Sunday, October 18, 2009

Homage to the Ajuma

In my closing hours in Korea, I think of why we travel. Specifically, why am I uprooting myself once more, why am I going to another foreign land, why I am fleeing familiarity. I could stay in Korea--stay in an established life. I could roll around in the comfort of having figured out a once frightful place. I could have the money to buy luxuries such as colored underwear and pears. I could go to the grocery store ask for dried skin then happily douse myself in the shower I have yet to master. But I don't, and won't, and can't.

My conclusion, I leave in search of adventure. This conclusion, however, begs the question-- "Haven't I just experienced an adventure?" Answer: Yes. So what kind of adventure would it have been, had I not also discovered a rare and allusive mythical creature. This blog is an homage to the Korean living myth--The Korean Ajuma. I'm going to guide you through some awkward imagery, so stay with me and follow my instructions with your minds eye.

Imagine a pride of male lions, lounging-lazily, on a multi-level rock fixture. The pride's rock is central to an expansive prairie--the prairie is littered with dozens of other animals, all of which give the lethargic lions a wide birth. Now, lets break reality, transfix spiraled horns to the center of the lion's foreheads. The horn size denotes the animal's status within the pride, the larger the horn, the more intimidating the animal. Retain the aura in the air-- the feeling of raw power in suspension, now, replace the rock with wooden benches and platforms meant for outdoor lounging. Pave the surrounding prairie and sprout twenty-story high rise apartments where trees once grew. Our lions look oddly out of place in this newly built cement jungle but lets get a little weirder. Dress the lions in full track-suits and head-visors that are just long enough to reach the tips of their horns. Don't skimp on the color, you should have visors and suits that represent the entire spectrum of the rainbow. Watch, as the lion's manes recede and curl into a dense, wiry, afro. Now let the lion facade dissolve into the physique of an elder, Asian woman. This is how I envision the Korean Ajuma.

Please know I mean no disrespect, in fact, I wish I could bottle essence of Ajuma. I am sure it would contain the same miraculous properties as unicorn blood. Ajuma is the Korean term simply meant to signify a married woman or woman over the age of 35. As I hope the above excerpt exemplifies, this definition does little justice to this other breed of human. These women are oddly homogeneous in their characteristics from their overly large visors to their demeanor of unbridled authority.

Last week, I was talking on the phone on the bus, in English of course (my first mistake). An Ajuma sitting four rows back quickly lost patience with my polluting the air with foreign words. She walked up to me, I froze with fear, she took the phone out of my hand, hung it up, started to walk away with the phone as if she was confiscating it, decided it was too much hassle, sighed, wagged her finger at me and to my relief handed me the phone. So you may ask, "What did you do about it?" Well, let me tell you... I thanked her profusely for giving me back my phone then turned it off. Matt swears Ajuma's sharpen their elbows at night. I tend to think it is an evolved trait along with knowledge of how to disable and opponent by jabbing razor elbows into the space between the third and fourth ribs. Don't ever push by and Ajuma while trying to mount the subway, you WILL lose, you WILL swear your ribs are broken.

To switch gears, there is a little known fact about Ajumas that I would like to share in confidence. Ajumas are great electric fences. Where ever I go, I am swarmed by hordes of children, I get no peace and am constantly watched or awkwardly followed. The Ajuma's of my "hood" congregate on their pride rock just outside my apartment. It is a wooden platform where they smoke cigarettes, eat kimchi and discipline any child within range. I had spent many an hour circling the pride, hoping to gain entrance into their domain. Once I was eventually tolerated in their circle, it was a profound peace. The Ajumas acted as an electric parameter that no child dared breach. I was able to simply sit, or read, or enjoy my meal, while the kids circled like hyenas helplessly waiting for me to leave my Ajuma sanctuary.

Korean Ajumas are women who demand respect, but are also profoundly generous and caring. If they have food, you have food. If you try and decline the food, they will put it in your mouth the second you open it to say no. I will conclude with my favorite Ajuma story.

I was on the train down to Busan (a beach town). I was sitting next to an Ajuma who was disproportionally excited about my ability to converse with her in Korean. After we swapped lunches, my peanut butter and jelly for her kimchi and octopus, I was feeling sleepy. I passed out freezing because I was wearing a sundress and the aircon was on. I woke up, warm and content. It took me a couple of seconds to realize I wasn't coddled in a warm cocoon, but rather, the Ajuma next to me had wrapped us both in her blanket and she was softly snoring on my shoulder.

And this my friends concludes my Homage to the Ajuma.