From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."

Don’t Mess with Ajumma


There are two types of people you don’t want to mess with here in Korea: an inebriated ajossi and an angry ajumma. The former I have tried to shun since I’ve had an unnerving encounter with a drunk man which I wrote about in a previous post; the latter I was warned by my husband never to lock horns with.

I’m not the type of person who would argue with someone older than me, but in my country, I would always speak my mind, especially when I know I’m right. Here in Korea, since I am not that fluent in Korean language (yet), I don’t reason out that much when someone is giving me a hard time. It rarely happens anyway. Most of the Koreans I meet everyday are not mean; however, there’s one incident with an ajumma that almost brought out the monster in me.

Sometimes I finish my work in the hagwon a little earlier, and when I have extra time, I like to look around some shops in Deokso. I usually visit the same shops, so the shop keepers and I get acquainted. One night, I decided to check out the new items in one of my (former) favorite boutiques. The ajumma who owns that shop used to ask me too many questions about my whereabouts and why I don’t look like a Filipina though I’m a Filipino; she was even able to convince me to buy a pair of boots and a skirt one time. Our conversations had always been pleasant, but that night, I reckon she wasn’t in a good mood. She didn’t notice me enter the shop. She and her husband were engaged in what seemed to be a serious talk. Not wanting to bother them, I proceeded with my shopping and waited for the right time to say: “안녕하세요!” (Anyeong haseyo: ‘How are you?’ in Korean).

I thought they were simply “talking”. You see, when ajummas and ajossis speak in loud voices, that is considered normal in Korea.

After a while, as I was sorting out some clothes I wanted to try on and buy, the ajumma and her husband started arguing. The argument escalated into a fight. That time, I thought it was best for me to leave, but I couldn’t just pop off without putting the clothes I’ve sorted out back in the rack. Just as I was taking the clothes back to the rack, the ajumma saw me. She stopped shouting at her “drunk” husband, approached me and asked if I was going to buy the clothes. I just wanted to go out of that boutique, but I was afraid to tell her that I wasn’t going to buy those clothes (anymore).  I told her YES, but I wanted to try them on first. I don’t think wanting to try on something before buying it is against “shopping ettiquette in Korea“, but she contemptuously said, “안돼!” (Andwae:  ‘No!’) and turned her back on me. I decided not to buy the clothes, just put them back PROPERLY where I got them AS FAST AS I COULD, and get out of that boutique without saying a word.

Suddenly, the ajumma started shouting at her husband, telling him to scram. The man could barely walk towards the door and when he tripped on the shoes displayed on the floor, that made his wife more furious. She hurled a mobile phone at him, and it landed right in front of me! It was one of those situations that make you wish you had the ability to teleport or be invisible, but I stood there frozen. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t leave right away. Everything happened so fast. Besides, the drunk husband was a few steps away from the doorstep and I didn’t want to get in his way. I moved to the other side of the room and waited until he was out.

When he left, the angry ajumma picked up the phone she hurled and turned her attention to me. She saw me placing back the clothes in the rack and asked me again if I was going to buy anything from the boutique. I said I’ll just be back next time. I was just returning the last piece of clothing I took from the rack when she grabbed it from me and said, “만지지 마!” (Manjijima: ‘Don’t touch.’) She told me to leave and kept hollering: “돌아 오지마!” (Dora ojima: ‘Don’t come back.’)  I couldn’t understand the other things she was saying in Korean, but I knew that they were not words I could take if I understood what they meant.

I felt so humiliated, defeated and regretful that I just let the ajumma treat me that way without saying anything, but my husband told me I did the right thing by not fighting back. First, because I know better. Second, because it could get me into trouble. Third, because in a shouting match that involves an ajumma, the ajumma never surrenders and usually wins.

I never went back to that boutique, but I always pass by it when I go home from work. Sometimes I see the ajumma when she closes the shop, but I don’t greet her like I used to.

I am not generalizing ajummas in Korea, but it’s best to be cautious and NEVER EVER mess with them if you don’t want to end up like the teenager in this video, who was grabbed by the hair, pushed around and thrown on her seat after talking back to the old lady who reprimanded her. (This video spread in the internet and had been in the news two years ago, but if you want to know the full story, you may still read the article Brawl of old woman, teenage girl in subway car causes stir” in The Korea Times)

While there have been frequent cases of drunk ajossis heckling in public and ajummas “tyrannizing” others, expect to find “kind” and “friendly” ones anywhere in this country. My Korean Language teacher and my wonjangnim (owner of the hagwon) are the most gracious ajummas I have ever known. Sometimes when I go to the market, I meet accommodating ajummas who never give me the cold shoulder when I say “카카 주세요” (Kaka juseyo: Give me a discount.), and if they can’t give me a discount, they say it nicely.

My Korean Language teacher, a generous and kind-hearted ajumma ^^

In the subway, I have met two ajossis with whom I had a brief but interesting conversation. (They were not drunk, of course.^^) One of them spoke English, and the other  had been to my hometown in the Philippines. A group of haraboji performers in Korean Folk Village were kind enough to let me try their costume. One of them even taught me how to wear it.

Another haraboji posed for a picture with me. ^^

The ajumma whom I always see sweeping the floor in my workplace greets me back with a smile when I say hello. The ajossi who caught me and my husband using the swings in the children’s playground just outside our apartment building didn’t reprimand us, but simply reminded us that adults are not allowed to use the swings.

At times, when I offer my seat to ajummas standing on the bus, some of them would not take it, or if they would, they’d offer to hold my bag in return. Once, an ajumma gave me a beautifully decorated rice cake when I gave her my seat.

The other night, when a drunk halmoni was pestering the bus driver and kept poking him with her cane, an ajumma took the courage to talk to her. There were so many passengers who could come to the driver’s defense, but nobody cared except that ajumma. In the end, she found out that all the halmoni wanted was somebody to help her go to the hospital, and that’s exactly what the sympathetic ajumma did. She and the halmoni, who was no longer yelling that time, got off at a hospital in Janghyeon.

Not all ajummas are “mean” after all. =)

AJUMMA: a term used for married women in Korea (Yes, I am now one of them. ^^)

17 thoughts on “Don’t Mess with Ajumma

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  4. Great Points! I agree with everything you said. There is really no excuse for anyone to act poorly.

    By the way, I just wrote an article “What To Watch Out For In Korea” and put a link to this article in my “Ajumma” section. Just so you know 🙂


  5. Hello! I just want to give a huge thumbs up for the great info you have here on this post. I can be coming back to your blog for more soon.


  6. I read your post. Thank you for sharing it. While I empathize with the ajummas you described in your article, I believe that their hardships do not give them the right to behave the way they do. I’m not referring to all ajummas. I’m referring to those mean, ill-mannered ajummas who find delight in pushing and shoving people, or those who like to bicker and boss others around. On the otherside, there are those ajummas who are kind and considerate, those who would offer you help or are content minding their own business. There are also those who move you to tears when you see how difficult life must be for them that they have to work even at an old age… like the halmoni in your article. I often see ajummas like that in the market, on the subway or the street.


  7. I think that there are good and bad people everywhere. It is just that, in Korea, the Ajummas that are not nice can be really mean, and that is why it stands out a little more (your story is a great example of that). I also tend to agree with the first comment made by “Truth.” There is definitely this selfish “me first” mentality that a lot of the older generation has here in Korea, particularly the males…

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. I also wrote a small article about the Ajummas, but more on the perspective of the hardships they have had to face throughout their lives. Sometimes I believe that their tough lives have caused some of them to not care how they treat others (which is a shame). Here is what I wrote:


  8. The “Me First” Mentality of 99% of people over age 50 is sickening and repulsive. It is the most absurd and wretched aspect of society here. The adage of “Respect your elders,” is quite out of place when those same elders act so despicably.


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  11. Thanks, Oegukeen. I try to be fair when I discuss something concerning Koreans, because they’re usually misunderstood by foreigners. I’m glad readers like you appreciate it. =)


  12. I like how you keep the balance between the positive and negative. I think it’s important to remind foreigners that there are all kinds of Koreans


  13. Thank you, Tukusigal. When are you coming to Korea? =)


  14. I have seen Korean dramas and they were portrayed like that in some of them. Thanks for your insight. I am learning a lot about Korea thanks to your blog.


  15. Well, they’re not all like that. The Koreans I work with, my husband’s family and friends are kind and peace-loving. There are nice ajummas and ajossis, too, as I have mentioned in my post, but most younger people are scared of them because of their “don’t-mess-with-me-or-you’ll-be-dead-meat” reputation. ^^


  16. Very interesting! I hear Koreans are Asian “Latinos” – i.e. they are hotheads (sorry). I am very sorry you had stressful experience.


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