Friday, June 15, 2007

In Praise of Older Women

One of the problems with language in certain Asian countries is that it reflects the hierarchical nature of society, and more specifically, an in-built mechanism for showing respect to one's elders. So, while you might ask a member of your peer-group to give you something in a particular way, it wouldn't be appropriate to use the same language for the same request made to a senior. That senior might be someone visibly older, or in a social setting such as a university or company, a person further along in their studies or higher up the corporate ladder. So as you move from one situation to another in Korea, you have to make decisions on where you fit in socially and what form of language to use while addressing those around you. While it's often suggested that the English language doesn't have this respectful form, I've never held that to be true; there are clearly ways to speak politely and plainly and it can have a hierarchical element - but the difference is it's not formalised.

Beyond the form of language lies the question of how one addresses one's elders, and so in Korea we have ajummas ('아줌마' - middle-aged women) and
ajeoshis (or ajeossi to strictly transliterate, although this isn't the pronunciation - '아저씨' - middle-aged men). And that inevitably means that the day will come when some invisible barrier is crossed and someone will refer to you in this way. Unfortunately for my wife, that day arrived today, when a younger member of staff at the hospital addressed her like this. Ironically, while these terms may implicitly show respect, used inappropriately they can have quite the opposite effect, as her seething mood afterwards can attest to. Did she really look that old to this person? The situation had to be discussed in some detail with Korean Mother over lunch and she was partially placated by the conclusion that the staff member had made a mistake.

Amusing though I found the emerging ajumma-gate scandal, my humour diminished somewhat when I faced up to the fact that it was only a matter of time before I started getting addressed as ajeoshi/ajeossi. In fact, it's already happened once, but since the woman who referred to me in this manner was old enough to be my grandmother, it was hard to take it personally. Perhaps, as my ability to converse in Korean improves, the first time I'm referred to in this way I'll end up grinding my teeth too. Growing old in English is so much more egalitarian.


The exciting and talented James said...

Hello again Mike,

you probably know this, but didn't mention it in your post, but becoming an "ajumma" is more than just looking older. The word also has connotations of losing all interest in sex, having permed hair (instead of the naturally straight hair Korean women have), dressing in clothes that my grandmother would find unflattering and garish, being impolite to everyone and always cutting in line on subway, and having no hobbies other than gossiping with other ajummas.

I could go on, especially on why the image has a grain of truth, but the important point is that becoming an "ajossi" isn't quite so bad. If I was a young "agassi" here, I would be mortified if people started calling me ajumma, there's been whole drama series on TV about it! But ajossi? No man cares.

Sorry to hear about your father, and your medical problems. But as for the noise, you seriously need to move to a different apartment building, especially one with higher floors!


Mike said...

Indeed, those observations are all very true!

But if my wife turns into an ajumma it's going to mean separate apartments for us I think :-)

In some respects I do like being on the first floor above a road - it makes me feel even more embedded in Korean society than I already am and there's often something eye-opening going on outside. Recently the noise has been a problem though. If we come back to live after sorting out some loose ends in the UK, we have our eye on a 10th floor apartment which might be quieter...

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