South Korea’s Unjustly Infamous Ajumma

December 19, 2012


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.

About Kathleen Becker

I am a semi-permanent expat who changes location more than my hair. I spent three years living in Japan, about 6 months living in Sydney and am now teaching adorable kids in South Korea.

6 thoughts on “South Korea’s Unjustly Infamous Ajumma

  1. Hanna
    April 16, 2013

    The term originates from combining the word ? (Aht: small) and ?? ( Money: short for mother ???) and used to refer to someone who is like a mother but younger such as an uncle’s wife but also meant married women. Nowadays, the word has such a bad connotation attached to it that you can’t easily use the word Ajumma to even shout out at the server in a Korean meat restaurant where all servers are usually of older middle aged women. If less ajummas with permed short hair wearing Chanel sunglasses pushed people around or got into fights on buses or subways with a lot of noise created around them, I might not have to constantly worry about how to call a server ( nowadays, Imo- aunt- is favored when beckoning a server or Sajangnim- president- if an ajusshi server) .

  2. Quita of In Search of My Inner Nomad
    February 20, 2013

    This is great. I love older women with attitude. Always brings a smile to my face.

  3. Kat
    January 17, 2013

    I want to mention, in addition, this is just my opinion. I am clearly not Korean, so I am not an expert.

  4. l
    January 16, 2013

    pretty sure halmoni is grandmother and ajumma means something like aunt or older married woman.

    • Kat
      January 16, 2013

      Eep! Thanks for telling me. That is quite a big mistake. I just here it constantly references women I would consider “grandmothers.”

    • Kat
      January 16, 2013

      hear, rather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *