The concept of ajumma – In a recent post to her site, the Silk Alley Korean recently fretted over getting old (despite the fact that she’s a tad younger than me and thus has no business getting old yet). Mainly it was constantly being called “Ma’am” that was getting to her. She then goes on to say that she finds it even more traumatic to be called ajumma in Korea (this is roughly the Korean equivalent of “Ma’am”—I’ll get to a more detailed and accurate explanation in a moment). I left a comment that she did not have too much to worry about, as the three times when she was called ajumma in Korea were either by a small child or by an adult talking about her to a small child. That is, it’s all relative—to a young child, anyone over the age of twenty is ancient.
It’s funny just how relative our conception of age is. My father used to joke with me (as I’m sure all fathers joke with their sons) about how I was “catching up to him” in age. When I was born, he was 26 times older than me, but when I was five, he was only five times old than me. As I grew older, of course, the “gap” narrowed. Now my father isn’t even twice as old as me.
When I was young I thought it was just a corny joke, but as I get older I realize that it wasn’t a joke at all—I am, indeed, catching up with my father. The point, though, lest I get sidetracked, is that you don’t have to be all that old to appear venerable in the eyes of a child. It is quite natural for young children to call even women in their twenties ajumma, and for parents to do the same when talking to their young children about such women.
Still, this doesn’t change the fact that ajumma can have a somewhat negative connotation in Korea. Another commenter at the Silk Alley Korean’s site suggested a new term for women who had outgrown agassi (similar to “miss”) but were not quite ready to be ajumma: “ahgamma.” Amusing, but it also touches on the disconnect between traditional terminology and modern society in Korea. If traditional terms become outmoded, perhaps replacements are necessary. Or maybe the traditional terms can be successfully cast in a new light—a light that is more appealing to the newer generations.
Before going any further, I need to define ajumma for readers who do not speak Korean. It is a shortened form of ajumeoni, which is defined in English as: an aunt, an auntie, a lady, a housewife, a wife, madam (the dreaded ma’am), or lady (used as a title). But we shouldn’t trust a Korean-English dictionary when trying to figure out what culturally complex words mean. We would be better off translating the Korean definition, which has five parts:
- A married woman who is a collateral relation of one’s parents (that is, an aunt)
- The wife of an ajeossi (which is more or less the male equivalent of ajumma, even if it doesn’t have the same cultural connotations—but that subject is beyond the scope of this entry)
- A familiar way of referring to the wife of an elder brother
- A familiar way of referring to the wife of a person who is the same age as yourself
- A familiar way of referring to an adult or elder woman
The last part of the definition is a simplification of the preceding parts and the most common use of the term. In short, an ajumma is generally a married woman, but may also be any woman who is significantly older than oneself. The “significantly” is important—a good way to infuriate a Korean woman is to call her ajumma when you are only a few years her junior. I’ve seen guys do this in jest to a female friend if they feel she is acting ajumma-ish (or just to get her riled up).
Going by the dictionary definition alone, there’s nothing wrong with the term, but it has a lot of cultural baggage that the dictionary doesn’t even hint at. It is this cultural baggage that upsets young Korean women.
Technically, my wife became an ajumma at the tender age of 22. For a number of years, though, people still called her agassi. I don’t remember when the fateful day came, but not too many years ago people started calling her ajumma. At first she was rather put out by this, and would complain about it to me. My response was always, “Well, what do you want them to call you? You are an ajumma, after all.” Just in case you were wondering, this is the wrong response, but I could never think of a better one.
Despite my apparent heartlessness, I do understand how she feels. Ajumma does have a lot of derogatory connotations. Say “ajumma” to any Korean and a picture will start forming in their minds. Most likely, this picture is not going to be a pretty one. A stereotypical ajumma is short and a bit dumpy, with hair worn short in either a tight (traditional) or wavy (more modern) perm. Short perms are so common among ajumma that newcomers to Korea might be forgiven for thinking that there must be a law requiring all women to cut their hair short and perm it when they get married.
Although the hair and other physical characteristic may be distinct, I think a large part of the negative image comes from the behavior of ajumma. Ajumma are the women who will shove you out of the way like an NFL lineman in order to get a seat on a bus or subway. They are terrors alone, but in a group they are unstoppable. Add some alcohol and/or music and you’ve got a party on your hands that will keep the neighbors awake all night.
At least, this is the stereotype, or part of it. In a word (or three), ajumma are uncouth, unattractive, and uncultured. They are considered strong individuals, but only because of all the crap they take from their husbands, children, and in-laws. After having been dumped on by society for so many years, when their day finally comes, you had better believe they are going to take advantage of it. Nothing is going to stand in their way.
Honestly, though, this stereotype is outdated. Granted, you will still see ajumma like this, but there are plenty who aren’t like this—plenty who are couth and cultured, and even attractive. Old concepts, like old habits, die hard, and the idea of the ajumma as the unattractive but necessary backbone of the family, toughened through years of hardship, still clings tenaciously to the Korean consciousness.
Perceptions of ajumma are changing, especially in modern metropolitan Korea, but this change comes slow. An interesting example is the so-called “momjjang ajumma,” a woman with whom my Korea-based readers will most likely be familiar. “Momjjang” is a combination of “mom,” meaning “body,” and “jjang” meaning (roughly) “great.” In other words, she is “the ajumma with the great figure.”
At first glance, the momjjang ajumma might seem to show just how much perceptions have changed. In fact, her case shows just how much perceptions haven’t changed. We get the impression that whoever came up with this nickname was trying to say, “Look, she’s an ajumma—but she has a great body! Isn’t that amazing!” Yeah, it’s the entertainment world, and yeah, it’s a marketing gimmick, but you can’t get around that underlying way of thinking.
The truth is that there are a lot of ajumma out there with great bodies, but people are only generally aware of those who are either actresses or models. This woman was neither, and the only thing she had going for her was that she was just another ajumma, but she had a nice figure. The fact that this gimmick worked (pretty much everyone has heard about her) shows that the ajumma stereotype is still ingrained in the Korean psyche.
Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction. For one, it shows that a regular ajumma can indeed be attractive. Although this is billed as extraordinary today, perhaps it will be seen as more commonplace tomorrow. When the “sexy ajumma” gimmick no longer works in the mainstream media, we’ll know we have arrived, but I think we’ve still got a way to go before we get to that point.
There is another idea that’s been rolling around in my head as I’ve been writing this, and it has a bearing on the perception of ajumma in Korea, but I think it may go beyond cultural boundaries. Part of the reason the ajumma stereotype is so negative, I think, is the way men perceive women. After all, all married men are married to an ajumma. What does it say about our perceptions of our wives that the ajumma stereotype is so negative? Or is that only our reaction to other men’s wives (that is, my wife is simply my wife, every other woman is an ajumma)? Is it because married women are no longer eligible that we paint them as unattractive in order to remove the danger of coveting thy neighbor’s wife?
It’s an interesting idea, and one that I haven’t really thought about or researched (it just came to me as I was writing this). It is possible that the negative stereotype of the ajumma (being unattractive both physically as well as in other aspects) is a social self-defense mechanism. It is also possible that, for some men, the ajumma stereotype applies to all women, their wife included, which would say something different entirely. That theory would paint a much more negative picture of the male attitude toward women, reducing marriage (for some) to a form of conquest and possession.
I’m just throwing ideas out at this point. While most of today’s entry was more or less thought out in advance, the previous two paragraphs were simply a brain dump. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that gender relations play a part in the ajumma stereotype that is just as important, if not more important, social mores and conventions. More accurately, the two aspects are inextricably intertwined.
But I think that’s as far as I’m going to with this today. I hadn’t really thought past the momjjang ajumma example, and that was where I originally intended to end this entry. I guess I gave more thought to the stereotype itself (and how it has become outdated) than to how the stereotype originated. But I realized as I was writing that there were other aspects I hadn’t considered. So I’ve put those thoughts down, even if I haven’t come to any definitive conclusions. The ajumma stereotype runs far deeper than I could ever hope to go in a brief journal entry like this. The subject was on my mind, though, and hopefully it will provide some food for thought for some of my readers out there.