My girlfriend and I stood there first cutting the traditional birthday cake – the flour, sugar and egg variety – and then cutting another traditional birthday cake – the sweet rice and sugar variety, laughing and perhaps delighting in what had become of us over more than 20 years of friendship. Another friend quickly joined us to help pass out plates of cake and mujigae dduk, understanding without ever being asked that she, too, had joined us in friendship and cultural tradition.
We started out as young ladies – “ahgashi”. Two decades filled with some experience, wisdom and grace have changed us. We have become the “ahjumma” – the older women who were always by our mothers’ sides, laughing and helping them through every church and family function.
The ahjummas were always there to help cut the fruit, serve the tea and help maintain and direct the delicate balance between managed chaos and mayhem. They knew to help, knew how to cut the fruit and dduk, knew to send leftover dduk with guests and to encourage them to take some food home. The ahjummas always seemed to know when to do these things without being asked, and I remember their efficiency as well as their hearts. They did these things out of tradition and learned expectations as much as out of love and respect for their friends and families. They just knew when it was time.
And as my girlfriend and I stood with knives sticky with cake, frosting and sweetened rice we realized we knew, too. We knew that there were things in our Korean American upbringing that we had not carried on into our adulthood – things we found too Korean to be easily transferred to our American lives or too American to transfer into our Korean lives. We also knew that we would never be able to, or want to, shake the impulse to come to another girlfriend’s side. We knew that our friend needed not just girlfriends but ahjummas to step in and help her daughter’s “dol” (a child’s first birthday) move from the pasta and salad and Korean potstickers and braised short ribs to cake and dduk without a word.
My girlfriend and I stood there laughing and grateful because we knew whom we had become.