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My understanding of Korean culture is that everyone basically knows everyone else's age. This is essential when speaking Korean because the language changes based on your social status.

As an outsider interacting with an expatriate Korean community (and not in a context where we will be speaking Korean), how should I work within this age system? Do I need to figure out my place in their culture? Are there conventional (polite) ways to ask everyone how old they are? Or as a Westerner am I not expected to need to worry about any of this?

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  • I'd assume you don't really need to worry about this, what capacity will you be interacting with the Korean expat community? Is there some reason to believe that they'll have higher expectations of you than they would for some other foreigner (non-korean)? – placeybordeaux Feb 15 '18 at 0:41
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The first thing you need to know early on about "age" is that you should be thinking in terms of age brackets. Before we go into the nuances of the next paragraph, you should not be worrying about absolute age, but rather what I call "general" age; is the other person much older, much younger, or about the same age as me. In that case, you should tailor your forms of address to "older," "younger," or "same." In most cases, your judgments should be reasonably accurate, although you may have to fine tune.

Later on, when you are among your "peers," they may treat each other as such, or there may develop an informal hierarchy among you. If the latter is the case, you will likely be informed as to where you stand in the group and be able to act accordingly. If not, ask the friend that you are closest to, where you stand in relationship to him/her, or better yet, one or more third parties.

As a Westerner, you need to "try" to fit in, although you will be given some leeway for your inevitable mistakes.

"Korean," particularly Korean-American communities can vary greatly Some are formal, others less so. The fact that the community is so "sticky" about hierarchy while not even speaking Korean makes it rather unusual on this regard. This is particularly true when the non-use of the Korean language makes it sound like an expatriate community (which the edit to your question now makes clear). Most communities (not all Korean) that are so "orthodox" in one way are so pretty much across the board, including language, dress, and customs. Frankly, I've never heard of such an age hierarchy being administered in English or other "non-native" language, (although i guess such a thing is possible).

In a sense, our exchange has been like the story of the six (two) blind men and the elephant. I don't claim to understand the whole (Korean) "elephant," only the part that I'm holding onto. Which is to say the Korean-Americans (and a handful of native Koreans) that I know in America.

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    Do you have references for the first paragraph? Whenever I've spoken to my Korean friends I'm sure they've said that it's much tighter than a general age bracket. – curiousdannii Jul 22 '17 at 22:59
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    @curiousdannii: I am speaking as a Chinese-American, and was talking about someone you had just met. Among people you know better, go to the second paragraph. The third paragraph says that you will be excused for making mistakes among the people "you have just met." – Tom Au Jul 23 '17 at 3:49
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    Chinese and Korean culture are distinct, can you clarify that your answer is about Korean culture and not Chinese or Chinese-American culture? – curiousdannii Jul 23 '17 at 4:12
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    @curiousdannii: Your own link refers (obliquely) to what I call age brackets: First, parents, then aunts and uncles (one generation older). Finally older brothers and sisters (half a generation older). This exists in the Chinese-American culture also (more honored in the breach than the acceptance, nowadays.) – Tom Au Jul 23 '17 at 7:54
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    @TomAu: actually, according to my Chinese students in my school in Korea (I am myself French), Chinese and Korean differ on the question of age difference, and Korean people should show respect to others at least one year older. – Taladris Sep 15 '17 at 12:09

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