Sunday, December 30, 2007


Passing the Ajuma Test

I was away in America for the last week, so I was unable to post. That, and unable to sit down at any computer long enough to produce anything worthwhile. However, I should have another of these for you about midweek. Happy holidays.

I don’t always have the presence of mind to bring the $500 piece of photographic equipment I have in my possession. However, when I do, I use it to take pictures of little Korean girls. I do so to prepare for the next time I see my mother.

I know what she’ll do when she catches a glimpse of the little brown-eyes and shiny dark hair: she’ll gasp, coo and compare the appearance of the subject of the photo to that of a doll. This will give her warm feelings, both about the time I have spent abroad and the $500 piece of photographic equipment she bought me for my birthday.

She will see that I have been spending the last two years recording unforgettable memories amongst an unforgettable people, as opposed to spending that time avoiding the payment of bills while under-using costly pieces of photographic equipment.

I also take pictures of the little Korean girls so that I might contemplate what they turn into later. In about 20 years most of them will, at first, become charming young women like Catherine, my fiancée. Then, about 20 years after that, they will turn into the micromanaging models of maternity that Koreans call ajuma.

An ajuma would give anything to see her offspring succeed, (usually) short of living their children’s life for them. The heartening side of this is that the child need never wonder whether or not the mother cares for them. The less-heartening side of this is often seen through the eyes of the prospective son-in-law, especially when the son-in-law is foreign.

We can be certain that there will be a test we must pass in order to win the ajuma’s favor. We cannot be certain of how much of a curve this test will be graded on, or what language it will be taken in.

For this reason, I have postponed meeting mother-in-law-to-be-in-the-fairly-near-future. I have justified doing so by saying that I need to have a better grasp of the language that she will use to either bless our future or threaten me with the Korean version of a restraining order. I have studied and I have practiced the language on many of her friends, and at times think I may be ready for the task.

It’s easy to think that while the test date is many squares on the calendar away from today. But, as many a devious literature professor knows, the best way to ensure that the student is preparing for the exam is with a surprise quiz.

Catherine and I were to fly to America four days before Christmas. On the evening five days before Christmas, I called her on her cell phone, thinking that she’d still be in her home packing. I was surprised to hear that she was at her mother’s house, and a little more than surprised to hear that her mother wanted to say speak to me.

I responded the best I could. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that the best I can respond is limited to “Hello” and “Excuse me?”

“Hello,” the deep yet distinctly feminine voice said in Korean.

“Hello,” said mine, distinctly unfeminine but considerably higher-pitched than usual.

What came after that, I don’t know. I heard a smattering of sounds that I did not recognize from my Korean textbook. I hoped that she was not saying “Can you understand me?” “Why can’t you understand me?” or “I’m going to file the Korean version of a restraining order.”

All I could say in reply was “Excuse me?” “Uh, excuse me?” and “I don’t speak Korean well.”

Within a few moments, Catherine was back on the line. I asked her, in my language of choice, what her mother had been saying, while mentally preparing myself for the worst.

“She told you to tell your parents hello for her,” she said.

On my first report card, my grade for participation was an A, my mark for speaking was a C-, and my score for listening ability was an F. The good news is that the last category may be considered extra credit.

For the next week, Catherine would be taking a similar examination in America with my family. She approached the date with a dread matching, perhaps exceeding my own. Why she should be so apprehensive I don’t know, seeing as how she knows the language my parents speak, and mothers who originate from Michigan inspire nothing even close to the kind of dread that ajumas provoke.

I was concerned about how a young Asian woman in her first trip to the US would be perceived in the South, choosing to watch her carefully and steer her away from anyone sporting visible tattoos, having long hair in just the back of their head or who pronounces the word “boy” with two syllables, such as “Boway, I tell you…”

On the other hand, I wasn’t at all worried about how she’d be taken to by my mother. While they are of different ages and ethnicities, they are both nurses, both have very giving personalities and both share a near-inexplicable liking of me.

We arrived on the Friday before Christmas, and by Saturday afternoon it was clear to all that I had accomplished much more in Korea than simply escaping the paying of bills.

Hopefully, my next achievement will be passing the ajuma exam. If I succeed, maybe someday I can use that $500 photographic equipment on my mother’s new Korean grandchildren.

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