Welcome to The Single Files, Refinery29's new bi-monthly column. Each installment will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. In the inaugural column, we're hearing from a woman who went from age 29 to 31 virtually overnight — and how the leap made her question her happily single status. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There was always a joke to be made about “Dirty Thirty.” Every time a friend celebrated their 30th birthday, I would slide in a coy line about how they can now, at last, be truly dirty, to the word’s fullest potential. I don’t even really know what that would mean. I just like the way it rhymes.
When 2020 came along, my own 30th birthday finally loomed on the horizon. But my ambitions to “be dirty” didn’t quite come through as planned. Instead, coronavirus entered the scene, and I found myself stuck at home. Being single, for months my closest contact with anyone other than my roommate was through Zoom.
At first, I had no time to be lonely. The pandemic put an indefinite hold on new job prospects, forcing me to hustle and keep myself busy with every freelance writing job I could get. During my down time, I focused on home Pilates, Netflix marathons, and mastering Candy Crush. My K-pop stanning level reached an all-time high.
But after quarantining for over three months in New York City, I decided I needed to get out of my apartment. Back in Seoul, where I grew up and where I had been living just eight months before, my friends were living an almost normal life, out and about as if everything was business as usual. Their lives looked so good on Instagram Stories, and I wanted to be there.
I booked a flight to Korea and landed in Seoul on July 1, excited to see my family and to make new plans with any semblance of social activity. Little did I know how different things would be from the year before. Something had drastically changed, practically overnight. Namely, my age. As soon as I touched down in Korea, I leapfrogged from 29 to 31. That meant I was over 30 and single.
First, let me explain: South Korea calculates age differently than the rest of the world. It’s not as straightforward as knowing when your birthday is.
In Korea, you are one year old when you are born, and you turn a year older on New Year’s Day, not your birthday. This method of age calculation, called “East Asian Age Reckoning,” is said to come from China, as its numerals begin with one, not zero. (Some claim that Asians used to count a fetus’ time in the womb as part of their life, but that’s not historically confirmed.) Countries like China, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and even North Korea mostly stopped using this age system as recently as the 1980s. South Korea remains the only country in the world that still commonly uses it.
For legal matters, Korea uses conventional “birthday” age, referred to as “full age” or “international age.” But “Korean age” or “nominal age” is more widely used in cultural contexts. When someone asks how old you are in Korea, you don’t answer with your full age, you answer with the year you were born.
Adding to the complication is the country’s notion of “early birth.” South Koreans born in January and February have the same nominal age as those born the year before. This is because of the local education system. Children are required to enroll in school at (international) age six. The semester begins in March, and kids with January/February birthdays enter the same grade as kids born between March and December of the previous year. Although this rule was nullified in 2009, it applied to me. (I was born in February 1991; I entered school with kids born in March through December of 1990.) Doing the math, that makes me 29 in America and 31 in Korea.
At first, it seemed like entering my third decade meant more to my family and friends in Korea than it did to me. I didn’t feel very different, but everything else around me was. Dad’s nagging spiked tenfold (“You’re 30 now! When are you going to buy a house?”). I was being invited to a wedding every week. “You should meet someone!” said almost everyone.
Most people count “30” as a kind of landmark. That’s when you shift from your still-figuring-it-out 20s to your getting-it-together 30s — at least in theory. And that extends to relationships. People talk about the condition of being “single at 30” as something to be avoided.
I’ve never been one to stress over the idea of marriage. I like being single now, and I’m not trying to change that. But even before moving to Korea, my nonchalance toward dating had begun to feel like an anomaly in my social circle. I had less and less in common with friends who were prioritizing settling down and having kids. It felt like within a year, we went from talking about our dream jobs to freezing our eggs.
My trip to Seoul exacerbated this feeling — both by catapulting me into the “over-30” bracket overnight, and by shining a spotlight on my single status. Koreans are hypersensitive to dating. Every 14th day of the month is an unofficial local holiday for couples to celebrate. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s White Day, Black Day, Rose Day, and Pepero Day. Koreans celebrate not only anniversaries but every 100th day of their romantic relationships. On billboards, television commercials, and subway ads, it's normal to see actors model for matchmaking services. It's considered shocking if you've never gone on a blind date set up by friends.
While I am mostly ambivalent about when and if I find a long-term partner, meeting my Korean friends again made me obsess over my age and relationship status. I wondered if I’m supposed to be doing things differently. Am I supposed to feel lonely?
It’s still shocking to me that in a way, my twenties are no more. Fears started circulating in my mind: Will guys want me less now that I’m (kind of) over 30? If I don’t meet someone now, will I miss my prime for marriage? Will I regret not having kids when I am younger? Will I be alone forever?
As more and more friends started announcing their wedding plans, I also felt alienated from the rest of the world. I felt somehow behind in life, as though being single and wanting to stay that way at “my age” makes me less of a grown-up.
What’s quieted those fears is one simple but profound-to-me revelation: Today is the youngest I can be for the remainder of my life. So rather than longing for the past, or worrying about what will happen in the future, I might as well enjoy each day.
This thought came to me out of the blue one day, with no precipitating interaction or event. But as soon as it settled into my mind, I immediately felt better. I've held onto it as a mantra since, letting it calm me and restore me to center when I find myself comparing my mindset or lifestyle to the people around me. I know that for now, I’d rather focus on myself than on anyone or anything else.
Plus, I still have my actual 30th birthday celebration to look forward to next year. I already have a name for it: Thirty and Dirty, Whatever That Means.