There is a word in Korea that strikes fear into the most accomplished women and makes grown men run screaming into the nearest alley. Connected to this word is a being, almost mythical in its force, who alone controls Korean society. To defy this creature is to stand in direct resistance of the country itself. To know the word is to feel terror. Beware the ajumma, known in English simply as 'older woman'. There are three distinct breeds of ajumma and while dealing with each type can be an exhausting process, putting a foot wrong could very well end in a barrage of yelling from which there is little to interpret and much to lose. No matter which ajumma you find yourself facing, one thing must be remembered; older women are the most respected members of Korean culture and no one, no matter education or experience or language skills, can upset this balance.
The Well-Placed Mask
This particular form of ajumma is like a get-out-of-jail-free card. To be approached by one of these women often leads (in my case) to a bewildering conversation wherein questions are asked in Korean and answers are guessed at in English. This is a common phenomenon in public places such as coffee shops or on the train. An older women, out of boredom or whimsy, asks where are you from; what do you do, do you like Korea? And I always answer the same: Australia, no not Austria, Hoju; I'm just here travelling I don't work; oh yes I love Korea it's very cheap. They find this endlessly entertaining and I can only assume I'm replying to completely different queries. Though their friendliness is based on amusement they are offering us a form of kinship. You are in our land? Then we shall welcome you. Irritating as it can be to have someone interrupt my reading or quiet contemplation I realise that this is a response I've seen in various countries and it comes from people of all ages. Why should we only receive interest from young Koreans? Why would we think that older generations have lost that natural sense of wonder that leads them to confront others and ask questions? The masked ajumma is an example of this older curio and it is affability that makes them such an unexpected pleasure to run into. There is, however, still the question of how to address these women. Korean youths have a system of speaking to ajummas in public, whether they be working at restaurants or shopping in the markets. A female would refer to an older woman as 'unni' while males use the word 'noona'. Both loosely translate to 'aunt' though there is obviously no relational denotation. Upon discovering this I decided to try it out myself and the next time I went to my local kimbap restaurant I called out for service from my unni. Can you guess what this earned me? An annoyed stare and no delicious dinner. I had discovered the way to a kind ajumma's disdain.
Pleasure Doing Business With You
The second and most complicated ajumma is the business type. She may own your apartment block, a dry cleaning business, one of the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants or a garlic stall in the marketplace. She sits in her office, papers and calculator around her, and organises payments, shipping, stock control, tax and rental information. Her mind is always focused on the next commercial activity. She has a distracted air about her and generally speaks little English and so insists on explaining complicated facts to foreigners in Korean only. My landlady is one of these women and the frustration that crosses her face when I stand in my doorway, mouth slightly open and not a thought in my head, tends to undo me. One conversation went something like this:
Her: you (insert Hangul here) nine oh five (shows me receipt) nae?
Me: sorry I don't know-
Her: (much more Hangul) you teacher (points down the hallway).
Me: no sorry.
Her: (nods and leaves).
Me: okay then, walking away is good.
I manage to maintain my cool in all of these exchanges but every time we speak she is convinced that I will have magically learned another language in a matter of days. It's not this deluded expectation I mind, it's her disappointment that I haven't fulfilled it. Perhaps the most disarming fact about her is that she is damn good at her job. We've never had any problems with our heat or security, whenever something is broken she's quick to send someone to fix it and every time I go downstairs with recycling she helps me organise it into their correct bins. Despite her insistence that we keep our picnics off the roof, I find myself liking her; especially when she writes up the receipts for our bills and scribbles her signature with a little star at the end.
Here we come to the ajumma who with one coma-inducing glare could take over the world. Simply put, there is no pleasing this creature. She's the woman who will push another human being under the wheels of the train she is waiting to board if she feels they are standing in her way. If you find yourself drawn in at an impressive market booth, she will shoulder you across the path because her route can not be altered for your humble interests. While eating a quiet dinner, don't be surprised if you feel the perpetually hostile eyes of this ajumma eating her own food, almost missing her mouth with misdirected attention. She doesn't offer friendly curiosity like our masked ajumma. There is threat in these eyes and her questions don't desire answers, the loudest being 'what are you doing here?'. I feel myself buck against this attitude because I can't understand how I've become such an insult. When I venture into the public sphere I generally mind my own business to the point of fading into a Westerner group or closeting myself in the corner of a coffee shop with a book. Despite this I never find myself particularly ostracised from the Korean people and their lifestyle. I speak a minute amount of Hangul which, pathetic as it is, marks me as willing to embrace the culture I am within. So what can I do when my humble attempts to both stay out of trouble and involve myself in society fall on aggressive recipients? I can pull myself together and realise that these women, while frustrating, make up a very small percentage of what is a welcoming and open-minded country. The easiest management technique is to greet the furious ajumma with humour. So she pushes you three feet into the road just to walk around you? Laugh and say 'those damn Koreans.' This response is a coping mechanism against culture displacement and alienation. In a similar way that laughing at yourself allows an embarrassing moment to pass with ease, laughing at an outside force that threatens or hurts is the best way to set aside the injury and maintain a sense of belonging. Although there are moments when I wonder, is pushing and staring really the best way to get your message across? If it's an ajumma we're talking about then it's foolish to even ask the question.
Lara looks a little like this when trying to deal with angry ajummas.