation to generation, and region to region. For the purposes of certain governmental agencies (disregarding education, apparently?), the chronological age is required, as it’s really the only way to officially know if you’re old enough to drive, give legal consent, etc.

One other effect of this practice, besides streamlining ages in a school, is that people you meet often don’t seem as old (emotionally, physically, mentally) as they say they are. There’s often a pause as Vietnamese mentally calculate their various ages, debating whether or not to waffle up or down a year if it gives them a clearer relationship to your age – a social yardstick that helps them place you in their personal hierarchy. A safer bet is to ask “What year were you born?” rather than “How old are you?” The former is specific and the math always adds up, while the latter can be inflated by up to two years.

Confusing, to say the least, but at least it’s less opaque than it used to be!

P.S. Much more widespread and recognized than a birthday, however, is the death date of a family member. No one forgets this date, and it’s a strong custom involving neighbors and the community. But… more on this in a later post. Also, look for a post on age spread in Vietnam – a shocking 87% of the population is under 55 (as of December 2013)! Holy cow – Japan should be jealous!