Behind the rudeness is pure ajumma loveOf all the idiosyncratic things about Korea, they will make the strongest impression. Virtually omnipresent, you can spot them anywhere. On buses, you know they are there when a bag flings itself toward an empty seat. On subways, their presence is tangible; they are the sharp back pain you feel as you are violently nudged towards the edge. Like any group, this band is also instantly recognizable by its tag: the short, permed hair. These are the infamous ajumma.
The term “ajumma” has its roots in an old expression meaning “another mother,” a phrase coined out of affection. Nowadays, the word suggests the stereotypical loud, rude middle-aged woman, usually married and with kids.
While it is easy to see how the word has deteriorated to the point of being a stigma, it’s even easier to dismiss the ajumma as a phenomenon to be taken for granted. Having recently had my rightful taxi stolen by an outspoken ajumma, I could not help but wonder: How did they come to being? Weren’t these middle-aged women once shy, self-conscious ladies as well?
I believe that beneath the ajumma’s veneer of uncouth, rude mannerisms lies unconditional love and sacrifice for one’s family. Allow me to attempt to untangle this paradox.
Before marriage, a lady is only held to be responsible for herself. She has the luxury to groom herself and fit herself into the archetype of the attractive woman.
Now, flip the coin to ajumma. As married women with children, their responsibilities expand far beyond themselves. A fierce determination to protect one’s family takes the place of time spent on glossing one’s hair, buying fancy clothes and staying quiet as someone takes her daughter’s place on the subway. I believe this tendency springs from an innate motherly instinct, and also from the nation’s tragic past, when hunger and need triggered the birth of a “can-do must-do” spirit. This strong survival instinct, conditioned by a cutthroat society, has engendered the modern ajumma.
In understanding the ajumma, I’ve learned that the same motive may lie behind a whole kaleidoscope of actions. As hard as it may seem to comprehend, boldly cutting in line for the next discounted cabbage is only different in degree from nursing one’s child through the night lest his fever worsen. Nowadays, when I see the back of another permed middle-aged woman sweep past me, I see the footsteps of a bold woman who has grown strong in the face of years of hardship and sacrifice.
by Hur Aram