Ajumma simply means a middle-aged woman in Korean, perhaps with some negative connotation, but what is missing from this oversimplified definition is the immense prowess and ferocity accumulated in her. They tend to prowl around subways and in buses, and at times stationed at clothes and accessories shops. Their aggressiveness is magnified exponentially in proportion with the number of people around them. Amist the crowds in subways, the Ajumma could punch in a fatal stab in your stomach with her highly-sharpened elbow, push you off balance with a single palm, and even make the young Korean soldier standing beside her look like a woose.
I have heard plenty of stories about the legendary Ajumma, but never had an encounter with her until a few days ago, when I met one at a clothes shop at Dongdaemun. To be honest, I did not enter the departmental store for the purpose of buying clothes, but on the intent of experiencing the Ajumma face-down. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t exactly a face down, because the contest was over within the first five seconds, when she figured out I wasn’t a Korean, as she pointed all guns out and started machine-gunning me with Korean.
When I showed the slighest of interest in buying one piece of clothing, she started tearing down the whole shop and grenading jackets and jeans at me, prompting me to try them out one by one. In the meantime, as I pretended to flip through the pile of clothes, I kept my ears open to familiar Korean words and phrases canoning out of her mouth, so that I could reply back to the lines I could understand. Unfortunately, my ammunition ran out as quickly as my vocabulary of Korean, and I was left stranded again in the open field of crossfire.
“Ah damn, I’m so sleepy!” she exclaimed out of the blue while straightening the shirt I had on. “I had lots of alcohol last night,” she explained, and before I could give a comment, she fired me another question, “so young boy, how old are you?”
“So, buy this, this, this and this! It looks so perfect on you!” she gave me a compliment, before whipping out her calculator and punching in the prices of the clothes. I then recalled I had limited amount of cash with me, which had to last me for another two more days. I told her that I don’t have enough money to buy all four pieces. She then let out an evil grin, and said, “Oh sure, there is an atm machine over there. Go withdraw some cash.”
“But I don’t have a credit card…” I stole a glance at her face crumpling in horror.
That line probably gave her the shock of her life, as she started mumbling again in incomprehensible Korean, probably cursing me for not being well-prepared to shop. “So, how much cash do you have now?” she asked. As I took out my wallet and started peeping in and counting the number of 10,000 won notes I had. She looked over and said, “Come, let me help you count!” Before I could refuse her from peeking into my wallet, she burst out in smiles, “Ah-hah, you have enough money!”
I then explained to her that I have to use it for the next two days, and after some moments of hesitation and confrontation, I bought two pieces of clothings from her, probably to a mixture of both relief and disappointment in her. She chucked the clothes into a plastic bag and passed it to me, before guiding me to the escalator and waving goodbye.
Of course, not all Ajummas have attained such a high level of tenacity. I met a pleasant one at Itaewon who patiently let me pick my clothes, and looked surprised that I was in Korea only for holidays and praised my Korean proficiency.
I guess all countries have their own bodies of representation that epitomize the national spirit. Ajummas in Korea, Oyajis in Japan, and perhaps aunties and taxi-drivers in Singapore.