Monday, March 15, 2010


There is not a direct translation for the word "ajumma" in English but it is used to describe a married woman who lets herself go doing housework. It's not equivalent to "ma'am" because it denotes no particular respect. Maybe, "senora" in Spanish but "ajumma" has a more persistent, stickier subtext like the taste of Korean pepper paste. I am posting a visual aid for further clarification.

The opposite of "ajumma" is "agassi." An "agassi" is an unmarried woman whose business is to look good, young and cultured. Here is another visual aid I found on Google image.

I secretly rejoiced when my married Korean friends would tell stories about how they were called an "ajumma" at a store. Now that I am at an age where it is kosher for my relatives to bluntly ask "Why aren't you married yet?", "When are you going to get married?", "Don't be so picky!" it gives me greater reason to rejoice in their "ajumma-ness." It is at times like this when my hands and feet are tied and am ambushed with questions regarding my inability to get hitched, I think about my ajumma friends and smile (internally). After all, I am still an agassi.

Or so I thought. Last Friday, I went to the immigration office and heard someone calling out, "Ajumma!" I looked around for an ajumma but she couldn't be found so I kept walking. He called out "Ajumma!" again and tapped on my shoulder. He said, "Ajumma, I hope you make a lot of money." I went blank for a few seconds. When my cognitive faculties returned, I thought,"Why is he calling me Ajumma, and why is he telling me to make a lot of money?"

Apparently, there are a lot of Chinese-Koreans (*ethnically Korean, nationally Chinese) who come to the immigration office to get a work visa. He mistook me for a poor Chinese-Korean ajumma looking for work. I wasn't sure how that happened so I went home and thoroughly analyzed my look. I concluded that it was my short permed hair that I gathered in a ponytail. (He did call me Ajumma from behind.) I am just going to chalk it up to the fact that he did not see me from the front because I am still a spring chicken agassi ready to conquer the world!

*A lot of people confuse the meaning of ethnicity and nationality. Let me take a moment to clear up the confusion. Ethnicity is based on the original country from which one can claim her heritage. Nationality is based on the country of citizenship one belongs to. For example, I am ethnically Korean, but nationally American.


  1. Oh, thank you for the visual aids. Based on the ajoomma pictures, I'm no where near this pedestal.

  2. Although I am rightfully at the stage of my life to be called 'ajoomma,' when my friend's nephews refer to me as one, it gives me a weird feeling. How about 'Missy?' Am I sassy enough to be referred missy? Maybe not, after all, I am like a lioness trying to protect her cubs. LOL.

  3. I don't think ajumma means an older lady who let herself go. I think it's just a married woman with children. I think Natalie's an ajumma =D

  4. Well, the literal meaning ajumma and social implication of ajumma are different. If ajumma simply implied a married woman with children, people wouldn't be so averse to being called an ajumma. But it doesn't. :)

  5. To me ajumma feels warm. It feels genuine, mature and heartfelt rather than pretentious, superficial and made up. I in fact refer to me as ajumma when I get together with my friend's daughter who is 7 and in my conversation with her.



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