Ajumma in America

One sunny weekday when I was in sixth grade, a series of impatient knocks shook our front door.

My mom opened it to find our crimson-faced neighbor, heaving in short breaths and incensed. I peeked out from the basement door, startled by the sudden tension that filled the room.

“Listen, you don’t have the right to take my wife’s parking spot,” he yelled, cutting across my mom’s replies as he towered over my mom’s 5-foot-1 frame. But his anger wasn’t what really alarmed me.

My mom started to yell into his face. It was her parking spot, and she wasn’t afraid to tell his wife to move to another one. The shouts ricocheted between my neighbor and mom before my then 18-year-old brother, who was thankfully home from boarding school that week, stepped in to defuse the tension. He calmly asked the neighbor what the matter was, and explained that there seemed to have been a misunderstanding. The anger slid out of the neighbor’s voice. He seemed to accept that his wife had indeed mistakenly taken my mom’s parking spot as he started talking with my brother, and left soon after.

My mom was never afraid to speak her mind during the period our family lived in Virginia from 2001 to 2005. She was an archetypal ajumma, a headstrong and unapologetic middle-aged Korean woman, and she didn’t pretend otherwise. I remember when she made a Korean potty joke in front of a gaggle of American parents, and the awkward silence that followed her punchline: “Pee-pee, poo-poo!” The joke about the swimmer in a lake who had experienced some unfortunate intestinal dysfunctions didn’t make much sense except to her and me. As I hissed that she was embarrassing me, she would laugh and say, “What? Isn’t it funny?”

After my father returned to Korea in 2004 after his work contract with the World Bank ended, my mom was left to navigate our remaining months in the U.S. alone. She enrolled in a local community college and applied for a student visa to legitimize our stay. I would often proofread her essays for English class as the smell of soybean stew and garlic wafted through our small apartment, feeling a little melancholy every time I caught an obvious spelling or grammar error. Her prose, which I had read before in scribbled diary entries, lost its grace in her stunted English.

Even after my father was gone, my mom never seemed to lose that vibrant ajumma streak. She surrounded herself with people and relics that reminded her of Korea– she gabbed away with other ajummas about how Longfellow Middle School was the most prestigious middle school in the county, and the scandalous romantic development in the latest episode of My Lovely Samsoon. She borrowed and watched Dae Jang Geum from the local Korean supermarket and devoted her dawn hours passionately praying at a nearby Korean church. This was not her first time living in America– she had traveled with my father to Boston in 1979 to support his studies in graduate school, and again to Washington, D.C. from 1987 to 1989 with my father and older brother, then a baby. By her third visit, she had mastered the art of disconnecting herself from the confusing cultural trivialities of this foreign land. She no longer gazed at the endless aisles of cheese and meat and produce in the supermarket as she had in 1979, amazed that so many different types of foods could exist. She no longer wanted to feel left out of the gossip among the American PTO moms in my elementary school and learn about their TV shows, not that she particularly cared to. Within her Korean bubble, she seemed content, if not happy.

I didn’t realize how lonely she must have been during these months until I looked back years later. I had gradually stopped talking at home as I hit puberty. My brother was away at boarding school. My father was grappling with his own feelings of loneliness back in Korea, as he lived alone and worked to support our education in America. Between classes, household chores and shuttling me to school, my mom had less time to meet and talk with her ajumma friends during the week. Our dinners were often spent in silence, filled more with the sounds of our spoons clacking against the rice bowls than conversation.

“I didn’t have many thoughts then, just that I had to get you and your brother through your education,” she recounted.

I was almost afraid to ask her how she had felt when the angry neighbor came knocking on our door that day. I was afraid that she would reveal how difficult it had been for her, that she would highlight the sacrifices that I had taken for granted as a sullen preteen. I had always relied on her ajumma vigor to push her through those lonely months, but maybe it hadn’t been enough.

So when I asked her about that moment, I placed my words carefully: “Did that man end up hurting your feelings at all?”

But she laughed and said, “I wasn’t seriously bothered or anything. It was okay. It was all okay.”

Leave a reply