The Korean version of this essay appeared in the Kyunghyang Shinmun on 12 February 2015. The English version here has been published with the permission of the newspaper and the author.
I have lived in many countries, but the ajumma character seems rather unique to South Korea. In case you don’t know, the Korean word ajumma refers to a stereotypical middle-aged woman who dons a garish perm and colorful pajamas. She is married with children. She wins arguments by yelling, elbows through crowds, and loves discount coupons. She is fearless and feared.
But I stopped fearing her once I, too, became an ajumma.
With my blue eyes, boyish face, and pale skin, nobody would ever mistake me for an actual South Korean ajumma. But it is true: the ajumma spirit now lives inside me.
When I came to South Korea as a foreigner, my philosophy was “You catch more bees with honey”, meaning a friendly and polite approach is better than strong-arming your fellow humans. (And bees, after all, will sting if you fight them.)
I soon learned that this approach did not always work.
My first-ever taxi driver in Seoul frowned, snarled and then rudely yelled: “I’m not going there!” Another dropped me at the wrong location, refusing to drive another two minutes to my apartment because it was inconvenient.
In all of these instances, I smiled and asked for polite cooperation. But nobody cared because I was a harmless and reserved young man. It was disheartening.
But I found an unusual glimmer of hope when, on the subway, I was introduced to the commanding spirit of the ajumma. Unyielding and always ready to defend herself, I watched her elbow her way through the subway line, push me aside, and battle with another ajumma for her seat. She was relentless, and she won.
After pondering the history of this country, I soon realized the ajumma was an evolutionary adaptation to her environment.
Like a tigress that evolved to protect her cubs, the ajumma needed a fierce survival instinct in the economic battlefield of modern South Korea. Inside, the ajumma had a warm heart, and loved her family. But once she left home, she was surrounded by predators and careful not to place trust in anybody outside her inner circle. Every day was a fight for survival — or else she and her family would go extinct.
South Korea is no longer a developing country. Yet the toughened spirit of the ajumma lives on. It survives, foremost, inside the South Koreans who show unwavering love and warmth for their families at home — but who must battle with the scary, competitive world every day for jobs and paychecks.
Don’t get me wrong: I have always been grateful for the warmth and friendship that South Koreans have shown me. But I am amazed that my South Korean friends can open their hearts to me despite their high stress, long work hours, and fierce competition. I am, after all, just an outsider.
My decision to become an ajumma was not a conscious one. As I gradually joined South Korean society, the ajumma spirit also crept into me. Within a few years, there was a nagging ajumma in my head. This pushy little voice ordered me to stand up for myself and for the people around me.
The next time a restaurant charged me incorrectly, I raised my voice, demanded to speak to the manager, and bluntly explained that the receipt was incorrect. When a teenager didn’t give his seat to the elderly, I ordered him, like a military general, to stand for the old struggling lady. Whenever somebody shoved me in a crowd, I pushed back.
Suddenly, the taxi drivers and restaurant owners who once dismissed me were in fear of my newfound ajumma spirit. All problems were solved swiftly, but only because I was a hard-nosed and fighting ajumma.
My ajumma spirit may serve me well, but it is also troubling. It means I am starting on the assumption that my fellow humans cannot be trusted, and that I must approach them with my sword drawn. I am seeing the world around me as hostile.
After all, the same taxi drivers and restaurant owners chose to fight, and to dismiss me, because they saw my demands as a distraction from their own daily struggles. My taxi route was too unprofitable. My requests to the restaurant owner got in the way of serving more customers and making money to support her own family.
Everybody, to some extent, is up against a daily grind. The stress of defending oneself is high, and it eats away at the soul. Being an ajumma may be conducive to survival, but not happiness.