Stephanie Fretwell-HillMany aspects of life in South Korea were difficult for me to understand. Among them, common restaurant behavior appeared rude to my Western sensibilities.

“Ajumma!” A diner would shout. Ajumma means something like “older woman”, or to put an affectionate spin on it, “Auntie”.

“Ajumma! Bring me two beers!”

This is one of the first things I learned to say in Korean, but it always seemed like a blunt method of ordering. “Ajumma! Bring me more meat!” Only slightly better were the restaurants with call bells glued to the tables, so at least you didn’t have to yell across the dining room for attention.

I learned these commands from one of my first Korean friends, Seban. We worked together at an English language institute on the south eastern side of Seoul, both getting up early for six o’clock business conversation classes, then finding ourselves awake and with a break by seven. Sometimes we stood on the street outside the institute, eating fusion egg sandwiches from a street vendor on the frozen sidewalk. These consisted of two slices of white bread sprinkled with sugar and fried in butter on a griddle, stuffed to overflowing with cabbage, onions, Thousand Island dressing, chili sauce, and a fried egg.

Once we had established that we were “breakfast buddies”, Seban took me around the corner into a narrow dead-end alley, and led me through a curtain of hanging beads into a tiny restaurant with three rickety plastic tables.

“This is a very delicious place,” he explained. “But it is spicy.” He ordered Daeji Bulgogi, pork marinated in chili sauce.

“For breakfast?” I asked.

“Yes, for any meal. We do not have separate types of food for breakfast.”

This seemed reasonable, so I dove in. Seban wasn’t fooling when he said it was spicy. It set my face on fire, right up to the hairline. The ajumma came out of the kitchen to watch me eat, an incredulous smile frozen on her face.

“Good, isn’t it?” Seban asked.

We ate there together a few times before I went back alone, this time in the evening. By then I was learning to navigate Seoul by myself, and to stump up the courage to order a meal without a translator. As soon as I entered the restaurant, the ajumma appeared by my side.

“£&$ #^&* $#$$!” she said.

“Hello, yes I remember you,” I replied.

She smiled with her entire round leathery face, and then grabbed me. She gave me a giant “I’m-your-Auntie-and-I-haven’t-seen-you-for-years” type of hug, which I couldn’t resist. I was foreign and lonely and isolated. So we became friends.

After that, I went to Ajumma’s for dinner at least three times a week. She would hug me when I came in, and then sit down next to me at the table.

“£*&$* &%&$* !^%£@”, she would say.

“I know, I meant to come in yesterday but one of my students kept me talking after class for my entire break. Don’t they understand I have to eat dinner before my evening classes?”

“!&^£&$ £&*% *£& %$& £$* %£*£&,” she would go on, gesturing wildly, her voice rising and falling. “&%&$£ *&!$!” she would laugh.

Sometimes, if no one else was in the restaurant, we would watch soap operas together on TV.

“£%$&;& *&;%^ *£%$^!” Ajumma would say.

“He’s really evil,” I would agree. “I can’t believe he left her when she was pregnant with his handicapped child!”

We were friends for a year, until I took another job in the countryside a few hours from Seoul. I said goodbye to Ajumma one night, knowing that I wouldn’t be back for dinner later that week. I asked a customer to take a picture of the two of us together, and hoped that Ajumma would realize what was happening.

She held my hand and cupped her other palm around my cheek, and said, “%£& ^£.”

“I know,” I agreed. “I’m going to miss you too.”

Today’s Guest Blogger: Stephanie Fretwell-Hill

Email: stephanie (at) buttermilkpartycake (dot) com
Twitter: @btrmlkpartycake

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Auntie Ajumma
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3 thoughts on “Auntie Ajumma

  • 25/05/2011 at 4:15 pm

    One of my mom's distant relatives married an Irish lady. Unfortunately, he died. So, his mom (who didn't know anything except the native language Assamese) would often tell her neighbors that her daughter-in-law didn't know that she loved her and that she often had to resort to hugs to show any sort of affection. But reading this now I think she did :)

  • 26/05/2011 at 10:27 pm

    Great post. My husband is there now. I'll have to forward this to him.

  • 17/02/2012 at 1:41 am

    Unfortunately, I’ve never been out of the U.S., but I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you. Even ordering food at a diner has its challenges! I doubt i’d ever end up close enough to a waitress here in the states to be allowed to hug them. But then every culture has its differences. I liked your piece.

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