Ajummas are commonly featured in Korean dramas as the beloved-but-annoying, loud, nagging mother or neighbor… sometimes as the point of comic relief and other times as the source of anxiety for the protagonists. But what exactly is an ajumma? Do you ever wonder if, now, at your age you’ve become an ajumma?
Google translate will tell you an ajumma is the equivalent of “auntie.” True-ish, in terms of usage. It is a colloquial and familial form of addressing middle-aged women, generally who are married with kids. But ajumma is not just a designation. It’s a way of moving through the world with a self-sacrificing and relentless resolve to take care of your family and those around you.
Perhaps because of this fierce determination, ajummas are often reduced in the popular imagination to a caricature of a loud and bossy woman shoving her way through the subway with little regard for others. But ajummas are so much more than that.
Here are 10 less commonly known traits of the notorious ajumma:
10. “Uhbeubah” ain’t no thang
Your preferred method of carrying babies and little children is on your back (“uhbeubah“). No carriers, no backpack, just bare arms and legs straddled around your neck and waist … and a blanket wrapped around you and the child for extra security. The OG baby sling.
9. The Roomba doesn’t stand a chance against you.
Notwithstanding modern cleaning technologies, you still get down on your hands and knees to wipe up crumbs, dust, and spills. And you do it better and faster.
8. Eat more! (“dumuguh!“) is part of your daily speech.
You insist on feeding those around you, even when they don’t want to be fed. When you hear “I’m full” or “I’m done” – you actually know, in your omnipotent wisdom, that what they really need is one last serving.
7. You avoid the sun like the plague.
You generally minimize your time outdoors but if you’re forced to go outside, you never leave the house without your visor.
6. You’re an evangelist of the Korean pear.
Because Korean pears are always appropriate, no matter the occasion. New neighbor on the block? A box of Korean pears. Housewarming gift? Two boxes of Korean pears. Guests over for dinner? A dessert platter of sliced Korean pears.
5. You know that viruses aren’t solely responsible for colds.
You believe that colds are caused by any number of mundane behaviors: Running an electric fan at night (if it doesn’t kill you first). Walking around the house barefoot. Going out late at night. Not wearing a jacket in the rain. Never mind what scientists and doctors say; you know better. See number 4.
4. You secretly believe that Western medicine is inferior to ginseng tea and a vigorous tummy rub.
In fact, your children grew up singing umma soneun yakson before they knew their ABCs. Your children clearly owe their health to the medicinal properties of your healing hand. They’re welcome.
3. Saying goodbye to guests is like playing a game of chicken that you never lose.
When visitors leave your home, you always make sure you have the last word in bidding your guests farewell. And for good measure, you stand at your doorstep – or follow them to their cars – and wave goodbye until you’re certain they can no longer see you.
2. You believe that shoes have no place in the home.
You take your shoes off whenever stepping into another person’s house – even if they don’t. You also have disposable hotel-style slippers available in your closet for guests to use when visiting yours. (Because you don’t want them to catch a cold, of course. See number 5.)
1. You’re like Clark Kent.
Behind your unassuming stature, you actually have a reserve of outsized, superhuman strength that also fueled your mother, your mother’s mother, and her mother before that. The same bedrock tenacity and self-sacrifice that protected generations of Koreans through centuries of colonization, war and strife. And the same dogged grit that nourished Korean families through forced separation, immigration, and success in new lands. You never ask for anything, but we owe you everything.
Ji Hae Kim is an attorney who lives and works in the Twin Cities. She spends much of her free time chasing after her three little boys who, like their mother, have a hard time sitting still.