In every culture, there are unspoken phenomena that sometimes just can’t be described. For a Seattleite living in Seoul, Korea, there were the ajummas.
To say that we were a dash high-maintenance while living in Korea would be an understatement. Seoul was our family’s second overseas experience. We figured we’d hit the ground running as we thought our shock and awe period of living abroad was behind us.
Standing still and looking around became the secret signal to natives that meant, “Please, help me.” After a handful of months, and tons of assistance later, a certain archetype extracted us from our own humiliation. They were always female, traveled in packs, wore short permed hair, of incredible physical vitality, donned colorful and sensible slacks and shoes, and moved exuberantly, laughing among themselves.
At first, I dismissed them as a mere anomaly. But as I started tallying the times these gutsy gals came to my rescue, the phenomenon began to take shape. After mingling with the locals, one word was always uttered: ajumma.
Translated loosely, the term means, a married woman or a woman of marrying age. I have also read that ajumma can be considered an insult suggesting older women wearing colorful clothing, loudly bossing people in public areas.
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I saw them in the Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets, in Itaewon and Insadong, on my morning walk up Namsan mountain. They were ever-present senior women, angels of the city, and weren’t ashamed to let you know about it.
It was often that an ajumma would manhandle me when guiding me through my daily conundrum by tightly grabbing me by the waist, and dragging me to where she felt I needed to be. She took my chin in her firm grip and aimed it at her topic of instruction, speaking her mind in Korean loudly, until assured her message had been received.
Averting parking tickets, leading your desperately lost self out of the labyrinth of markets, or offering you a persimmon out of her knapsack were common occurrences. ajummas gave swift chase to loose dogs, boldly boosted strangers’ babies out of strollers for quick cuddles, helped lift irrational amounts of boxes of apples that had fallen from a grocer’s cart, offered me a badminton racket to join a morning match and berated merchants deemed to have overcharged me.
I depended on these guardians of the city, turning to them regularly. I grew used to the additional attention that often swirled around after an encounter, and I gained a tiny bit of self-sufficiency as my budding bravery began to bloom. Knowing that an ajumma would always be within arm’s reach, like a Korean fairy godmother, traveling further afield grew less daunting.
So this is my take: Ajummas are confident and responsible women of a certain age and experience level who have seized goodness from this adventure we call life. They assume responsibility, swiftly handling incidents and moving along. They are mothers and grandmothers with eyes in the back of their heads, ensuring all runs smoothly, no one being left out, going hungry or feeling lost. Their personal quest is to right wrongs. And the enchanting truth about it is that the city seems to depend on them, turn to them, quietly expect them to step up.
In every culture, there are unspoken phenomena that sometimes just can’t be described. There are customs, habits or styles that are so commonplace, so normal, so part of the complex weave of society, that they go unnoticed, obscured by the dailiness of living. And in Seoul, for me, there were ajummas.
What a precious gift they were. They left a lasting, loving impression on this newbie to Asia. I offer to them a quick bow as they rush by, a fresh persimmon, a piping hot cup of green tea on a chilly morning, and a boatload of respect for what they do. All of us can learn a thing or two from these ladies, these ajummas. Kamsahamnida.