American Ajima

Nov 7, 2011

Brooklynn with the ajimas

I want to be an Ajima. Technically, or biologically, it’s impossible. Ajimas are Korean. But since my visit to South Korea two years ago, where I saw my first Ajima, I’ve pondered how to introduce this cultural phenomenon to America.

“Ajima”, my son Miles explained to me, is a Korean term loosely meaning an elder woman. Elder just means whoever is older, but Ajima more often conjures up the image of an old woman, a grandma. And an ajima is further defined by her physical appearance, a distinct look that you learn to spot anywhere.

First of all, the ajimas perm their hair, soft black curls around their round weathered faces. And the clothes. Ajimas wear billowy long cotton blouses and loose pants, like pajamas. Sometimes the clothes are really outdated looking, like from a old 70’s flick. Young Koreans wear modest but well tailored clothing. Compared to here, all Koreans are thin and fit and the older ones almost angular. Years of hard labor have bent many of them permanently at the waist and they use carriages to hold their bodies up as they walk. It is a culture that has learned to sit without chairs, lie down without mattresses. The cuisine looks like they ran into the backyard and pulled up weeds. That’s probably what they did fifty years ago. Don’t get me wrong. The food was the best I’ve ever had; adventurous, fun and robust, much like the folks who prepare it.

Back to ajimas: they hang out in parks all day long, sitting on benches, laying on blankets in the grass. Clusters of them, animated, talking, laughing, watching the daily flow of passer-bies. And they absolutely loved my granddaughter Brooklynn, maybe because she was only one and would smile at them as we walked past. Maybe they thought her Caucasian features were quirky and odd. But they could not resist scooping her up and carrying her to each little group of bantering women where she would get passed along again and again, eventually surrendered back into my arms. Brooklynn loved them too and willfully went to them, loving the fuss. It was an ajima thing.

I’d like to introduce the Ajima to America. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I see the toll of years worked; waitressing, mothering, scallop shucking, nursing. I don’t need a walker yet, but I’d like to slow down a bit before I have to. Older women in America have an identity crisis. We think we are without value because we live in a culture that worships youth and photoshops imperfections. When we start to slow down we get bumped off the track and ignored. Yet in Korea, life years equals wisdom and the dignity that comes with finishing well. We could learn much from them.

So I’m checking out some loose shirts and baggy pants. Not so sure about the permed hair thing. But mainly I like the hanging out together and laughter and squeezing babies that stroll by. Let’s hold fast to the rich treasure of years lived. May God provide the wisdom that brings dignity to our later years and the loving kindness that keeps every heart young.