Many westerners don’t know this, but Korea actually has three genders: male, female, and ajumma (아줌마).
Literal definition: technically, any woman is an “ajumma” after she marries and starts having kids, but this term usually refers to a middle-aged woman. Calling a woman “ajumma” is similar to calling her “ma’am.” You can use this term for the women who sell street food, or the fancy housewives at the department store, or just any middle-aged woman whose name you don’t know.
Actual definition: the loud, pushy, and badly-dressed middle-aged women of South Korea. Ajummas can be distinguished by their permed hair, bright and mismatched clothes, and intimidating presence. You can find ajummas everywhere, but you often hear them gossiping and arguing in their gravelly old-lady voices long before you see them. Ajummas pretty much only exist in Korea.
Koreans have a lot of pressure in their lives: you have to be polite to everyone, you have to work/study hard all the time, you have to always be dressed fabulously… so when a woman becomes an ajumma she experiences a backlash from a lifetime of extreme politeness. Ajummas can get away with just about anything. They push and shove people on the subway, argue and gossip loudly in public, and dress terribly. The most distinguishing fashion features are the short, permed hair, visors and the flower-patterned pants.
Note: No matter how “ajumma” an older woman is, you probably shouldn’t call her “ajumma” to her face. It’s a little bit rude because you’re implying that she is rude, has a bad perm, and is poorly dressed and no woman wants to hear that (even if she is rude, has a bad perm, and is poorly dressed.)
Ajummas can be found everywhere in Korea, but especially at the traditional markets, where you can see them arguing viciously over the price of groceries, and at any of the public parks, where they will be out power-walking at any time of day or night. You can also see ajummas hiking in large, loud groups at any of Korea’s many mountains. They’re also 5 feet tall but can mountain-climb twice as fast as any of you. No matter how good of a climber you are, when you’re hiking in Korea you WILL be passed by every single ajumma on the mountain, and they won’t even be breaking a sweat!
So how does a woman become an ajumma? Koreans haven’t really been able to give me a straight answer on this yet. I guess it’s kind of like asking westerners how they know when to call a woman “middle-aged.” You just sort of know. But there are middle-aged women here who are technically ajummas because of their age, but they don’t have the ajumma style yet. And some of them never go through an ajumma phase. Personally, I think Korean women must just go to sleep one day and wake up the next day as an ajumma. To me that makes more sense than deciding to get a perm, a bad attitude, and terrible fashion sense. Many of you may have seen this comic before. I think it sums up the ajumma metamorphosis pretty well.
They may not look it, but Korean ajummas are actually quite frightening. They are surprisingly strong for their size and they are not afraid to yell at you or bully their way into a good seat on the subway. Ajummas can also haul enormous backpacks full of kimbab (for a mid-mountain hiking snack) or several dozen shopping bags (full of brightly-patterned stretch pants, obviously.) Basically, ajummas are super-human and you don’t want to mess with them. I have been yelled at by ajummas a few times. I don’t think they were actually that angry, but ajumma voices seem to have only one volume: loud and angry, so even though their intention might have be completely harmless it still scares the crap out of me. I usually give them the deer-in-the-headlights look and then run away as soon as possible.
That being said, there are good things about ajummas too. Young Korean women can be very shy (which actually makes conversation in the cafe very difficult sometimes) but ajummas like to talk. Actually, they LOVE to talk, and that boisterousness can be very refreshing. It’s hard to have an awkward silence when there are ajummas in the room.
Oh ajummas. You can’t help but love ’em!