South Korea’s Unjustly Infamous Ajumma
In South Korea, the ajumma (literally grandmother in Korean) or older woman is infamous among expats and locals alike. She is known for being aggressive, loud, and even mean. As one fellow expat commented, “Korean ajumma are like the grandmother who wants me dead.” I admit, I was taken aback when an ajumma pushed me in line. Nonetheless, I wonder, how much of the ajumma stereotype is imbued with racism, ageism, and sexism? Ajumma are partially disliked because they challenge our preconceptions about the aged, women, and Asian culture.
Maybe ajumma do not annoy me because most of the older women in my life are far from the stereotype of the sweet grandmother. I have grown up around spunky older women all my life. As a child, I saw my late maternal grandmother show her unapologetic fierce love for her family. She worked full time all of her life to provide her children with a middle-class lifestyle. As a teenager, I saw a close family friend refuse to lose her independence despite being over 90 years old. As a young adult, I watched my Japanese host mother happily yell at people for jaywalking or sitting in train seats reserved for senior citizens. I not only love these women, but I also respect and admire them.
Korean ajumma also deserve my respect. These women were part of Korea’s leap from great poverty to financial success. The aggression from ajumma is not malicious, but rather a dogged determinism to succeed. When an ajumma pushes me she is just protecting herself preemptively against the past jabs of Japanese colonialism, the divisive Korean war, and even the sexist Confucian hierarchy. An ajumma wants her bread before me because she remembers a time when she had to fight for food.
Ajumma may not meet our expectations, but neither does South Korea. My experiences with Ajumma remind me there is more to South Korea than Samsung phones and cram schools. My first day in Korea, an ajumma, a complete stranger, insisted on using her cell phone to help me. She patted my arm and gave me a big smile as she called my new boss. After ensuring I had someone to pick me up, she boarded a bus pushing herself to the front of the line. She can keep pushing as much as she wants.