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Ajumma | Ahjumma: A Korean Cultural Icon

Meaning of Ajumma in Korean

If you watch K-dramas, listen to K-pop or just love Korea in general, you’ve no doubt heard the term ajumma. But what does it actually mean?

In real terms, ajumma in Korean (아줌마), simply means married or marriage age woman. That would make me one…you know, on account of being married and all.

However, many women (myself included) balk at being called as such, despite it technically being a “respect” word in the Korean language. But why is that?

Because it has a wider cultural meaning…

Ahjumma in large visor swimming in a red pool

Ajumma (not in natural habitat)

What is an Ajumma? (aka Ahjumma)

The ajumma can be found in large concentrations in any major city on the Korean peninsula, although they may sometimes be found settling overseas in sub-Korean habitats. Ahjummas typically communicate with a loud, raspy cackle. Solo ones are common, but they’re usually found in hordes. May be confrontational.

Description

For a species that appears in such great quantities on the peninsula, the appearance of the Ajumma is surprisingly uniform. Typically, they’re over 60 years of age, though younger variants have been found in nature. They’re usually marked by tightly permed and short, black hair, although in major habitats like Seoul, mutated varieties with purple and pink hair have been spotted out and about.

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From afar, the hair is usually covered by an extremely oversized visor, but upon closer examination, it is very easy to spot the perm lurking beneath. They’re usually less than 5 feet tall, but their build can range from lean to stocky. No matter the build, they are all incredibly strong and should be approached with caution.

an ajumma performing a jesa ceremony

Mind the perm: ajumma during a jesa ceremony on New Year’s Day (actually it’s my aunt) 😉

The coat is usually made up of an eye-searing mishmash of checked patterns, stripes and sometimes sparkles. During certain seasons, the entire body of the ajumma is covered up with different pieces of clothing to prevent the sun from reaching the skin and turning it brown.

Signs and Sounds

The call of the ajumma horde is one of the most bewildering wilderness sounds around. The low, raspy cackle, neither male nor female, can be heard for miles in any direction. They often cackle together at their rendezvous sites, whether it be a subway platform, department store or coffee shop, and seem to enjoy it very much.

Ajumma Habitat and Habits

Ajummas are territorial. Each horde occupies an area and will defend against intruders by pushing, shoving or cackling. Sizes of territories vary greatly, and are dependent on the abundance of prey available. Extreme caution should be taken in the entrances of subway cars, on escalators, and on pedestrian sidewalks.

Hordes can often be spotted in the early morning, marching together around Namsan Park or the Han River. They usually camouflage themselves in matching vinyl jackets and ill-fitting shoes for these habitats. They can also be found clapping their hands in unison and singing off-key at public cultural performances, such as those found in front of City Hall in Seoul.

A group of Korean ajummas sitting together on a bench sharing a snack

The Ajumma Horde

Feeding Habits of the Ahjumma

These women have healthy, but finicky appetites. Usually their own home cooking is the only acceptable alternative. However, when they do venture outside of their homes, they expect to get the most for the least, and nothing is ever good enough, comparatively speaking. Mostly found only in Korean restaurants, the ajumma horde will have the young staff running around in panic within minutes.

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Unique characteristics

While ahjummas can sometimes be dangerous, if you approach one with caution, you will find that under their gruff exteriors, they are usually kind and willing to feed you ridiculous amounts of food. They are usually good cooks.

Though the men and governments of Korea think they are running the country, in reality, it is the ajumma that has all the power.

Spot the visors – spot the ajummas

Conservation Efforts

In recent years, this species was thought to be dying out, due to an influx of western media styles and influences. However, this has proven false. The ajumma is one of the most durable genetic strains in nature and should remain a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.

Power and Gratitude to the Ajumma

These amazing women lived through the scarcity of the Korean War and it was through some of their hard work and indeterminable mental and physical strength that South Korea was raised from total poverty to the modern and wealthy country it is today. We owe them our thanks, so overlook their pushiness when you can – remember what they lived through. 🙂

Have you had any run-ins with the Korean ajumma? Share your experiences in the comments below!

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh How I MISS the ajjumma’s offering me food in the streets, especially in the winter. Mmmm warm chestnuts or a hot sweet potato. For real. So does not happen with their western counterparts. Do not miss getting shoved in the subway.

    March 12, 2013
    • We just moved house and are on Line 2 now, and it is crazy crowded, compared to Line 6. The shoving part is definitely not fun!

      March 16, 2013
      • I was on the orange (think line 3) at 8am every morning for a year. sardine can!!!! feel ya girl…just hold your own.

        April 28, 2013
        • You know the funny thing…ever since traveling by public transit in India and Egypt, the crowds on the Seoul subway no longer bother me. Instead, I am amazed by the efficiency and cleanliness and grateful to have such a safe, inexpensive and amazing mode of public transit.

          In India and Egypt, you have to ride in “Women Only” subway cars to ensure you don’t get groped!!!

          Shows once again that perspective is everything. 🙂

          April 29, 2013
  2. ud #

    hilarious and on point

    November 7, 2013
  3. Very amusing and entertaining article!

    March 18, 2014
  4. Sandy #

    Monty Python would be proud of this article. Have you ever watched their comedy skit called “Hell’s Grannies”? The dry humour in this and the subject matter reminds me to some extent of that. (Only, you know, for real.) 😀

    May 10, 2014
    • Oh wow! Thanks for the amazing comment. 😀 I haven’t seen that skit, but it seems I’ll have to find it and watch it immediately!!

      May 10, 2014
      • Sandy #

        Tell me what you think of it when you do. 🙂 Here’s a link:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQrI0bM7To0

        It’s the best quality one on Youtube if you just ignore the subtitles. I know it was meant to mock the image of teenagers that we have in the west, but the ajummas are very susceptible to a similar presentation in humour. Hope you like it too!

        May 11, 2014
        • Aww thanks for finding that link for me! Lol…it’s been awhile since I watched any Monty Python…not since University Days and afternoons watching Life of Brian.

          You’re right, there could be a whole series of skits dedicated to the ajumma in the same style. I’ve been meaning to write a similar thing on the Soybean Paste Girl here in Korea, which is another archetype that could be treated in a similar way. Have you heard of them?

          May 12, 2014
  5. This is a very entertaining article! Great job!

    July 7, 2014

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