Thursday, August 29, 2013

a disagreement

My buddy Charles has emailed with a disagreement. I had previously written:

Working with low-level students again is a reminder of the constant uphill battle against the inertia of Korean culture—the built-in aversion to associating with strangers, the deep-seated passivity, the reflexive retreat to silence when in doubt. How in the hell do young Korean girls ever become pushy, outspoken ajummas? I guess the answer is marriage and kids. Taking responsibility makes people more proactive, more authoritative, more confident.

Charles emailed me the following:

Just going on personal experience, I would have to disagree, at least partially, with your answer to the question of how young Korean girls become the horrific force of nature known as ajummas: it's mainly the kids.

Charles went on to give a vivid description of why this is so; to put it delicately, it's the pain and messiness of giving birth that together make shy girls into assertive women. I suppose there's truth to this, but I'd still contend that the long-term act of taking care of the kids has an enormous effect on the female psyche. In fact, I'd lump the husband in with the kids: Korean husbands, even in 2013, are often babies themselves, unable to iron their own clothing, unable to do the dishes, barely able to find their own shoes without spousal help. So much centers on the mother, and in a dynamic that would have made Freud dance with glee, the wife becomes mother to the husband.

Charles also said:

...and the fact of the matter is that social class plays a large part in it as well. All those pushy, outspoken ajummas? Most of them are on the lower to middle rungs of the social ladder. Upper-class ajumma tend to be much more graceful and reserved. This, too, of course, is a generalization.

But a good generalization, albeit shot through with frequent exceptions. My mother was twice president of a Korean-American women's society back in the States; rich ajummas, in my experience, can be as catty, crass, small-minded, and pushy as the lower-class ajummas, despite being the wives of diplomats, politicians, and prominent businessmen.

On a plane ride years ago, I once sat next to a very dignified, educated-looking ajumma who went on and on about her Ivy League son. The sound of her obnoxiously basking in her son's reflected glory was as pleasant as an elephant fart.



Charles said...

I guess I was interpreting "pushy" rather literally...

Also: "I'd still contend that the long-term act of taking care of the kids has an enormous effect on the female psyche."

I see my description of the process of childbirth (related to me by women who've gone through it, mind you) might have been a bit too vivid. I also wrote: "And whatever vestiges of tact and decorum may have remained are obliterated in the dog-eat-dog world of raising a child in South Korean society." In other words, I agree that the raising of the kids does play a huge part as well.

Although I must hasten to point out that I know a lot of really nice ajummas, too. And the ajummas certainly don't have a monopoly on offspring boasting--I think that's a cross-cultural thing.

There, I think that's enough hemming and hawing.

Kevin Kim said...

Sure, I think it's pancultural to boast about one's progeny. But it's very Korean to rub it in. Instead of talking about kids as a matter of sharing, it's often more as a matter of announcing status, hence my "basking in reflected glory" remark.

I agree that there are nice ajummas out there. Would that there were more.

John from Daejeon said...

Kevin, you are spot on. Childbirth is the easiest push in comparison to what is entailed (all the years, money, and anguish) in trying to get their little princes and princesses into one of the SKY schools.