Ji Jin-hee as the bachelor Jae-hee and Uhm Jung-hwa as Dr. Jang in the 2009 romantic comedy, The Man Who Can’t Get Married, KBS
Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up that I’m getting more and more sensitive to the term ajumma but I had to laugh at the “ajumma scene” with Dr. Jang and the children in Episode 2 of The Man Who Can’t Get married. Dr. Jang, a 40 year old single doctor, is being nagged by her dad to find a husband. He tries to set up blind dates for her and then wants her to join a match-making service. She’s mortified when she finds the application form he has got for her to join the agency and goes to question him about it. Her dad is a dentist and busy with a patient when she arrives so she sits next to two kids while she waits for him to finish so she can talk to him. But after she sits down the little boy next to her turns and tells the “adjumma” that she is sitting on his comic. His sister tells him not to call the lady ajumma because she’s heard that single ladies don’t like being called this.
What shall I call her then? he asks.
His sister looks flummoxed. She doesn’t know. And there’s the problem. What do you call a woman over 30 other than ajumma? The little boy looks closely at Dr. Jang and turns to his sister and says,
She does look like an adjumma though…
The nurse starts giggling and Dr. Jang’s dad tells the kids off while she looks uncomfortable and mortified. But the kids aren’t trying to be rude. They are just following the norms of society. Young ladies are called aggashi, older married ladies are called ajumma. A Korean-English dictionary tells me ajumma means “a middle aged woman”. But the term definitely has negative connotations. An ajumma is over 30 for starters which is bad since for a woman it’s a crime to be old! She’s married with children, has a bad perm, barges in front of me in the supermarket queue or pushes onto the train refusing to wait for people to get off first. She wears dodgy ajumma fashion including baggy floral trousers and hangs out in gangs of other ajummas in restaurants and coffee shops. Seems to me there are no good points to being called ajumma so not surprisingly there are lots of women who object to being called this.
Jae-hee, the single 40-year old man in the drama, on the other hand, is addressed as ajoshi by his young (aggashi) neighbour Yu-jin, but he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Perhaps it’s because, as he keeps telling Dr. Jang, it’s different for men and women: Men don’t need to worry about their age so much and can date women much younger than them and that’s fine. Staying young is much more important for women. And as if to back this point up, later Dr. Jang’s dad tells her that she must go for an interview with the match-making agency because she failed the entry test. Why did she fail, she asks? After all, she’s a healthy woman with a successful career, but still only got 52 out of 100 on the entry test. It’s her age, of course. Anyone over the ripe old age of 36 gets zero on the age section of the test! Thanks.
There are some laugh out loud moments in this drama about age and society’s expectations that are true not just for Korea. When will age stop being such a big issue? I was reading some of the comments on forums about this drama and one said that this drama will appeal to an older audience as the main characters are middle-aged. Middle aged! They’re only 40. 40 is the new 25?? Hello!