My father has taken a keen interest in all things Korean since I first visited the country. He has developed a taste for kimchi (in all its various manifestations), an “appreciation” for soju (I cannot in good faith tell you that he enjoys the taste, but I think he would down a few shots to please a Korean acquaintance), and seems to have an ever increasing stable of Korean clients (I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him that this is the return on his investment in my education). Despite this, my father has not yet learned to differentiate between the fifty million individuals on the peninsula (seventy, maybe, if you include Mordor). While walking near Myong-Dong a few years back, my incredulous father turned to me and said in earnest, pointing out some middle-aged lady on the street, “Son, didn’t we just see that same lady five minutes ago? She must be a quick walker.”
Middle-aged Korean women, or ajumma (아줌마), are often referred to as the third sex of Korean society, a claim which irks the powerful and ubiquitous subsection of the country, but which they do little to dispel. For starters, there are the clam digger pants. Middle-aged Korean women would wear clam-digger pants through winter if the climate allowed. In fact, I’m fairly sure the only activity they would not wear clam-digger pants is for actual clam-digging, for which they would wear the odd beekeeper suit contraptions that squid farmers on television use to hunt their prey in its muddy habitat. The clam diggers are perfect for their body type: they show a little bit of skin, so as to demonstrate that their sexual allure has not completely vanished, but also cover everything significant because, well, she didn’t get those three kids out of the turnpike without exacting a toll.
It appears that, in addition to compelling J-Crew to increase production of clam-diggers, ajumma have banded together to create the demand necessary for their very own specialty hat, a sun-visor whose large brim suggests that it was designed with sunbathing astronauts in mind. Sun-visors, as you may recall, were popular in the eighties as a way to keep the sun out of the eyes of prep-school girls playing tennis at “The Club” while simultaneously allowing their pony-tailed blonde hair some exposure to the breeze. In Korea, they seem to have acquired their popularity because they prevent the sun’s harmful rays from tanning alabaster complexions. One would think that Korean women would, like women all over the world, want the sexy Latin tan that the West so venerates (hint: this is why students get laid on study-abroad in Spain, but no so much in Germany). However, perhaps because Korean society was more recently an agrarian one, Korean women believe that a tan implies hard labor on a farm, which, as we all know, is pretty gross. And so, in an effort to retain their beauty and physical allure, ajumma spend years, rather ironically, parading about in the unsightly spaceman sun-visors.
Perhaps because of the impaired vision caused by these visors, or perhaps because of their short legs, ajumma also have a tendency to walk at a speed slightly faster than that of the infirm and elderly, and slightly slower than that of precocious toddlers. This can be frustrating when one is in a hurry, but it is a frustration one must learn to bury deep in the soul. Otherwise, the growing resentment one harbors for this section of society may result in physical confrontation. The ajumma, who according to a Korean saying are endowed with not two, but four shoulders, will most certainly win this confrontation. At slightly over five feet, the only people of their stature who are more intimidating are the members of South American tribes who put bones through their noses.
Clearly one is not born an ajumma. There are relatively few girls walking around Korean high schools with sun-visors and hips that proclaim, “I have experienced childbirth.” Yet neither is there a real “process” to becoming an ajumma. I have yet to see a girl who is in a somewhat intermediate stage, with long flowing hair, a tight miniskirt, and a sensible pair of Keds. It is as if Korean women wake up one day, look in the mirror and think, “You know, I think I need to perm my hair.” There is a small but vocal group of middle aged women who do not conform to these standards, which I have heard called the “hotjumma.” They keep their hair long, wear tight clothing and heels, and work out on the reg. Visually the hotjumma is great, but as the Koreans say, that is a tree one cannot (or rather should not) climb (못 오를 나무다).
Most middle aged Korean women, however, realize that their bodies are not up to the demands of exuding sex appeal on a daily basis, and attempt to embrace their middle age. It’s not that they want to look old, but rather that they recognize how foolish it is to imitate Demi Moore. Should one decide to befriend an ajumma, however, this creates an invaluable opportunity. While the ajumma themselves recognize their age, they always appreciate someone who pretends not to notice. There are several techniques to establishing oneself as such a brownnoser. One could say something along the lines of, “Oh, you are (such and such an age)? I would have never guessed you to be a day over (ten years less than such and such an age).” If the lady runs a restaurant, instead of calling out to her, “Ajumma!” one can opt for the flirtatious title “Noonem (누님)!” meaning “respected older sister.” My most skilled achievement to date was to obtain a discount on bed sheets in a department store:
“Are you the third daughter in your family? (혹시라도 가족의 세번째
딸님입니까?)” I asked.
“Why, yes I am. Why do you ask? (네...근데 왜요?)” she replied.
“Well, I heard that they say the third daughter is always the prettiest. (뭐,
있잖아요. 세번째 딸 제일 예쁘다고 하잖아요)”
“Ohmo! Thank you! You are so handsome I will take off three dollars! (어머!
너무 잘 생겨서 삼천원 할인으로 계산할게요!)”
Though they themselves are trying to watch their figures, ajumma are always attempting to buy or cook younger individuals a hearty meal. In this sense, Korea is an incredible place to be thin, as ajumma invariably assume that one’s slightness is due to malnutrition, which can only be remedied by their gift of Korean barbeque and Kimchi Jjigae (though I should mention that this does not apply to women, who, in Korea, are rarely considered “too thin”). At eighteen, something about my pale complexion and narrow build seemed to strike a chord in the hearts of ajumma everywhere, from Ms. Kim who fixed me pancakes and bacon every Sunday to the landlady who thought Cornflakes would be more agreeable to my western palate than bony fish with rice.
Yet while their kindness can be overwhelming, so can their wrath. The western phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” might well be changed in Korea to “Hell hath no fury like an ajumma in line.” While waiting to enter a subway turn-tile or enter a restaurant, the sight of a small woman with tattooed eyebrows and a poof of permed hair shoving others aside may dissipate the warm feelings engendered by those free meals. I tend to give up my seat willingly for older women (and much older men), but watching a five foot tall basketball of a woman push me aside for an open seat can make me want to grab her imitation D&G handbag and hurl it onto the tracks.
If one follows Korean dramas, the scariest type of ajumma is the mother-in-law. For reasons unknown, the early stages of mother-in-law-hood is an especially violent stage of the ajumma’s life. My former boss, for example, is an affectionate, kind and caring eighty-two year old grandmother who refuses to let me pay for meals when I come to visit her restaurant. Yet I am told that in her younger, fiercer years, not one of her four daughter-in-laws escaped tearless. This may be something common to all women, not just Koreans. I suppose that in many ways humans are human, and there are a great deal of commonalities across cultures. When I told a Korean ajumma of my father’s inability to tell Korean women apart from one another, the ajumma turned quickly and, in a surprised voice, said, “But we all think white ajumma look the same!” Upon further reflection, perpahs middle-aged women everywhere have similar appearances, outlooks on life, and unavoidable spurts of fiery rage. However, judging from the line at a McDonald’s, one would have to admit that, physically, western women come in an unfortunately much greater variety of shapes and sizes.