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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  • mouse

    I call them 이모. I mean, this whole thing is somewhat ridiculous. Korean language is based around calling strangers by a family or business title. But if they want to change the system, I think it would be better not to give them a title at all. Then the workers would have to go up to the tables more often to just check like they do in America.

    Honestly, the issue here is not the title, but it how disrespectfully they are treated. They are treated horribly by not only drunks but by people in general. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind being called ajummah if people actually were polite.

    • I think you’re right. It definitely seems like the issue is people being rude rather than the names. I’m surprised “yeogioh” didn’t come up at all in the article.

  • Godori

    ‘Table Setter’ sounds more servile than ajjuma… “Table Setter! Please fetch the Chair Mover and Boot Licker!”

    • Yu Bumsuk

      Indeed. I call them sajeongnim if it looks like they’re in charge and emo if I know them, but I’ve never sensed any hostility from ajuma. Just be careful to use agashi if they’re any doubt.

      I’ll have to try “Excuse me, table-setter…” the next time I’m home.

  • vetomon

    They call me Mr. hey boy where I work.

  • Stories of butts

    Whats with that comment complaining about the Ministry for Gender Equality not focusing on domestic violence and then wanting to disband them? Anyway, I agree with mouse, its more about the rude treatment from customers then the title itself.

  • Anonton

    Fair enough.

  • k

    Ajummas are the backbone of Korea…tough as nails and without them Korea would be a sorry place to be. They are treated badly, I frequently saw them disrespected and treated like servants by other Koreans. I always felt slightly bad for them, which is why when I would eat at one of the places ran by an ajumma, I would always clean my table off and stack my dishes neatly for her and say thank you.

    • QQBoss

      In Korea, stacking your dishes is considered rude. Symbolically/superstitiously, it means you want your mother to die. Kind of like “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” That is the job for the lady of the house, after all.

      That said, they probably appreciated it.

    • DigitalSoju

      You ever think ajummas get treated badly because it is the same thing they do onto others?

      They have a carefree attitude and they’re only about themselves and their child (husband is out of the picture). They shove, cut in line, cross the street whenever they want, are loud and just unruly in general. I showed my friend picture of a group of ajummas stuck in the middle of the street because they tried to cross when they weren’t supposed to and her reply was “역시 아줌마.”

      How many other cultures have this kind of change in look and behavior after turning 40? It’s like a real life version of Hulk, getting uglier and an increase in strength.

  • Paul M

    Calling them “table-setter” is hardly going to improve people’s perceptions and attitudes towards them. I’m just glad to know that it’s not just my native country’s government who employs useless sack of manure civil servants.

  • Cleo

    In America, it’s best to call every one Miss because sometimes teenage cashiers look mature for their age.

    • Stories of butts

      In America restaurant workers have name tags.

      • k

        This is true and “miss” is a term used for younger, unmarried women, not older. Ma’am is a term I use for older women, or Ms. (insert name on name tag). Ms is used when you don’t know how old a woman is, Mrs is used for married, Miss is used for non married. Or when referring to a server to someone else other then server, we say “server” or “waiter” or “waitress”.

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

    On sober reflection, we know there is no corelations between naming and image of named objects.

    The appellation of ajumma as a married woman is in essence not degrading. The degraded feeling derives mainly from the public perception and resultant treatment of married women.

    House work and childrearing, as many married women said, is not conspicuous compared to the salary earned by men. But we all know a neat, tidy home providing refreshment to exhausted male spouses returned from work is essentially critical for a stable home.

    In addition to elevated awareness of housework’s value in society in general, women should also strive to be independent of men. It is good to see many women exude their energy in businesses. But women as many still think it better to marry a wealthy man.

    when compared to their western counterparts, Korean women still underestimate their capacities and needs to move forward with enough courage to rival men.

    Ajumma is assined some debasement because they have forgotten how important they are.

    The path to regaining their value is to make themselves change, which will be accompanied to the attachment of more siginificance to the addressing of them. The mere change of a name nothing but acknkwledge their low sdlf perception

    • k

      Korean women aren’t nearly as far as ahead in the “equal treatment” arena as American and other western women. Korea is still a pretty male-dominated society and women still are seen/treated lesser then men there. I mean even being a foreign woman in Korea, we’re still treated “lesser” then our male foreign counterparts. At the hagwon I worked at, the male teachers could get away with anything and the female principal would let them, but was all over the other women. Total double standard there. I also saw many women wear clothes to work, that were questionably pretty slutty (crotch mini skirts and heels to the office). I always wondered, “do they wear those outfits because it’s acceptable? (In the USA, if you wore a crotch skirt and heels to work, you’d probably be asked to change your clothes to something more appropriate for work or be seen as the “office slut” which no one respects) or do they wear those outfits because they have male bosses and work peers it helps them get further a head in a very male dominated work place? I know sometimes men say “well they just don’t believe in the feminist idealogy that is prevalent in the west” but that’s not true, I knew many women who wanted to be treated equally, who wanted good careers, who didn’t want children/marriage, but were very pressured into all those things and treated less respectfully then their male peers but did just as good or better jobs then they did.

      I always think of Korea like this “Socially, it’s the 1950’s America”

      • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

        Male chauvinism is still preponderant in Korea. You are right.
        But at the same time we have seen signs of a change for gender equality. Many women are displaying a bigger presence in firms, and more married women refused to be full-time housewives, going their careers as equally as husbands though the British magazine Economist aptly pointed out much fewer Asian women take up a seat in board of directors than their western counterparts.

        Many Koreans failed to treat foreigners without prejudice. Combined with a sense of primacy over women, their biased perception and treatment of other nationalities should be a sever disappointment for foreigners who settled here for work or got married with Korean men.

        This is especially saddening. We need to educate our children in diversity and pluratlity, allowing them to learn to get along with women, foreign or local, in fair competition with no wrong preperception.

        I hope that Korean men will themselve develop respect for women as equals without objectifying women.

      • anonymouse

        And yet you are calling another woman a slut?

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  • lonetrey

    Not sure I can understand this dilemma, since in America it’s different for this kind of age-issue to come up when addressing waitresses. Usually, I would guess that sexual harassment would be the key issue, not age-ist labels.

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