Last weekend I went out with a couple English speakers, and as typically occurs over dinner and drinks, we got to telling stories about our experiences in Gwangju. One person would start off with “Hey, you know when X happens?” And then the rest of us would be like, “Oh man, X! That shit is cra-zay!” And we would empathize, and then the next person in line would offer up a shared experience and we would repeat the chorus of foreigner recognition.
We landed on the topic of ajummas.
Feeling that I had something to contribute to the conversation at this point, I was all “Oh man, guys, ajummas! Isn’t it weird when they pet you?”
The laughter accompanying our conversation sort of petered out.
“Pet you? Like, pet you? Like a dog?”
“This doesn’t happen to anyone else?”
What the hell dudes? What the hell. Ajummas pet me all the time. My first experience with a Korean in the wild (by which I mean, a person that was in no way involved with EPIK orientation) was a miniature ajumma strolling over to me at a park and giving my arm a few strokes. It just seemed nice at the time, but I should have realized it was significant. I was, after all, standing in a crowd of westerners, yet was the only one receiving curious yet gentle caresses from an old woman.
And just last Friday (this experience still fresh in my mind, hence the dinner talk) I was on the bus, standing over an ajumma. She’d taken a keen interest in me since I’d boarded. Out of the corner of my eye, a tentative hand rose. The hand was so close to my face that I couldn’t act like I didn’t see it. Ajumma’s hand stopped just shy of brushing my cheek in a way that would be weird even for a Korean. She fondled the scarf around my neck a moment, then let her hand slide down my coat (which, to be fair, is a magnificent specimen of 70’s suede. Who doesn’t want to get their hands on a well-worn cowhide?). She began at my shoulder and slid slowly down, down (Ajumma! That’s my BOOB!), down, down, down to where my coat ended at mid-thigh.Then she looked up at me with a peaceful, grateful smile and turned back to the window.
Now, I’m one of those people that gets visibly uncomfortable when a stranger touches me- I stiffen up like a total weirdo. The only conclusion I can come to is that, in spite of this, I look docile, like a petting zoo goat or a seeing-eye dog. But there must be more to it. Why me? Why am I the ajummas chosen American for tactile satisfaction? There must be an answer…but what? Until I find out, Korea: