I'm not even 30, but sometimes I have the feeling that I might actually be an ajumma. Ajumma means married woman, with more of a connotation of old woman, in Korean 아 줌 마. But they are not like older women in the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter. They are a whole subcategory unto themselves, defined more by style and attitude than age necessarily. They are usually short, fast walking, no-nonsense, fearless women with permed hair, track clothes, floral prints, and big sun visors.
Have you ever heard that poem "When I am old I shall wear purple" about a woman who looks forward to doing whatever she wants when she is older? That poem reminds me of ajummas. It's like these women have spent their whole lives working, raising a family, living in an apartment, looking perfect, and wearing high-heels... then one day when their children are grown they realize they can take some time for themselves and finally do what they want. And they do it unapologetically.
Anyway, let's look at the evidence as to why I might be an ajumma at heart.
1. I like to hike. You don't see many young women hiking in Korea. And the few that I've seen on short trails have been in heels, no joke. The other day on a trail I saw a young woman walking barefoot, carrying her strappy heels, which was actually more practical. But ajummas wear full Korean hiking gear- synthetic pants and jackets, visors, face masks, gloves, and boots- usually all black with one matching accent color (ie hot pink trim on visor matching the boots matching the pants' racing stripe). I'm not that hard-core, but I do like to get out of the city and explore as many provincial and national parks as possible. Usually while being passed by an ajumma on the trail.
2. I always think things are too loud. I feel like an old person complaining about noise, but REALLY. There aren't noise ordinances, so vendor trucks will drive around selling whatever, blasting their megaphone at 7am. Neighbors' TVs blare. Or they talk really loud after getting home from a night of drinking soju. Is a little peace and quiet too much to ask?
3. I iron regularly. Okay, so every one has to do this because no one has dryers. But then the other day I lint-rolled my ironing board. I have never done that. I felt old.
4. I like to garden. This is definitely an ajumma activity too. I mentioned this before, how there are little guerrilla gardens everywhere in this city. It's almost always older women working the land, digging and planting and wedding and harvesting as you walk by on the sidewalk. Occasionally you see a man, but never any one under 50. Here are some of the gardens I've seen around town.
This garden is larger than usual, and I love that it's pretty diverse, and right next to the Ritz-Plaza hotel.
And if some one can't find actual land to grow food on, they make due with container gardens. This is in front of a business on the sidewalk, pumping out a fair amount of peppers and tomatoes and herbs.
We have this extra land on the side of the school, so my Headmaster let me use whatever I wanted for my own garden venture. The soil has a lot of heavy clay and is really rocky, but I wasn't going to let that stop me! I did a little amending and hoped for the best. It is my little oasis back there where no one else goes- I would sneak out at a quiet moment to check on the garden, weed, water seedlings, watch spiders, and just enjoy having a "yard" in this land of apartments.
I grew some cabbage, lettuce, other spicy greens, cherry tomatoes, sunflowers, peppers, and herbs. I got a little harvest from everything, the most successful being the peppers or gochu 고 추.
5. I want to make traditional food. Kimchi is top on my list to learn to make, and nothing says ajumma like homemade kimchi! Fall is the time to do it, as it was traditionally a way of preserving greens for the winter. In my ideal world I will have a huge bed of cabbage ready by November so I can harvest my own for my kimchi.
A few weeks ago I went out to the countryside to the home of my Colombian friend's Korean in-laws. They have a bit of a farm, and it was SO nice to be somewhere with some land. Our plan was to make traditional Colombian empanadas and Ecuadorian torta de choclo (corn cakes) with corn from the property. They had quite the homestead there with a huge garden, chickens, rabbits, and preserved food all around like drying peppers, garlic, and rice, plus frozen corn, and stored potatoes. The ajumma of the house (mother-in-law) used to run a restaurant, and shared a delicious lunch with us, then set about making kimchi the rest of the day. She sent me home with a huge bag of fresh sweet-potato-greens kimchi. The ajoshi (old man; my friend's father-in-law) is a Christian pastor who visited partner churches in the U.S. When they told him I was from Seattle, he took out a business card from a church outside Bellingham, the address on the Mount Baker Highway! Seriously, what a small world.
And Maria and I gorged ourselves with tomatoes from the garden. That means you've officially experienced summer, and it's okay if fall is on its way.
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