Sunday, April 06, 2008
The (Hidden) Influence of Ajumas
No understanding of Korean society can ever be truly complete without knowledge of the (creature) figure known as the ajuma. This term is applied primarily to (what were once known as) women who reach a certain age, get married (to a husband they can annoy) and have children (they can dominate). Though Korea is seen as a patriarchal society, I have witnessed (horrifying) evidence first-hand which suggests that the ajumas are the (shrill, nagging voice) engine which drives all of this country’s events.
Actually, it’s because the country’s patriarchal tradition requires the men to work that the woman have been (obsessed) occupied with the affairs of the home and ensuring that their children (have absolutely no free time) learn as much as they can. The ajossi, or Korean husband and father, generally generates the family income, while the ajuma decides how it will be (taken away from him) spent, be it on the home or on (childhood-destroying after-school institutes) education.
Because ajossis generally work very long days and spend many hours (getting rolled) networking after leaving the office, the ajumas have an (inescapable) central role in the child’s development. Fathers are seen primarily as providers since they (would rather spend every night getting plastered, wandering the streets of Seoul, walking up to foreigners and saying “Do you like Korea?” than going home to an ajuma) spend less time with the children.
A true understanding of how a young Korean woman (makes this terrible metamorphosis) becomes an ajuma can only be realized through an understanding of Korean language and Confucian tradition. This tradition demands that your elders most be spoken to respectfully (even if they treat you like a shopping cart), requiring that one use different syllables and sometimes entirely different words when (appeasing) speaking to older people.
At some point, when any person (but usually an ajuma) is constantly deferred to and addressed with elevated speech, it has a (head-swelling) noticeable effect on their (but usually her) behavior. Younger people must give up their seats on subways and hold doors for elders, but older people may (feel okay with shutting a taxi door in your face) not feel the same obligation. Young people are also expected to halt their conversation (sometimes in mid-syllable) if an older person speaks to them.
As a young man who grew up in the American south, I was taught to have a (not unreasonable) amount of respect for my elders as well. However, to witness the linguistic diversity and selflessness that is required of young people in Korea is (sympathy-inducing) fascinating. It makes me (ever-so-thankful for) curious about my own upbringing and wonder how (frustrating) different things would have been had been born to a Korean family.
However, the ajuma was a (safe distance away) mere intellectual concept before I became engaged to a young Korean woman. Since then, the time I’ve spent with her mother has made (my ears ache) me more intimately familiar with the ajuma as a person. Due to the language barrier, I am (mercifully spared the details) left out of much of their conversations, but I can tell you that (ajumas never stop talking) stereotypes surrounding their behavior are only (98 percent) partially true.
I have learned (to just sit quietly in their presence because any conversation you start will be forcefully interrupted within about 25 seconds) that ajumas are as outspoken as they are reputed, but little credit is given for the generosity they (try to compensate with) display.
For example, my mother-in-law-to-be recently (decided that owning three dress suits isn't enough) offered to pay for me to have a new suit tailor-made. She picked out a store (an hour away from my home) where I could go to and be measured, fitted and then supplied with this suit (a process that took three weeks and about six hours of subway travel to complete). After I had (lost all this time) received it, I wore it while I accompanied her and her daughter to a family wedding.
Though my Korean studies are far from complete, I could tell that she was (plotting more wardrobe-fetching expeditions for me) planning to give even more gifts in the future, as well as checking on my progress with the Korean language (which - and this is the wicked irony of it all - I would have a lot more time to devote to if I weren’t going to so many weddings and getting measured for so much formalwear).
The ajuma is truly a (tyrant) complicated and (wearisome) multi-faceted individual. The years in which my mother-in-law (haunts my dreams) is part of my life should provide me with plenty of insight (that she, fortunately, won’t be able to read). My fiancée, though Korean, at this point resembles nothing so much as the other young women of her age bracket, but who knows what the future brings? Maybe one day she’ll resemble an ajuma herself.
(May God help me.)
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