This is a story about the three little ajumas that I met today. An ajuma is a term for “auntie” in my Korean book but in reality it is considered an “older woman” in Korean. If you want your waitress to be nice to you, or you want someone’s attention you usually don’t call them an ajuma. If you are a boy you might say “nuna”, but as a girl I would say “Unni”. If you want to skip all the age differences it is always safe to use the term “저기어’ (pronounced jaw-key-aw which I don’t know how to romanize). This might be confusing, so today this story is not about a nuna, unni, or polite jaw-key-aw. Instead this is a story about three little (shrunken a bit from age) old ladies with a grandmotherly-like kindness that I met today.
Originally in 2007, I lived in a Korean hasukjib (하숙집). This is translated as a boarding house, but it might be difficult to understand the concept. Basically, you live in a private room but you may share the bathroom or have your own. You eat two meals a day in the landlord’s home and you focus on your studies. This is good for students living abroad who may miss their families but don’t have the chance to go home. In the past, it was good for Koreans who didn’t live in Seoul. My landlord ajuma (I will refer to her as the Original Ajuma) was a very kind person and I wanted to find her again. However, Korea is a place unlike the U.S. Its rapid pace might have made it difficult to keep track of all the addresses and phone numbers. My friend couldn’t locate the phone number of my old place and it seems that the address system changed. (Yes, the country is changing so fast that in four years there is a new address system!) It is no surprise that when I returned back to the old neighborhood, now nearly 4 years later, the entire neighborhood had changed. The road that had once been newly paved and was pitch black, distinguishable from the old parts of the road, blended in with the street and seemed as if it had always been there. The bus stops are now clearly labeled with bright neon signs indicating when the buses depart and arrive, and the mom-and-pop stores have all been replaced with chain 7-Eleven(yes they have this in Korea) and Buy the Way convenience stores.
As I wandered around in search of a sign that read 하숙, all I could find were 원룸 signs. This is Konglish for “One Room” meaning that a student has a private bathroom, possibly kitchen, and lives alone. The first ajuma who I met greeted me in full on Korean. She asked me something along the lines if I was looking for a house. Then I said I was looking for a special ajuma. Where can I find her? 글쎄요 (hrm…) she replied and then walked slowly with a slight bend in her back and her permed hair floating along in the breeze, bouncing higher than her head. Then she introduced me to a second ajuma.
This ajuma was friendly, but maybe she smelled that I was a foreigner. 외국인 Foreigner? Ajuma 1 introduced me to Ajuma 2 explaining that I was looking for someone. I guess now that I was no longer interested in her housing accommodation, but felt some kind of responsibility, it was best to pass me along. The second one was very chatty, talking about the neighborhood and how it had changed so much. We shared memories about the stores and the hasukjibs that used to line the streets but that now had given way to new buildings and new styles of independent student one rooms. Wow, I was remembering the neighborhood in the ‘old days of 2007’. Even though Ajuma 2 insisted that she had a room for rent (later I found that it was on a male floor with a communal bathroom, no thank you!), she still helped me to locate the Original Ajuma.
After walking through the streets and reminscing, we found the address. The address system had indeed changed. While most houses had signs with engraved numbers, marking the old numbers, the gates were also being marked with permanent marker indicating the new numbers some of the houses would be given. What I understood from Ajuma 2 is that some houses didn’t have numbers, so now they were forcing everyone to get numbers. In the past, I remember the mart next to my building was considered the landmark (it was smaller than a gas station), so I couldn’t even be sure if I had the right address. But Ajuma 2 asked several ajumas in the street. She didn’t know my Original Ajuma but she knew the old system. Then she pushed the intercom and out came a familiar voice from the speaker. “I can’t hear you…just come up,” I heard it say in Korean and Ajuma 2 sent me on my way.
I walked in and there was my Original Ajuma. I said “I’m Linda…” and she was befuddled. “Who? Wait, America?” and she was so eager to show me photos of her granddaughter and catch me up to date. Wow, I am back in Korea. After several random instances of Ajuma 1 and 2 I finally met my Original Ajuma.