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Ninety is the new 60 in Korean culture

The blessing of longevity means moving beyond celebration to intergenerational service

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Getty images

LOUISVILLE — Koreans certainly know how to throw a party, and with average life expectancy in South Korea steadily increasing — rising from 61.9 in 1970 to 81.9 in 2020 — even more milestone birthday parties are expected in the years to come.

Estimates are that by 2026, nearly 21% of the population in South Korea will be older than 65, said the Rev. Dr. Jae Hong Kim, senior pastor of New Blessing Church in Duluth, Georgia. Kim presented the third and final “Celebrating Longevity Around the World” webinar, hosted by the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Christian Formation. Kim’s presentation and the two others in the series can be watched here.

Years ago, Kim said, living to celebrate the big 4-0 or the big 5-0 used to be a goal. But these days many people in Korea and elsewhere are enjoying active, productive lives well into their 70s, 80s and beyond. He highlighted a few milestone birthdays traditionally celebrated with big parties.

the Rev. Dr. Jae Hong Kim

Koreans begin counting age in the womb, he said, so babies are already one year old at birth. The parties begin at a child’s 100th day after birth (baek-il). This tradition dates from the days when infant mortality was a very concerning issue. Although no longer a problem, the 100-day party tradition continues.

  • The 60th birthday (hwangap), actually celebrating the 61st year of life by Korean count, used to involve inviting huge crowds of people, all relatives, neighbors and beggars in the village. The size of the hwangap party “represented the family’s virtue and honor,” Kim said. Not so today. Since life expectancy is rising, some people skip the hwangap party altogether, he said.
  • The 70th birthday (gohui or chilsun), meaning “very rare thing from old times.” It typically involves a smaller gathering, but is an exceptional event, especially for those who have skipped the hwangap party a decade earlier. The birthday honoree wears traditional Korean clothing.
  • At 77 (Hee-Soo), which means “joyful age,” another party takes place, typically just immediate family. It is so named because the number 77 looks like the word ‘Hee’ in Chinese letters, which means joy.
  • The 80th birthday party (palsun) is typically a small gathering with family enjoying traditional Korean food, like rice cakes and seaweed soup.
  • The next party takes place at age 88 (Mee-Soo), which also takes its name from the appearance of Chinese letters resembling ‘Mee,’ which means “rice.”
  • The 91st birthday party (Maang-Baek), refers to the fact that the person is heading toward 100.
  • The 99th birthday party (Baek-Soo), implies the honoree is almost 100 years old. Baek sounds like the Chinese number 100, with the shape missing just one part.

Korean Presbyterian Community Church of Atlanta (Contributed photo)

Celebrating longevity through long-standing birthday traditions contributes to empowering members of Korean American immigrant church spiritually for mission, Kim said. He previously ministered in the Korean Presbyterian Community Church of Atlanta (KCPC), which had more than 500 adults 65 and over. This diverse group of older adults took an active role in ministries for S.E.N.I.O.R.S.: Spirituality, Enrichment, Nurturing, Intergenerational, Outreach, Recreation, Service, particularly concentrating on missional strategies for the intergenerational service.

Since traditional Korean birthday celebrations were being scaled back to include fewer numbers of people, and since the buildings on the church campus had wear and tear issues, Kim encouraged older adults at KCPC to support repairs by donating some of the money they saved from their milestone birthday parties.

Just as Nehemiah the prophet rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, the session at KCPC created the Nehemiah Fund to address special projects and make repairs. One project completed was the building of a canopy where guests and families with young children could park and enter the church and stay dry on rainy days.

“Church members are to live missional lives until we are called to heaven,” Kim said. “Think about how you will navigate the rest of your life focused on God’s purpose.”

“Maan-Soo-Moo-Ghaang-Haa-Soh-Seoh”: May you live long.

POAMN was formed in the 1980s to raise awareness around ministry for and with older adults. POAMN’s mission is educating and equipping leadership in aging congregations to promote and engage in activities, wellness, care and social involvement in covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the PC(USA) Office of Christian Formation.

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