Nov 08

Mommy, Where Do Ajummas Come From?

This story first appeared in Platform, Daegu’s newest magazine aimed at “reconnecting the people living here with the everyday highlights the city has to offer”. Read the November issue HERE. All illustrations done by the talented Stephen Elliott.

Stephen Elliot Ajumma Drawing

Koreans have a saying that there are three sexes: Men, Women, and Ajummas. It’s not hard a hard claim to believe when you see a middle aged woman strutting down the street in her hiking vest, floral print leggings, and studded black heels with her purple streaked permed hair flying wildly from behind her oversized visor brim. As she coughs up a loud and obnoxious spit and gives a maniacal cackle,  you can’t help but pause to gape a little and wonder, What IS that?

I occasionally find myself pondering at what point a woman becomes an Ajumma. Is it a gradual transformation like a caterpillar to a butterfly, or does she just wake up one day and BOOM, she’s hatched into an ajumma?

Stephen Elliot Ajumma Drawing

When I was a kid I read a book about how the adults were allowing their children to be kidnapped and sent off to have their minds ‘reformatted’ and then be returned to society as mindless, perfectly behaved robotic beings. Though we know they aren’t necessarily returning with good behavior, could it be that once they reach a certain age the women in Korea are sent off to an Ajumma Factory where they are outfitted in ridiculous attire and taught that they no longer have to follow rules?

Because they certainly don’t seem to think the rules pertain to them. There I am, queuing up nicely and politely in a store, and as I walk up to the counter to make my purchase a sneaky ajumma jabs me with her elbow and slips in front of me without a second glance. On buses, I can’t count the amount of times I have been shushed for quietly talking to the person beside me; ajummas, however, can rock onto the bus three sheets to the wind and stumble about, shouting and knocking into people, laughing so hysterically that they are buckled over in tears.

Stephen Elliot Ajumma Drawing

Last week, an ajumma sitting on the bus poked my rear with her bony little finger and shoved me out of the way before I could move aside for her. But as I stood there fuming, she turned to me and pointed at her seat, waving aside the man gunning for it. She made sure I got her seat, and gave a satisfied chuckle as I hesitantly sat down. On the walk home, I stopped in the market for some apples and the ajumma gave me a toothless grin and insisted I take extra fruit.

I suddenly realized that The Ajumma actually isn’t all bad. I thought back on all the times an ajumma had gone out of her way to help me find a place or tried her best to speak to me in broken English. There was the time she insisted on escorting me on the walk all the way home or the time she felt the need to explain how to get naked and bathe in the jimjilbang.

I’ve come to understand that these women ultimately mean well, even if I may never understand why they do the things they do. Regardless of whether you love them, hate them, or maybe a little of both, Korea would not be the same without the Ajummas in their large brimmed visor hats. And while I appreciate the Ajumma’s presence in all her multi-patterned splendor, I will forever wonder how she came to be.
Stephen Elliot Ajumma Drawing