Female Restaurant Workers Tell Customers ‘Don’t Call Us Ajumma’

An ajumma serving at a pojanmacha

Go to any small restaurant or pojangmacha in South Korea, and rising above the chatter and the clinking of soju glasses will be the familiar cries of ‘ajumma’ or ‘imo!’, as customers try to gain the attention of the women workers there.

The terms ‘ajumma’ (middle-aged lady, or ‘ma’am’) and ‘imo’ (maternal aunt) are common Korean pronouns, which are often used affectionately; however they don’t always have the best connotations for a girl of a certain age. Still, when using the term in a restaurant, most Koreans would agree that it is the standard way to call a waitress who is older than you over to your table.

But now, a South Korean women’s rights’ group known as Korean Womenlink have introduced a new term to refer to restaurant labourers: ‘chalim-sa’ or ‘table-setter.’ The new term has been formed from the Korean verb ‘chalida,’ to ‘set the table,’
and ‘sa,’ a polite suffix from the Classical Chinese word for ‘person.’ Korean Womenlink have also pointed out the low payment these workers receive for their labour, as well as mistreatment from customers that can often involve sexual harassment, and the term ‘table-setter’ forms part of their strategy to address these issues.

While the new word is certainly free from any gender discrimination, South Korean netizens — and even some ajummas — are calling the term ‘awkward’ and ‘strange,’ with some refusing to use it at all.

From Money Today:

Stop Calling Us ‘Ajumma’ and ‘Aunty’…Please Call Us ‘Table-setter’.

Such is their plea. Why do the ‘ajummas’ who work in restaurants deserve to be ignored? One woman, who works in a restaurant in Hapjeong-dong in the Mapo district of Seoul, has spoken out, saying: ‘(We are also) called ‘mother’ by our children when we go home, or ‘grandmother’…our only crime is to live as best we can, but we are ignored by society.’ The women lamented that: ‘I mean, others think that we are so far beneath them.’

The problem of the rights of ‘restaurant labourers’ and public perception of these workers has recently been pointed out, and movements have arisen in order to improve the situation.

Korean Womenlink has continually brought up the issue of the ‘terms’ that are aimed at ‘restaurant labourers’ such as ‘ajumma,’ ‘aunty,’ and ‘over here.’ The term that should be used instead of these is ‘table-setter.’ Womenlink are pro-actively spreading the movement to disseminate this new term, ‘table-setter.’

As regards ‘restaurant labour’, together with the improvement in public perception, they explain that the rights of restaurant workers must also be reformed, taking the stance that: ‘This is an ‘important’ issue, given that as many as one out of eight women who work are working as restaurant labourers.’

Kim Yeong-suk (66), who works in a restaurant in Nagwon-dong in Seoul’s Jongno district, was upset, saying: ‘They get drunk, and then in a drunken rage they always call me things that make me feel bad like ‘ajumma’ and ‘hey, you’ that make me feel bad; they also curse at me…it would be nice if they could just eat and drink politely’

Furthermore, in the Dongdaemun district of Seoul, one ‘restaurant labourer’ spoke out, saying, ‘Amongst the customers there are even those who say ‘Fill it up’…when I refused, they called the owner separately, and told them ‘be more forceful with her”

In September last year, Women link carried out a survey based on the responses of 297 restaurant labourers, to fully comprehend the state of perception of restaurant labourers’ rights.

In total, more than five people who worked, their working hours reached 12 hours on average. It was revealed that the average monthly salary was around 1,450,000 won (around $1,450). If calculated to an hourly rate, this is 3,414 won (around $3.41), which does not even equate to minimum wage (4,580 won ($4.58 in 2012; $4.86 in 2013).

In particular, among those who replied to ‘Difficulties experienced with customers at work’, 27.4% said that the attitude of ignoring them and speaking to them informally, 2.4% reported cursing and violence, 24.6% reported customers constantly pressing the call bell, 2.2% reported sexual harassment and so on. It was clear that the stress caused by the attitude and actions of customers was at a sever level.

The basis of the results of the survey was a ‘Public Forum for the New Term for Restaurant Labourers’ in which 250 female citizens participated; these were the first efforts attempted to improve perception towards ‘restaurant labourers’.

The word ‘table-setter’ was selected as a result of having applied a ‘standard’ that can be used more positively than [words related to] a woman’s sex, and which is an adjective that can express respect towards restaurant workers.

A spokesperson from Womenlink explained: ‘Since the end of last year, we have been handing out name badges with ‘table-setter’ written on them, and from information received via Twitter, we are carrying out public relations exercises…We are also enacting regulations that will strive to support the working environment of restaurant workers through the restaurants themselves, and plan to immediately convey this to each local governing body.’

However, there are also many restaurant labourers who have spoken out against the ‘awkwardness’ of the term ‘table-setter.’

One restaurant labourer who works in Insadong, in Seoul’s Jongno district, said: ‘I’d prefer to be called ‘aunty’ kindly ….I’m thankful for the term ‘table-setter’, but it seems a bit awkward to me’

A Womenlink spokesperson said: ‘When we have asked for the opinions of those who go to restaurants regarding the term ‘table-setter’, while for the most part this has been welcomed, these opinions have been accompanied by those of many people who told us that it was ‘awkward’ and ’embarrassing.” They also explained that through these efforts, ‘The important thing is not the terms themselves but is rather to change the very perception of ‘restaurant labour.”

Comments from Daum:

When you’re walking along, and some lost kid comes up to you and asks the way, ‘Old man~’, makes you want to slap them and go, ‘Listen, brat, don’t call me ‘old man’, call me ‘passer-by!’..


Take a look at what the bloody Ministry for Gender Equality are doing. Though they consistently do fuck all about important things like domestic violence against women and the comfort women issue, they only pick useless things to do. I’ll give my vote to the politician who makes a public promise to abolish the Ministry for Gender Equality.


Aren’t terms like ‘madam’ and ‘aunty’ expressions of affection? ‘table-setter’ seems much more awkward,,,,,, The problem is the attitude of individual customers towards these people, it seems that the terms themselves are not such bad words,,,,,,,But I mean, in my case, they unconditionally call me ‘boss’,,,,


Hmph, table-setter, it’s so cold, why say that!! It’s like, get out, kitchen staff! Aren’t there any bosses here?!


Talking like dog-dicks and ruining everything.
The organisation affiliated with the Ministry for Gender Equality
They get our taxes through the ministry, so they do all this shit.
Then finally, this stuff. They should crack down on the Korean bitches selling their bodies in Australia…


What the hell is this. Won’t it be alright just to take the last character, the ‘sa'[‘table-setter’ is pronounced ch’alim-sa in Korean; it is a polite suffix]? Ajumm-sa!


Don’t do these fucking things…Don’t they know the difference between a title and the way you call someone over? table-setter~~If you call someone like that, how strange would it be..The problem is attitudes towards these [women]…the problem isn’t the title itself. They make some term that is difficult to say, and they say they write that as the way you call someone and not their title? Well…this is frustrating..


Ah. Every Tom Dick and Harry is writing ‘sa’ [polite suffix; see above] after their name now. We’ll be using it for nurses next ke


I wonder whose head this came from? It’s pathetic…
It’s like a joke that’s not even a joke…
Try using the term once….table-setter~~~Over here…Please serve us two Ttukbaegi
It’s really weird…


‘Aunt’ is also a polite term though, isn’t it? How much more polite can it get? The call men ajeosshi [middle-aged man] and uncle in the restaurant, don’t they?


I understand what this is supposed to be about, rather just recommend that each restaurant install obligatory bells at the tables, and actively encourage their use! Isn’t ‘table-setter’ even stranger? ‘(Madam) table-setter, please replace this grill!’
I understand what Womenlink are talking about, but please!! Please put all your efforts into work like getting rid of sexual violence against women, particularly young girls!!!


What is all this ‘table-setter’ business? I won’t use this word. Ajumoni [polite form of ‘ajumma’]..aunt.. what’s wrong with that..// If you call that type of thing a problem, we have to change everything, even the ‘our’ that we use when referring to ‘our nation’.


ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke ke This is like so funny, it’s crazy ke ke what the hell is this table-setter nonsense?


You got to be kidding, ke ke ke


What’s wrong with ajumma and aunt? They are affectionate, they’re fine. You’ve made a pointless term. I myself am also an ajumma, and I don’t mind if I’m called ‘ajumma’. On the contrary, it shows affection. ‘Madam’ and ‘Lady’ are more offensive to me.


Madam table-setter, please be so kind as to give me a bottle of Chamisul Fresh.
Aunty~ A ‘Fresh’ please~!
Which do you prefer?


Table-setter? I have a hunch that this’ll be even weirder! Seems like it’s going to be like this: ‘Excuse me, table-setter ajumma! Aunty table-setter!’ Like this! If not, maybe professor table-setter! Like this?


‘Table-setter’ is much stranger…


Call them aunty and they serve you politely, just like an aunty. As for the shit pay and stuff, make it so that they get a decent wage, bosses! You’re giving the ajummas stingy pay, aren’t you?


Just call them ’employee’

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