The Stealth Ajumma

This weekend, Keun Ha and I headed out to Insadong ( 인사동) to reinstate the Saturday tradition of Isul Cha (Dew/Hydrangea Tea). As usual, the train was pretty crowded on a Saturday. I wasn't trapped in Subway Purgatory, but I wasn't going to get a seat, either. And I'll tell you why: The Ajummas. Now, I noticed on Saturday that although the Ajumma seems to be set in her ways, she can adapt to almost any situation at hand. Because she knows there are some instances when handbag attacks just will not suffice. She understands that in some cases, subtlety will serve her well. So, on the Saturday afternoon train, I discovered a whole new element of the typical ajumma stereotyped character: Stealth Ajumma.

Yeah, that's right. Stealth Ajumma. She moves with a quickness and she's so fast, you often don't even notice that the seat in front of you has been vacated and refilled in an instant. They slip slyly in and out of the great lines of commuters hanging onto handles like monkeys hanging onto tree limbs. They weave between friends, colleagues, and lovers, their eyes open and entirely aware. They can sense when a person is going to leave a seat before they start to shift their bodyweight and gather their belongings. Stealth Ajumma is not joking. She will have a seat. And that is usually why I don't have one. Oh, I saw the guy I was standing in front of get up, but then I blinked before trying to sit down and when I looked again, Stealth Ajumma had already set up shop. Sometimes they swoop in from the back, slipping into the seat as you turn around, preparing your backside for the awesome contact with the cool metal chair, so that you almost sit on them. Luckily, their handbags usually alert you before you place all your Chubb-O weight on a petite Korean Ajumma, thereby preventing what would surely be unintentional homicide-by-squishing. Even the coarse, wizened ajumma has a softer side.

I've often wondered why I see so few reactions to the Ajumma takeover. The young girls who were planning on sitting in that seat never give a nasty look or say a hateful word. The women who have been standing in line and get the handbag smack don't often roll their eyes. It seems the men are oblivious to the Ajumma. Of course, every time I'm standing in a line [ex: yesterday at the ticket counter in the subway station. I'm like 10th in line. But I'm not moving because as each person is helped, another ajumma bypasses the line and steps straight up to the counter], I find myself fighting the urge to punch all these "cutters" in the throat to show them who's boss. But really, I think there is so much acceptance because all these young girls and women know it will someday be their turn. If they wait long enough, survive long enough, and take enough crap from their elders, it will one day be their turn to dish it out. And they will bypass the lines and they will throw their handbags into seats younger people are attempting to occupy. It's kind of a cycle of life thing. Or heck, just a wait your turn, your time will come thing.

And that's why it's so hard for me to swallow. It's so hard for me to adjust. IT WILL NEVER BE MY TURN. At least not in Korea. I will never look Korean and I will never be able to get away with that behavior. And even if I were allowed to get away with it, I don't know that I could justify it to myself. Ajummas are Ajummas out of necessity. I was discussing this with Keun Ha last night and he said something that resonated with me: "We make fun of ajummas and we think they are a bit ridiculous sometimes, but we never go too far because they are our mothers." So, not only does every young Korean know that someday it will be their turn, but they probably have an ajumma at home that has sacrificed her life for them and her family. They have given so much, cared for others so well, that perhaps when they are on the train or in a store, they just need to take care of themselves.

But, DANG. Watch out for those Stealth Ajummas. They are samurai swift, man. Samurai swift. (Is that a mixed metaphor? Using a Japanese warrior to describe a Korean old lady? Hmmm... I'll let you sort it out.)


  1. I love reading about your adventures - keep them coming!

  2. I love Ajumma stories! I have this fabulous mental picture of this little old Korean lady with a handbag bigger than she is.

    You've got something those Ajummas don't have though, and that's a Brilliant Blog award from yours truly! Come by and pick it up! Then feel free to wave it in the Ajumma's face the next time she steals your seat.

  3. Arghh! I feel your fury! Sounds just like the postoffice. Have you been in there? they have this ticket system BUT it means NOTHING. And I learnt the hard way. In the end I was just like them. See a counter coming free...GO for it. Ignore the number system. That's the law of the jungle. Oh yeh. Banks are quite easy. I manange to que jump just by wondering up to the desk and looking foreign and confused (usually genuine) x


  4. I hate it when someone cuts in line at the ticket counter. They'll even cut in when you are actually talking with the attendant. My incredulity at first has been replaced with a series of basketball like manoeuvres, which whilst certainly ridiculous looking to the casual observer, are both immensely satisfying and regularly effective.

  5. The reason the young girls don't do anything is because they're taught to respect their elders, which means to put up with things they may not like from older people in Korea. If you were not so focused on seeing the bad side of Korea, you would have been open to this fact. Those Korean people were standing there minding their own business and you still found a way to demonize them as rude. Unbelievable.

  6. I don't think I demonized anyone and I believe your reaction is a bit over the top. And apparently you didn't read the entire post to the end. In MY society, it IS rude to cut in front of people or to hit them in order to get a seat. But I realize that I am NOT in MY society any longer and so I am trying to adjust to that. I love Korea and I am enjoying my time here. Heck, I'm on my way to marrying a Korean. I'm not trying to make Korea look bad, I'm just reasoning out why some things in Korea make me so angry. And I'm trying to do that with as much reflection as rage.
    And if you don't like my blog, you don't have to read it. I don't look for the bad things in Korea, either. One of the best things that's ever happened to me is Korean! But Korea is not above criticism. Nor is any country for that matter. And I'm sorry you have no sense of humor. Your life must be very serious and you must spend most of your time offended. I believe I expressed enough of an understanding of why ajummas are ajummas and why younger women only complain or laugh about them instead of doing something to stave off any serious misunderstanding. So, apparently my blog is not for you. So sorry.


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