I had actually intended for this second installment of my completely unbiased chronicles of the Koreans to be about Korean girls/women, but by popular demand I’m moving one age group up and thus, ladies and gentlemen, I’m honored to introduce you to the Korean ajumma.
First I believe a definition is in order. Technically, the word ajumma refers to a married woman (making myself one by that definition), but nowadays nobody under the age of 70 seem to find the word very flattering. Therefore, the meaning of the word has gradually changed to mean a feisty elderly lady, who may often be very opinionated, thrifty, and, quite often, seen prancing the streets of Seoul sporting an ill-fitting perm over a wide sun protecting hat with floral pants to complete the look. Both of which are obviously universally flattering!
I think it’s safe to say that my experiences with ajummas are mixed to put it mildly. To illustrate this point, I’ll walk you through my personal encounters with four different types of ajummas in the following sections.
Ajumma #1: The lady who operates my local noodle shop
Many small restaurant are operated by elderly women who are sometimes and sometimes not assisted by their husbands in running their business. While they technically are ajummas I usually avoid this form of address when I talk to them, opting for the more neutral and polite sajangnim (used to address any kind of business owner). One of my favorite ajummas operates a quite shabby but extremely delicious (not to mention very affordable) noodle shop right next to the fashionable Hyundai department store in Sinchon. The contrast between the tiny shop and the humongous department store could not be stronger and in some way, it makes the noodle store all the more charming. It only seats about 10 people at a time, and many (including myself) are regulars. The ajumma is a firm believer that I’m a student and always speaks to me in banmal, which the informal speech that elders can freely use to younger people. One time I went there alone, she kindly patted my shoulder and asked 친구 없니? (No friend?) as a way of commenting on the fact that I was eating alone. I smiled and assured her that even if I was eating alone I did indeed have friends, and she then took my backpack from the floor and placed it safely on the empty chair next to me apologizing that the floor was not clean. She also gave me a special treat of extra pickled radishes for free. I love this kind of ajumma. She is caring, smiling, hardworking, and just full of jeong – that special kind of Korean love that you show your surroundings.
Ajumma #2: The lady who hits me on the subway
On the opposite side of the ajumma scale, allow me to introduce the so far only person who has physically hit me in Korea. I was on a relatively crowded train on line 2 of the Seoul subway one Friday evening, when I suddenly feel a sharp jab in my lower back. Turning around I see an ajumma pushing her way through the crowd mumbling 비겨! (make way!) while hitting anyone who stands in her way. Although I only had a direct personal encounter with this type of ajumma once, they are not a rare sight in Seoul. They are usually loud-mouthed, ill-mannered, and have a strong sense of entitlement. Think “I’m old, and I can therefore be just as annoying as I want to be.” I asked my Korean teachers at Sogang about this phenomenon, and they agreed that it was certainly not something other Koreans enjoyed, but the Confucian society bids people to just accept older people’s frenzies in the public space.
Ajumma #3: The lady who cleans my classroom
At Sogang, we have many elderly cleaning ladies who work hard to keep the school spotless. If I come early in the morning, or leave late in the afternoon I always see a robust elderly woman meticulously scrubbing the floor, wiping all the desks and making sure that the classroom is ready for the next session. This woman always smilingly greets me “good morning” whenever I hurry down the halls to my office. Occasionally, she will engage in a light conversation about the weather (it’s cold today, right) or tell me that I look very busy. There is just this kind and caring atmosphere about this woman that I’m always happy when I have a chance to greet her.
Ajumma #4: The crazy woman who makes me insanely uncomfortable
Having saved the best for last, this one takes the prize as the ultimate ajumma. This person is the only one of my Sogang colleagues that I’m just so insanely uncomfortable being around. She has two distinct features that makes her especially hard to deal with. 1) She’s well into her sixties, and 2) she’s Korean upper class. By this definition, Korean society allows her to act precisely as horribly as she sees fit, because very few people in her surroundings has the age or social status to disagree with her or put her in her place. She speaks down to most of the other professors, even our head of department, which I as a westerner cannot help but feel may contribute to undermining his authority. I try to avoid her as much as I can, but since the university is relatively small, I usually have an ill-fated encounter with this ajumma at least once every couple of months.
One day in the fall semester I accidentally ran into her on campus, and being the tall, blond, curly haired person I am, I couldn’t hide before it was too late. She immediately demanded that I punch my phone number into her phone records so that she could invite me for lunch or dinner, whichever was most convenient. (Oh, God please – lunch! At least that gives me a 1 hour limit). I reluctantly did so, half-way contemplating to “fake number” her. A few days later I received a text message saying that she had reserved a table for lunch at a nearby restaurant the following Tuesday. That turned out to be a lunch not too different from dining with the Spanish inquisition. The interrogation went along these lines: How old are you? And your husband? How long have you been married? Is your husband well off? Are you close in your marriage? Exactly how tall are you? And your husband? Oh, so you’re taller? Do you think that is a problem? What do you do for exercise? Do you realize that my great great great grandfather was a member of the Korean royal family in the Joseon dynasty? And it was all in Korean! Why does it matter? Because it creates a very uncomfortable space where I have to speak in polite and honorific terms while she can talk to me as if I were a five-year-old. I repeatedly tried to level the field by switching the conversation to English, but unfortunately to little avail.
In the months that followed I managed to almost forget about her until a couple of weeks ago, where I once again happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time: In front of the coffee machine at our department. Damn you, my caffeine dependence! All of a sudden, I heard the voice that makes me cringe and run for an escape, and turning around I saw the Joseon dynasty ajumma demanding to know about my whereabouts for the past few months. I just told her that I had been busy with my Korean studies, and made my way towards the door. Here I met another professor, who then overheard the next segment of the conversation. The ajumma tells me that she wants me to accompany her to yoga classes on Monday afternoons. Not quite sure I heard her correctly, she repeated the offer (or command), and the other professor notices my flustered expression and tries to come to my rescue (bless his heart). “I’m not sure Sofie has time, or even owns a yoga mat”, he says. The ajumma then puts him in his place by saying that of course I have time in the afternoon (my Korean classes were in the morning, no?) and yoga mats can be borrowed. She prances out of the coffee room by telling me to come by her office the following Monday a 2:50!
Can you keep a secret? I NEVER WENT! I just nodded politely, went back to my office and promised myself that I would just pretend that conversation never happened. I’m 32 years old, damn it, and nobody tells me how to spend my afternoons! I may speak Korean, I may love the country and the culture, but I draw the line at being told by random older people what to do.
I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy introduction to this distinct Korean phenomenon. Stay tuned for more portraits of the Koreans in my upcoming blog posts. Have a lovely weekend!!