Saturday, August 2, 2008


It's about time I mentioned a certain character type that I unfortunately have to deal with often in South Korea. They go by the name of 'ajuma'. Now technically an ajuma is distinguished by the fact that she is a married woman (and 'agassis' are married men). But because most Koreans get married, and generally later in life, the name is almost synonymous with older woman.

The hilarious thing is that they are easy to spot since 95% of them sport short permed hair and visors. The unfunny fact is that many of them have horrendous public transportation manners. You may be the most polite boy ever and would certainly hand over your sitting rights for an elderly lady, but ajumas do not consider this. They scuttle at high velocity, with a low centre of gravity, and an immutable tenacity. Plus, given Confucian priority of respect to age, they exercise all of their privileges while shoving you with both hands out of their way. All the while without so much as a hint of regret. Even if you're not vying for the same seat as them, they have been known (ask Tyler) to body check you if you're along their beeline. And they can be quite strong. Do not be surprised if you spot an ajuma wheeling a GIGANTIC pull-cart brimming with it's startling load. Many elderly folk here continue to contribute to the manual labour force.

It is so weird - not that Canada is without it's share of nasty old women (or men). It's that because of Confucianism no one younger has the right to challenge their behaviour. So they get away scotch free. That is unless a Westerner is feeling fed up at the moment. I like to believe that Canadians have a certain respect for their elders too, but it ends where rudeness begins. Does it surprise you that the pimps of Korea are females, not males?

Age is so important to Confucianism. So much that you can only call people your own age 'friends'. Otherwise they are your 'older brother' or 'younger brother' with accompanying roles and responsibilities. For instance, my 'older brother' feels obligated to pay for the meals we share. Secretly this tarnishes quantity bonding because it would quickly make an older brother poor. So you're bound to your own age until your thirties when this more social norm becomes more lax.

All this being said, Korean culture is under tremendous transformation pressures from the influence of Western views on a traditionally conservative and monolithic society. A great rift exists between the young and old in their ideas. Thankfully respect permeates most relations and keeps a remarkable peace on this land.


Kanadjin said...

Hey Mike,

I am now on your side of the world, I am in Japan, Okinawa to be more precise. aka tropical island paradaise. anyway, if you ever have time off and want to get away from Seoul, there are direct flights from there to here, or perhaps I will come visit in Seoul sometime :)

~ Justin

Anonymous said...

agassi is more like younger non married women

ahjushis are older men

MiuMiu said...

i think i can say i really dislike those ajumas. i've had my fair share of those rampaging ajumas...just over the weekend, i was watching a street show that was crowded with a lot of people..when suddenly, this ajuma full on pushes me out of the way! i was pissed so i tried to push her aside, then she comes back at me with an even harder i pretty much elbowed her afterwards. i don't think it was THAT bad that i did it cuz i'm sure she wasn't that old. but you get the point right? i don't understand why i have to revolve around them!

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike,
I am an American student who lives in South, Korea, and I want to say your story is awesome. Usually, they say married men are ajushi, and agashi, means young married women. Not to be offensive, my whole family laughed at it because of the error! Well anyway if you are still at Korea lets chat or something.
From Philip

A.T. Post said...

I was taking the ITX from Seoul to Gapyeong and I'd reserved an upper-deck window seat. I get up there and there's an ajumma sitting in my seat, stretched out and relaxing. I pointed at the seat, pointed at myself, even showed her my darn ticket that said "Car 4, Seat 14A" but all she did was just point vigorously to the empty aisle seat next to her. In the end, remembering that Confucianism justifies the means in this country, I sighed and sat down. Part of me (the rude American) wants to call ajummas out on their crap, but the other part of me (the polite expatriate) always holds me back. Grrr.

Sometimes I do hip-check 'em back, though.