The Ajumma is such a common sight to me now that I forget I’d never heard of one until I moved to Korea.
I don’t think there’s a way to translate this word into English – at least, not without using several sentences, so I figured I might as well take a whole blog post to do it!
An ajumma is a woman of a ‘certain age’. Middle aged, I suppose. But it’s not just that. Being an ajumma seems to be more about character than just age alone.
Anyway, these women don’t take any nonsense. They are fierce and fearsome. They’ll usually be grim-faced, have a perm, and be wearing a surgical-style mask and a sun visor. More often than not, an ajumma will be pulling a little shopping trolley full of vegetables, or a cart for a big bag of rice.
This is a fairly typical ajumma, seen at the recent Strawberry Festival in Nonsan:
If an ajumma is waiting to get on to the bus or the subway train at the same time as you, it’s best to get out of her way as soon as you see her, because she won’t actually wait for you to politely step aside to let her on first, as you no doubt intend to do. No, ajummas will quite honestly walk into you or over you in their determination to be first on to the vehicle. Not only that, but they are not averse to giving you a sharp elbow in the ribs or a good hard stomp on the foot. Seriously!
The majority of ajummas don’t like foreigners. They will be visibly displeased at the sound of English being spoken, and often stare openly at you with scowls on their faces. A group of us were in a restaurant in Gyeongju the other weekend, and despite the fact that we were speaking no more loudly than the crowds of Korean diners, we were told to keep the noise down because some ajummas had complained about us. We were somewhat annoyed about this, since it wasn’t like we were being rowdy or disruptive – just having a conversation in English. But it’s the English that’s the problem. Anyway, we refused to be bullied into silence, so we continued to talk at a perfectly reasonable volume, until Irish Friend One let out a sudden (admittedly loud this time) yell of disbelief. She – she – she’s only gone and shoved napkins in her ears!! he stuttered, pointing at the offending ajumma. Sure enough, there she sat, napkins in ears like over-sized, over-dramatic earplugs:
(excuse English Friend’s head in the already not-great shot, but I was trying not to be seen taking a picture. I really am quite scared of these women!)
We couldn’t believe it, and left the restaurant fuming, giving her a mixture of angry glares and incredulous laughs. Yep, that’s the ajumma.
Sometimes, though, ajummas can be very kind. On more than one occasion I have been backing away in fear as an ajumma in the market or in a local grocery shop starts shouting at me for no apparent reason, only to find that she’s actually offering me a gift. It’s the ajummas, too, who are often happy to strike up a conversation with you, and – upon realising that your Korean is terrible – continue to chat away in Korean while you respond in English, neither of you having a clue what the other is saying. It is the ajumma who knocked you over as you got off the bus who will try to help you when she sees you standing there looking lost after the bus pulls away.
Ajummas have a very clear and strict sense of How Things Should Be. If you do something they deem to be inappropriate, you will feel the stare. You really will. It burns into you. Mind you, sometimes the inappropriate thing you’ve done will turn out to be something like “being born” or “moving to Korea”. It’s impossible to avoid the ajumma stare.
The official – but vague – definition of ajumma is basically a middle-aged woman. It’s not an offensive term – in fact, the children and staff at school call the cooking lady and cleaning staff “ajumma” when talking to them. If a woman is an ajumma, she’s fine with being addressed as one. The word almost becomes affectionate.
However, if someone isn’t an ajumma but is addressed as one, the word becomes highly offensive. Shouting “ajumma!” to get the attention of the woman who runs the local restaurant is perfectly acceptable, but you run the risk of causing huge offence if she turns out only to be in her 30s or 40s. It’s extremely rude to call a young woman “ajumma” – or a not-so-young woman who just isn’t ready to give up her youth yet! I’m familiar enough with the concept to know that I have a right to be furious if I hear a child refer to me as “ajumma”. It’s happened a couple of times, cheeky retorts from children who assumed I wouldn’t know what they were saying. The expressions of panic on their faces when they realised I understood “ajumma” were priceless, and more than worth being insulted for!
So there you have it: the Ajumma. One more thing you can check off your list of “useless trivia about Korea that I never cared about learning in the first place”!