Three cheers for our amazing ajumma!
Makeup can hardly cover up the age. Wrinkles around the eyes tell us the time she has lived. In Korea, supermarkets cannot operate without middle-aged ladies scanning barcodes at checkout counters, promoting goods on the floor, stocking shelves, cleaning and cooking at the food courts.
The helpers at restaurant kitchens, cleaners, caregivers for the elderly and patients, janitors, housekeepers, caregivers for new moms and babies and nannies are mostly women in their 50s. In these fields, someone in her 40s would be considered a newbie.
A search for ajumma on Google returns about 556,000 results.
The Urban Dictionary, a Web-based compendium of slang words and phrases, gives an interesting definition. “While many people believe ‘ajumma’ is simply a Korean word for a ‘middle aged woman’ or ‘madam,’ everyone who lives inside believes the myth that there are actually three genders existent in Korea: male, female and ajumma.”
There’s another. Galbijim.com, a Web site for resident foreigners, explains the stereotypical ajumma as a “short, stocky, tough old woman who wears purple pants and permed hair, and has sharp elbows on the subway.”
Ajumma also is associated with the image of a shameless, relentless, loud, egocentric, nosy woman. She is far from the femininity of coyness or quietness. As a woman gets married, has children and raises them, she is born again as ajumma around the time of menopause.
Takanobu Nakajima, a professor at Keio University, argues in his 2008 book, “The Economics of the Aunties,” that women turn into ajumma because the cost of maintaining femininity is greater than the benefits of becoming an ajumma. It may be a reasonable choice, economically, to transform into an ajumma as she reaches a certain age.
The employment rate of women in their 50s has surpassed the employment rate of twentysomethings for the first time.
According to the Statistics Korea 2012 report on employment, 58.13 percent of women in their 50s are employed, compared to 58.08 percent of the people in their 20s.
As baby boomer husbands are pushed out of their workplace and their children having a hard time finding a job, more and more middle-aged mothers and wives have entered the job market.
Their legs are swollen and their shoulders aching, but Korean women in their 50s are working hard for their families.
It would not be a stretch of logic to say that our families and society get to keep running - thanks to their devotion.
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok