Sunday, May 10, 2009

Our very own 'Ajumma'

Ajumma from afar: a 'mild' Ajumma bent over, tending her fields.
I'm still too intimidated to get closer to get some good photos of them...I'm sure my time will come!

One of the most unique things about Korea is it's 'Ajummas'. Ask any foreigner who has spent some time in Korea about their experiences with Ajummas and you are sure to get a volley of amusing and probably annoying stories with the odd gem of kindness mixed in.
'Ajumma' in Korean actually refers to any married women, but amongst foreigners it has become a term specifically referring to older Korean women (usually older than about 55).

They are a unique bunch and are easy to spot: they usually wear very clashy clothes i.e. orange and pink, mustard and lime green, garish florals and stripes, luminous geometric patterns and polka-dots etc. You get my drift. They also almost always have permed hair, thinning badly.
They walk with a bit of a stoop. As soon as a bit of sun appears they usually don their large visors (oversized caps) and often wrap up their faces with various forms of scarves and cloths, and wear gloves to protect tehir hands from the sun.
They are often to be seen bent up behind an old baby pram which is carrying some form of vegetable, cans of water or nothing at all (i.e. being used as a walker).

Ajummas are also known to be beligerent, pushy, and have very little respect for personal space. They are the worst crowd pushers, especially because they generally exhibit a kind of 'herding' behaviour when in groups and public places.
They tend to congregate on street corners where they sit or squat on raised platforms of sorts and watch the world go by.

They are by far the WORST starers and have no 'skaam': they are stubborn and have no qualms in continuing staring even if you show discomfort or stare back. They are often seen squatting in public places and smoking: only old Ajummas are allowed to smoke in Korea: it is frowned upon for young women to smoke.

After all this about the Ajummas they seem like a tough bunch of old ladies, which they really are. But if one turns one's mind to the hard life they've had, this is not too surprising.
They've lived through the Korean war, many have probably lost husbands and sons, many of them have been farming most of their lives, attentively bent over their crops for hours on end. They have been unquestioning servants to their husbands: Korean woman do anything and everything required by their husbands, many of whom have drinking problems (the accursed cheap soju). They have prepared and large number of side dishes for almost every meal of their married life and they have born many children.
They have also watched Korea transform from a poor country on a par with many African develpoing countries, to a hugely successful country in the world, somewhere near 12th on economic country rankings worldwide.

All this may well explain the tough nature of the Korean Ajumma!
So that was the lead-in to my real story. I feel like we are one step closer to understanding the real Ajumma, as we now have 'our own Ajumma'. Let me explain.

On our way to the shops yesterday evening, we passed a house on the corner. I've noticed this house before: there are often Ajummas in and out, they often play loud, old-fashioned Korean love-songs and there are plenty of pots outside growing all manner of vegetables and decorative garden plants. There is also a little fluffy dog which had puppies earlier in the year, so I have been observing this hosuehold with interest.

Anyway, as we passed by yesterday evening, the Ajumma of the hosue walked out of her front gate and started yelling at us (I don't think Ajummas can speak, they just yell!). All in Korean and at quite a rate: I didn't understand anything: except for the word 'banchan' which I recognised: it means side-dishes (an important word in Korea considering how very important food is in this culture). She was gesticulatong wildly and calling us towards her home and I guessed she wanted to give us some 'banchan'. I was right.
She grabbed me by the hand and we went into her home, where she opened the fridge, promptly squatted down on the ground and began hauling out dishes. In a whizz she had a bowl and some chopsticks out and we were squatting down next to her in her kitchen trying her kimchi and other delights!

Our few Korean expressions of 'ooh, delicious' 'thank you' 'I like this' were lost in her constant stream of words (still almost at yelling pace and pitch!) She then decanted some of her treats for us and with that waved us out the door and we were on our way again, with many more 'thanks yous' and 'goodbyes' which I don't think she even heard!

The little exchange didn't last more than 3-4 minutes but it was quite something! Jules felt a bit overwhelmed by the experience - not surprising as we couldn't communicate with one another at all and her pushy, almost demanding, approach made her kind and generous act seem almost intimidating!

But in restrospect I feel honoured and humbled to have been invited into her home. I managed to get her name (Well, I think it's her name) 'Hon-Cha'. (I remembered it because in my mind she was a bit of a 'head honcho!')
What a kind, geneours woman to haul two strangers off the street and endow them so generously with her handmade 'banchan'.

I am planning to make some banana bread (in Korean 'banana ppang') and take it over to her when I return her dishes. If only I could learn Korean in 48 hours so I could understand her non-stop chattering! How much more valuable our brief exchange would be then! As if I needed any more motivation to learn Korean: so much language so little time! You know how some people have a 'pudding stomach' and can always fit in pudding - I wish I had a 'language' stomach to always have extra tme and energy to devote to learning Korean.

Well, here's to Hon-Cha: I look forward to many more bewildering and enlightening exchanges with her. From afar she may seem like just another nutty Ajumma but her kindness and generosity warmed my heart!


EEbEE said...

'They just yell'

Hehehe. We once had a Zulu domestic like that. You just can't have a conversation.

Unknown said...

I love your story about your very own Ajumma - sounds so "out of this world" - have you taken her the banana bread yet? :-)