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Korea 006 – Ajimahs and Salarymen

Submitted by on January 8, 1995 – 4:47 pm
Korea 058


Sleep didn’t come easily that night, tired as I was. I thought about Robert and Charles and Ajimahs and Salarymen. At the time of course I didn’t realize it fully, but I had had a glimpse into one of the key defining characteristics of Korean society: its division into distinct categories. It isn’t a perfect division by any means but it was the rare Korean that I came to know as an individual and not as a representative of a group. In the restaurant and on the streets I’d met two of the most important: Ajimahs and Salarymen.

The Ajimah I met in the restaurant was not unique, not the one in a million combination of size, indifferent power and poor taste in clothes I thought she was. She was in fact a fairly typical Ajimah, only one representative of a group of perhaps millions. The Ajimah has her roots in the traditional agrarian village society of Korea the last remnants of which are disappearing. She is at least a mother and usually a grandmother and long past the stage where she worries about her appearance or demeanor in public. She is the protector, shaper, and often terror of her brood. And not surprisingly she is at the center of a foreigner’s experience of Korea. She is housekeeper, waitress, cook and landlord. We meet her in every market, in every shop and on every bus or subway car. I’ve been served drinks by an Ajimah. I’ve been served food by an Ajimah. I’ve been sent to my knees with a full body slam delivered by an Ajimah. I’ve been jeered at and cussed out royally by an Ajimah. I’ve seen her singing gently to her grandchildren. And I’ve seen her in the national parks roaring drunk at nine in the morning and bouncing people off the trails. She has attained the status of a legend amongst the ex-pat community in Seoul. We’ve even coined some phrases after her.

For example there is “Ajimize”. To be ajimized is to be made to look like an Ajimah (a secret they guard jealously involving secret tailors that make Ajimah pants and secret hairdressers with that special curl inducing Ajimah hair spray). To be ajimized can also mean having your teeth knocked out as a group of four or five Ajimahs toss you out of the way like a child’s toy in their mad rush for the last empty seat on the subway – a sight that no person can miss and still call themselves well-travelled. Sort of like being slimed but more painful.

And there is “Ajimatic” – a rough synonym for berserk as in “I went ajimatic.” To switch into ajimatic has a similar effect to taking an armoured personnel carrier for a spin across the Hannam bridge during rush hour. To go ajimatic involves focusing on what you want. You have an objective and you narrow your view to that one thing. You hunch down to make yourself as broad and heavy as possible. Put out your elbows and plaster a look of mad glee on your face – then go and get it! Particularly useful in buses, subways and sidewalks and much more effective when you have several heavy packages in both hands.

“Ajimania” is rather like Beatlemania except a lot more destructive. Often involves the mass wearing of heavily flowered prints (especially wide pants all saggy at the crotch) and an irrational urge to set up sidewalk stalls selling multi-packs of white BYC socks to American tourists.

And finally there is “Ajimoni” – the price you risk having to pay for marrying one of the graceful, beautiful young Korean women who may without warning after the wedding ceremony go get ajimized. It differs from alimony in that it is paid while still married and has nothing whatever to do with money.

This touches on a central mystery of modern day Korea: the origin of Ajimahs. The ajimizing process hardly seems sufficient to account for the vast gulf between the Ajimah as we knew her and the tall, slim, quiet and heart stoppingly beautiful young Korean woman. There had to be a transitional phase. One theory proposed on a particularly drunken and silly evening was that the missing link were the OL’s, the office ladies, women of indeterminate age who haunted the hallways of every company building in Seoul. They existed in the thousands, had a dress code as rigid and horrifying as that of the Ajimahs (though more austere) but whose sole function seemed to be to serve coffee.

No one gave that theory much credit and as the evening got more drunken and silly (we’d all just taught 10 straight hours of English conversation and hadn’t really slept for three months) I suggested that perhaps Ajimahs were ageless and timeless. Perhaps they formed a set of immortal women secretly in control of Korea and have been forever. Are the Chaebol (the huge family owned corporate conglomerates) run behind the scenes by a shadowy organization of Ajimahs?

Most of my friends thought at that point it was time for me to go to bed but I pressed my case. There was evidence. Ajimahs seemed unaffected by extremes of heat and cold. They didn’t seem to sleep. No one there could recall ever having seen a sleeping Ajimah except on the subway which didn’t count. They were capable of carrying immense loads. Their ability to process information even while eating was truly astounding. I’d seen groups of six Ajimahs all screaming, cackling, and shouting at each other simultaneously while eating. To my ears it was discord but to them it was conversation. And finally it was apparent that they did all the work in the country. They’re in the restaurants cooking and serving. They’re buying and selling in all the markets. They’re planting and harvesting the fields. They’re taking care of all the children. They’re cleaning the houses and office buildings. They’re sweeping the streets, doing the laundry and scraping and painting everything. I thought I made a pretty good case but my friends disagreed and again told me to go to bed.

The salarymen I’d met in the restaurant, on the streets and in the bar were also typical of a huge portion of Korean society. Salarymen are the guys that slogged their way through twenty years of school broken only by two years of military service, graduated from University, went straight into the offices of some company and married or are about to marry. At every stage of their lives there were definite roles for them to assume, roles firmly a part of the society and never questioned. Salarymen are accomplished actors who long ago forgot that the directions of their lives came from a script.

They too have their uniforms and their code of conduct. A salaryman wears an ugly conservative business suit, an ugly tie, dark shoes, white socks, and a white dress shirt thin enough to see the white undershirt underneath – a T-shirt in the winter and a singlet in the summer. The date when they were allowed to change from T-shirt to the cooler singlet was a part of their company’s dress code. The official signal spring had arrived was the sudden appearance of singlets on every salaryman.

Their conduct is dictated by a complex set of loyalties to their family, their country, their school, their schoolmates, their army associates, their company and their fellow office workers. Each loyalty entailed responsibilities and rigidly defined opinions and actions that buried under tons of learned behavior any concept of the individual. Loyalty to self was the first casuality in their upbringing, predictability and conformity of thought the final outcome.

Salarymen made up the bulk of the students in my English conversation classes and tragically it was from them, the least able to think independently, I heard the strongest and most plaintive cries of envy for my lack of ties and freedom to travel. They never tired of expressing how keenly they felt the weight of their responsibilities and how they yearned for freedom. Yet, given hypothetical conditions of freedom they were at a loss and scuttled back into their assigned roles and the performance of their duties. They wished to travel to many countries. Yet, their expressed opinions were highly intolerant and harped continually on the superiority of the Korean culture. They spoke passionately of the variety of the one trip they managed overseas: their four days in Thailand on their honeymoon years ago for which they brought four days worth of Korean food packed by their mothers. The irony lacing their every statement was completely lost on them.

Their loyalties manifested themselves in ways that never ceased to surprise me. Their loyality to country surfaced as overwhelming hospitality and a tireless urge to show off their country as I witnessed in the restaurant. Even salarymen I knew for half a year and who were aware that I’d come to Korea over two years ago couldn’t stop playing the host and treating me like a guest. In their way they were being nice but having never been a guest themselves they didn’t know how tiring that can become. In trying to make me feel welcome they only managed to make me feel an intruder, never at home, never welcome, and emphasized that no matter how long I stayed, how adept I became at their language, how knowledgable I became of their customs I could never be a part of Korea in any way. I was an outsider. In expressing their patriotism and pride in their country they went too far and only managed to display unthinking arrogance.

Loyalty to company surfaced as a life dictated by the company they worked for to an extent that would never be accepted by anyone in the West. Right off the top they worked six days a week. Saturday is generally only a half-day now but the traffic jams meant not getting home into early evening anyway so it is pretty much a six day work week. Getting to work on time demands very early hours as they face at least one and often two hours of commuting. Another hour or two to arrive at home (their parent’s home until they get married and even in many cases after they get married) so tired they can only eat and go to sleep. All week they visualize Sunday as their day to relax and recoup. They generally spend it in bed and watching TV. Annual vacations are short and scheduled at the company’s convenience (sychronized with other companies to minimize the disruption of their operations) at the hottest time of year when the millions of vacationers cut loose cause unbelievable crowding on the beaches and in the national parks and inconceivable delays on the highways. The English classes in which I met them though paid for by the company (conditional on a passing grade) were scheduled not on company time but on their time either before work, after work or during their lunch hour. Their personal lives were looked into by the company and as Robert and I witnessed, drinking with fellow employees after work was expected of them.

From my standpoint the lack of room for independence and individuality in Korea of which these categories were only one sign, seemed intolerable. But I came to see a more positive side. Their common language, heritage, appearance, and history going back thousands of years gave them tremendous confidence in their identity as a people. They all experienced a security, and a sense of belonging which no one I knew in the West had ever achieved. I came to envy them their contentment even if it came with a strong pressure to conform in almost all aspects of their lives and, as I began to experience the next morning, little empathy or understanding for those of us from the outside who didn’t belong.




Korea 005 - Charles and Coffee
Korea 007 - The Bathhouse

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