Words by Samantha Pak
On her 47th birthday, Lee Ann Kim’s friends took her out to mark the occasion.
Since they were going to a bar to celebrate, she dressed accordingly, in what she described as a “cougar outfit.” Her friends picked her up from her San Diego home in a “hopping” minivan bumping loud music. Confused, Kim initially thought the vehicle was parked in front of the wrong home. Then a group of women piled out of the vehicle. They were her friends, each dressed in mismatched outfits with visors atop their curly hair.
Ajummas had taken over her birthday festivities, and by the way they handed Kim her own curly wig and made her change clothes, she was expected to join in as well. Once the group got to the bar, they lived it up, doing shots and celebrating loudly. No one took notice.
“We were completely invisible,” Kim says, which angered her.
That anger fueled the creation of Ajumma EXP, which Kim started in fall 2017. A performance art-based social experiment, the group fights back against the invisibility many middle-aged women—of all backgrounds—can feel. Their flash mob dances, mostly performed at Korean grocery stores in the greater San Diego area, show they are not to be ignored and demand respect.
“We wanted to take back the word [ajumma],” Kim says about the group’s creation.
What is an ajumma?
While “ajumma” in Korean refers to middle-aged women, it also encompasses married women. So a woman in her 20s could be considered an ajumma if she’s tied the knot. According to Kim, the ajummas of old were often uneducated, destined to become homemakers with side hustles such as selling street food or cleaning houses. But nowadays, Korean women are educated and working, choosing to marry later in life and in some cases, not having children, Kim says.
And in a culture that emphasizes beauty products and cosmetic surgery to keep them looking youthful, modern Korean women go from being young to being grandmothers. There’s nothing in between; the ajumma is practically extinct.
“You can do whatever the fuck you want. I’m serious, no one gives a shit.”
“For modern women, to be associated with traditional images of frumpy ladies who just ‘let themselves go’ is horrifying to the point of eliminating the word ‘ajumma’ from Korean vocabulary,” Kim says. “No one values women who look middle aged, so those who do are less valuable, of less interest and therefore invisible.”
But there’s a freedom that comes with being overlooked.
“You can do whatever the fuck you want,” Kim says. “I’m serious, no one gives a shit.”
And what the members of Ajumma EXP want is to celebrate the middle-aged woman.
Not your typical ajumma
Rocking the easily ignorable “Asian mom” look to their advantage, the group infiltrates public spaces, taking over with their loud music and dance routines so unsuspecting crowds have no choice but to pay attention.
Kim says they also want to reinvent and own the ajumma. And part of that reinvention is through hip-hop and pop music. While an obvious choice would be for the ajummas to dance to K-pop songs (the EXP stands for “experiment” and “experience” but is also a nod to K-pop bands like BTS who have just letters in their names), they want to show people that ajummas can throw down, be feminine and sexual, and even twerk.
“I might have to use tiger balm on my knees afterward but we still have it,” Valerie Garcia Hong says.
The group has danced to artists including Missy Elliot and Ciara, Janet Jackson and Salt-N-Pepa—female artists with messages of female empowerment. The routines are choreographed by Melissa Adao, a San Diego-based dancer, choreographer and ajumma herself (“She’s in the age group,” Kim says.).
Most recently, the ajummas performed on Korean American Day in January—their first performance in two years, thanks to the pandemic. Taking over three locations, the women danced to Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch,” in honor of the successful #FreeBritney movement that ended the pop singer’s nearly 14-year conservatorship.
“We work hard,” Hong says. “I think we’re legit.”
Their fans agree. Kim—who previously worked in broadcast news and now runs her own production company, Ajumma Media Productions—says she enjoys seeing girls and younger women commenting on their videos on social media, tagging their friends and saying that this will be them in 20 years. It gives her so much hope. These young women do not see aging as a bad thing.
Ajummas for Black lives
The Britney Spears routine wasn’t the first time Ajumma EXP has responded to current events. At the beginning of the pandemic, their previously planned flash mob—a routine set to Madonna’s “Vogue”—evolved into a music video, with some of the ajummas voguing on Zoom calls, while others danced in small groups (while donning face masks) in black and white, reminiscent of the Material Girl’s original video.
This was also shortly after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. In response to the resulting protests, Kim would have liked to create a performance featuring the work of a Black artist. But it takes the group, which she says is filled with social justice warriors, two to three months to learn the choreography, and “Vogue” had been selected long before protests erupted across the country. To show their support for the movement, the performance, titled “Ajummas for Black Lives Matter,” ends with a group of ajummas holding up a fist in solidarity. One woman, sporting a shirt reading #IMWITHKAP, also takes a knee, acknowledging NFL player Colin Kaepernick and his protest against police brutality against Black people. The video description also pays tribute to the Black and Brown LGBTQ artists of Harlem, who created voguing.
In addition, this month, the group has partnered with the Korean American Coalition of San Diego to create two videos to encourage people to register to vote in the upcoming general election on Nov. 8.
Ajumma EXP’s next flash mob is scheduled for March 2023, in honor of Women’s History Month, and the group has put out a call to recruit more ajummas to join them.
Sisterhood of the dancing visors
At its peak, Ajumma EXP had about 25 members. This number fluctuates as the women are busy, juggling families, work and other commitments.
While most members are Korean American, Ajumma EXP is open to middle-aged women of all backgrounds. The group has included Korean adoptees, ajummas of various Asian ethnicities as well as Black and white ajummas. They make sure to educate the unfamiliar about what it means to be an ajumma.
The group’s bond is something to be celebrated. They are a group of women with diverse experiences. They are not disposable.
Ajumma EXP is more than a group of women dancing together. The group has become a support network for its members, a sisterhood that was formed very organically, according to Kim.
For Hong, a Filipina American with a Korean American husband, Ajumma EXP has given her an opportunity for her to better understand her in-laws and their cultural expectations. She described the group of women as an honest resource. The women also helped Hong, a lawyer by profession, when she started her own law firm, by giving her advice on how to run her own business.
“You bring the strength of experience,” Hong says about her fellow ajummas, adding that the group’s bond is something to be celebrated. They are a group of women with diverse experiences. They are not disposable.
Ajumma EXP has helped Peggy Sue Goldsmith maintain a connection with her late mother.
“Losing my mom felt like losing my Korean heritage,” she says.
Nothing stopped Goldsmith’s mother, who was an ajumma who never took “no” for an answer. She also taught Goldsmith, an executive assistant and advocate for foster youth, how to stand up for herself, especially to the racist bullies she grew up with in Iowa.
To Goldsmith, the women of Ajumma EXP are emulations of her mother. They emphasize her view of the ajumma: someone who cannot break, who has overcome many challenges. She is the spine of the family.
“That’s the work of the ajumma,” Kim says. “At the end of the day, she is last on her list.”
And Ajumma EXP acknowledges and honors these sacrifices, showing that being an ajumma is a point of pride.
Published on November 7, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.