The Ajumma in her natural habitat (photo courtesy of http://wrangsdoesasia.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/36/)

The Five People You Meet in Seoul

Seoul is a happening place.  It’s so happening that the city is hosting the G20 Summit at the end of this week.  Yet within this bustling metropolis there are countless subcultures that require deep exploration.  It is for the sole purpose of educating the masses that I introduce you to The Five People You Meet in Heaven Seoul.

The Ajumma in her natural habitat (photo courtesy of http://wrangsdoesasia.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/36/)

The Ajumma – The Ajumma is a majestic beast.  While the word ‘ajumma’ (아줌마) simply means ‘married woman’ in Korean, the image brought to mind involves so much more.  The Ajumma is easy to identify.  She will most likely be boasting an impressive perm and an enormous visor, regardless of the season.  A single ray of sunshine will be enough to persuade the fashion savvy Ajumma to don her finest bill and face the day.

Oftentimes, The Ajumma is kind and helpful, and will scoop you an extra large serving of tteokbokki when you are walking home from work.  These moments will make you love The Ajumma, and consider her to be the Korean grandmother you never had.  Be warned however, that The Ajumma will sense that you have let down your guard, and use it to her advantage.

Now, I understand that Korean culture places high emphasis on respecting elders, and being considerate as a whole.  I’m on board with that.  Even in the U.S. I would happily sacrifice my seat on the subway for the elderly or baby-bearing, but this does not mean that I wish to be shoved out of the way while a five foot tall perm lunges for the open seat ahead of me.  Even worse than being forced to stand in uncomfortable shoes for the duration of your journey is watching them smile at you.  I swear to God.  Victory etched all over their face and a grin worthy of Umbridge, they will literally push you out of the way to take that last seat on the train.  A simple ‘please’ would have sufficed.

The Ajusshi – The Ajumma’s counterpart, ‘ajusshi’ (아저씨) means ‘married man’ in Korean, and is a term generally used to discuss men of 30+.  By contrast, The Ajusshi is often a gentle soul, one who may smile kindly at you or help on with your Korean homework on the metro.  The Ajusshi may be seen patiently walking with his hands clasped behind his back, and it’s okay to find him very endearing and grandfatherly.

The English Teacher – This category is of particular interest to me as I myself am an English Teacher, and there are so many of us in Korea that there are too many subdivisions to even begin to tackle here.  All English Teachers hail from a native English-speaking country, have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and most have done some traveling in the past.  Apart from that, you will find people of all religions, races, sizes and histories coming to Korea for their stint in Asia, and there really isn’t any way to lump The English Teachers together except for the word ‘waygook’ (외국) which means ‘foreigner.’  That we most certainly are.

The Soldier – There are two varieties of soldier here, Korean and American.  All Korean men are required to serve with the national army for two years, so it is not uncommon to run into a decked out soldier (complete with boots and cammo) in the middle of a crowded bus.

It is, however, the American soldier who I find most intriguing, as they are vast and plentiful.  Itaewon, a popular district for clubbing, sits right beside Yongsan Army Base.  While I have never been onto this base, I’ve heard that they have mac and cheese, and spaghetti, and even deodorant stored behind those walls (and for reasonable prices!).  The Soldiers  have access to food I can only dream of, and more Americans than you can shake a stick at.  It’s a home away from home.  While their personalities and stories are just as diverse as The English Teacher, many of The Soldiers I’ve met here are incredibly intelligent and passionate, and some of the most loyal people I’ve ever met.  Despite this, seeing The Soldier during my nights out in Itaewon does make me incredibly envious of the fact that they get to enjoy many comforts of Western living, while my school keeps serving octopus surprise for lunch.

The BF/GF – These two soulmates likely met one another months ago, back when their wardrobes were unique and they enjoyed a healthy amount of alone time.  Perhaps they met at a soccer match, bonding over their love for Park Ji-Sung and splitting a green tea ice cream.  Or maybe they were introduced by a mutual friend, and found that they both enjoyed the summertime and long walks on the beach.  I will leave the humanitarian details up to your imagination.


'How shall we represent our love?' 'Matching shirts.' ( photo courtesy of http://nmazca.com/yeoju/couple_shirts.jpg)

Either way, these young lovers can currently be found prancing about the city, arm in arm, wearing carefully planned outfits to show their unending devotion.  Now, to be perfectly honest, this isn’t a practice I have much experience with, because other than Halloween and some questionable outfits from my high school’s spirit week, I’ve never intentionally dressed exactly like somebody else.  Not so here.   The BF/GF wear their hearts on their sleeve.  Literally.

So next time you are waiting for your train, and you catch a glimpse of a boy and girl wearing matching Mickey Mouse tee shirts and thick rimmed Ray Bans, stifle your laughter, sneak a quick photo and pat yourself on the back.  You have successfully identified The BF/GF.

And so, ladies and gentleman, on future trips to Seoul, perhaps on business or during your own stint as an English teacher, feel free to make yourself a score card and see how many of Seoul’s five characters you can find.

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