I love ajummas. I’ve said it and I don’t care who knows it. I have cultivated a deep and profound appreciation for Korea’s collective grandmothers and I’m not afraid to show it. They are pushy and overbearing. They are tight black curls and sharp elbows. They are the space invaders of public transportation. Ajummas are surely the product of a nasty but intriguing threesome between Mrs. Roper, Derek Zoolander and my high school janitor. Their sense of style can only be described as chaotic. It’s janitor sheik, with a touch of klass. (That’s Korean Class.) And they’ve got something I don’t: Ajumma Power.
Ajumma Power can strike at any moment: feeling harrased by the belligerent ajjossi on the subway? Ajumma Power. Unsure of the proper trash disposal etiquette? Ajumma Power. Craving a grandmotherly figure who’ll bring you toothpaste and potholders as housewarming gifts? Ajumma Power. And my Building Ajumma’s got it in spades.
After a long, exhausting day of teaching (read: Marathon Information Dump), I wanted nothing more than to sprawl on my bedroom floor, starfish style, and soak up the heat. Korean winters are cold and I’m a pansy. I dropped my purse, crawled out from under the clothing mountain, and pushed that little pink button. Immediately the green light popped on. I tottered around the kitchen for awhile, giving the boiler a chance to heat. It wasn’t long before I realized something was wrong. I kicked off my slipper. Cold floor. I ran the tap. Cold water. I peeked around the corner into my bedroom and saw a curious red flashing light.
This was a job for Building Ajumma. I slipped on my tennis shoes and headed upstairs.
“Yoboseyo?” she sings into the intercom.
“Hello?!” I answer in English, unsure. I feel the need to make it clear the Waygookin is calling, lest she confuse my poor attempt at Korean with an ACTUAL Korean speaker. Clearly I am giving myself too much credit.
“Oh, hello!” She is surprised.
“Um, boiler, obseyo?” I mutter. God, why doesn’t she have a video camera out here? I am amazing at hand gestures. Utterly genius.
“Okay.” This word is America’s greatest export.
I hear her shuffle down the stairs. She is tight black curls and sharp elbows. She is wearing the obligatory red apron and oversized eyeglasses, making her more than slightly resemble Scooby Doo’s Velma. She has folded down the backs of her shoes. She greets me with a smile.
“Boiler, obseyo,” I say more emphatically this time, as now I can cross my arms over my chest to really drive the point home.
She leads me to my apartment and lets herself in. Before I can wriggle my giant foreigner foot out of one shoe, she has kicked hers off, bounded over my bed and is crawling out my window onto the patio. She is a ninja. I fumble around the kitchen while she tinkers on the porch. Minutes pass. Long, silent minutes. Studies show Americans start to feel uncomfortable with conversation lulls somewhere around the two second mark. I am no exception. Just as my anxiety mounts, I hear her call, “Heat-uh. Off-uh.” Her accent is thick and endearing.
I dutifully follow directions. She tinkers some more. I stand uncomfortably in the doorway, only now realizing she probably planted her tiny ajumma foot directly on my pillow in her haste to get through the window. The same pillow I rest my head on every night. Gross. Employing ninja skills of my own, I snatch the pillow and toss it across the bed. I am feigning interest in her task when she shouts, “Bo-luh!”
I do not speak Korean, but I do fancy myself a wicked Konglish Interpreter. I could not, however, discern what the hell she said.
“Bo-luh! Bo-luh! Lar-gee bo-luh!” she shouts. Now I can hear the gushing water spilling onto the patio and realize she is shouting for a bowl. Well why didn’t you say so?!
I dash into the kitchen (which is really not dash-worthy, as my entire apartment is about the size of most American SUV’s) to find a bowl. I grab my largest cereal bowl, which is to say just about average American-sized. But in a country where everything is in miniature, this bowl is HUGE. It will suffice. I whip around the corner and attempt to pass off the “lar-gee bo-luh” and am rebuffed.
“Anio. Lar-gee! Lar-gee!” She repeats. I love situations when I am perceived to have misunderstood my own language. Unfortunately for her (and my patio) I do not bake in Korea and therefore have no “lar-gee bo-luhs” to speak of. I do, however, have a tiny trashcan that is about the size of a large bowl. 천재! I pull out the trash bag and offer her my trashcan. She is exasperated. By this time the water has ceased to run and she has one leg through the window.
“Heat-uh on,” She instructs me. With fingers crossed, I punch the button and we both wait. More silence. Thirty, sixty, ninety seconds pass. The ominous flashing red light is gone and it appears her Ajumma Powers have fixed my heat. My bowing and kamsahamnidas are emphatic as I thank her for a job well done. She, however, is not finished. She pulls herself back through the window and plants her stocking-ed feet in the middle of my white down comforter. With a look of self satisfaction usually reserved for shitting babies and mischievous children, she raises her hands, points both thumbs squarely at her chest and proclaims, “Me how-suh doc-toe!”
I cannot contain my giggles. I smile and clap, and repeat, “Yes, House Doctor!”