Twelve Friendly Ajummas: How One of the Most Awkward Moments I’ve Ever Had Turned Into One of the Nicest Things That’s Ever Happened To Me

Okay, I’ll be honest, I didn’t count them. There were a bunch. A flock. A gaggle perhaps. Herd conjures some not exactly flattering bovine images, which I’d rather not include. So we’ll just say twelve for now.

A few weeks ago now (back before the weather took a turn towards blistering heat and sweltering humidity) I went looking for one of Daejeon’s lesser known attractions: the Yuseong Foot Spa. After some confusion over the directions —namely me staring at my map thinking that I’d walked past that intersection a number of times and had never noticed anything resembling a large pool of hot water and therefore deciding that someone must have been wrong on the internet and heading in the opposite direction in search of it— I did find the place (exactly where the directions said it would be, no less).

The hot water was wonderful for my sore, tired feet. The setting was remarkably peaceful, and I was quite content to be alone with my thoughts and the hot water.

The flock of ajummas that joined me had other ideas. They were very friendly, and in spite of my concerns seeing their matching t-shirts (usually an indication of a church group) they didn’t try to witness, baptize, or otherwise convert me. Unlike the lady in the jimjilbang… But that’s a story for another day.

I did get a little tense when, after asking if I had a boyfriend (included with “Where are you from?”, “What’s your job?” and “How old are you?” in the set of most common questions complete strangers will ask foreigners in Korea) one of them casually mentioned that her son was about my age, but thankfully that’s where the matter ended.

It was pleasant (if a little awkward) but not at all the way I’d planned to spend my afternoon. They shared their snacks and coffee with me, and insisted on taking a few pictures. I can just see how dinner conversations went that evening: “See? I told you I met a real live Canadian in Daejeon. And she was all by herself! How sad.”

It took weeks before I had any idea why on earth a bunch of middle-aged Korean women would surround a lone twenty-something foreigner and make slightly awkward small talk in a language they didn’t speak tremendously well (not that the foreigner with the basically nonexistent Korean vocabulary is anyone to talk).

I was telling my Korean friend about my plans to go to Busan for part of my holiday, and she was shocked that I’d even consider going on holiday by myself. Just like many people who are surprised that I like to travel solo, she cited loneliness.

I shrugged, and gave my usual explanation: that I’d feel far lonelier sitting around in my pajamas doing nothing for my vacation than I would being somewhere cool all by myself. At this point, my friend got a funny look on her face and said “But it’s not about how I feel lonely, it’s about what everyone else is thinking when they see me sitting around by myself. That I must be sad, I must have no friends, I must have some problems that stop me from having friends to spend time with.”

We’ll ignore, for the time being, the assumption that I must be crazy or have something wrong with me to want to travel solo, or want to be alone at any time. That’s nothing new or groundbreaking, and is completely beside the point of this particular story.

In Korea, whatever problems, predilections, quirks or quibbles I might possess have the potential to be fairly easily written off. I might not be crazy, after all, I am a foreigner, it could just be that. I know I get cut some slack for my various inappropriate behaviours, and I probably actually get cut a lot more than I realize.

For instance: if I’m sitting around by myself, maybe I don’t lack friends because I’m a weirdo, maybe it’s just because all my friends are on a different continent.

Suddenly the gaggle of ajummas made sense. They saw a foreigner sitting by herself with her feet in hot water and thought something to the effect of “Oh, that poor girl doesn’t have any friends here. She must be so lonely and so sad, we should go keep her company and cheer her up.”

One of the major challenges for me about traveling is seeing the interactions I wind up having, and the gestures that are made towards me the way they were intended rather than necessarily the way I originally read them. Looking at it the way it was more likely meant, getting swarmed by a group of ajummas interrupting my solitude might be the nicest thing that’s happened to me since I got here.

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