Saturday, April 4, 2009


If you've been in Korea long enough, you will surely one day come across an "Ajuma Army" - what essentially amounts to a parade of determined-looking middle-to-later aged women marching down the street while wearing sun visors and, more likely than not, throwing an elbow at anyone who gets in their way.

A word to describe this type of lady is "Ajuma". Historically speaking and technically speaking, Ajuma means "married woman". However, like many words, "ajuma" has come to take on additional meaning over time. In essence, becoming an ajuma is like going from being a "maid of honour" when you're in your '20s to being a "matron of honour" when the married you stands up at a best friend's wedding. "Maid" or "Matron", "Miss or Madame" - they do mean something, but these words in our language too carry different connotations.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about it this morning is because of Mrs. Lee, my head co-teacher at school. She brought it up this week after she was joking that the students should call me "Ajushi" (married man) because of the white hairs on my head. She then, half self-deprecatingly referred to herself as an "Ajuma".

"No you're not," I said. Mrs. Lee is 39 years old, married, and has two young children. For her, this was enough to consider herself as one. I told her that my image of ajuma was as I described above, which was when she cleared the meaning up for me.

Perhaps the English equivalent doesn't really reach across the entire board of meaning. With age being such a social marker here, kids will refer to older students even as "Ajuma" from time to time just to get under their skin. You can see how the word might have suggested a more negative context than a positive one. Maybe suggesting someone being "past her prime" and the like.

Well, it does mean that in some ways, I suppose. But here are a couple of things I didn't know, but learned this week:

From the website

Once a lady becomes ajuma in Korean society, she is expected to follow a code of conduct appropriate for an ajuma. For example, she may feel the need to cut and perm her hair. Short hair is much easier to deal with when you have kids and when you are much older, permed hair supposedly gives your thinning hair the illusion of volume. A short permed hairdo also says to men: I am already spoken for, so don’t try to pick me up.” Ajumas wear their perms like a badge of honor and belonging. The perm says “I am a proud member of the ajuma club and I am proud to be no different from anyone else.” In the summer, it seems like all ajumas are wearing visors. Why is that? Apparently it’s because they don’t want to ruin their aging skin. They are also fearful of getting the low class “I’ve- been-working-out-on-the-fields” kind of tan.
While ajumas should, in effect, be respected for the sacrifices they’ve made for their families and children, the group, as a whole, has been the subject of much ridicule. Young Koreans have jokingly nicknamed ajumas “the third sex” because you can't tell if some of them are men or women"

From Mrs. Lee herself:

When asked "How would you describe ajumas? What makes a woman an ajuma?"

Mrs Lee: "Ajumas are stubborn, ignorant, and brave"

I puzzled over this and asked why she would choose those words. At times is can seem as though some things are lost in the translation, but in this case, it seemed as though Mrs. Lee was right one the money.

She went on to tell me that ajumas are, first and foremost, mothers. Fierce mothers at that - as the best Korean mothers can be. They are stubborn and ignorant because they feel they need to be in order to provide properly for their children - not ignorant in terms of general smarts, but in terms of being selective - if it doesn't involve the well-being of their families, ajuma's simply couldn't give a rat's ass.

That sentiment might piss a lot of people off, but there's something kind of admirable about it too me as well. As has been said a million times before, Korean women don't always get a fair shake after marriage - when the Confucian ideals of a society based on the idea of "men on top" really start to take hold. I choose to see the idea of ajuma, at least as defined by Mrs. Lee, as a positive one. It made sense to me for perhaps the first time because it was being described by a self-professed ajuma - someone who is attractive, has a great sense of humour with both her own kids and her students, and who seems to want to fill-up her life with things that project "good" - as an ajuma - she doesn't have time for anything else.

Ajumas seem to be "mother warriors" - something that may too often exist in less-than-palatable forms back home - you know, the SUV-driving, Lululemon pant-wearing, Starbucks-sipping yuppies with kids. But here, it's really about the mentality of being a warrior - protecting her cubs. It might not make it easy to get on the bus when an ajuma is jockeying for position in the line-up, but now I step-aside with a smile. These women might not always get the respect they deserve from the people they most deserve it from, so I can't begrudge them their stubbornness, ignorance, or bravery. Agree with their methods or not, I'm pretty sure it's all earned.

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