When Oh Hyun-sook, a 50-year-old mother of two, came back from her 19-month solo round-the-world trip she found herself to be a sudden celebrity among “ajummas,” Korean housewives, who have left little time for themselves because of domestic duties.
Her sudden popularity among the women was not because of her knowhow which saw her tour the world on just 27.89 million won, but because she is an ordinary ajumma like them.
Ajumma netizens posted envious comments on her blog. “For a single mother who is also a household head, her travel must have taken more than just ‘courage.’”
After the trip, she published a book titled “Dream for the rest of life? Or Leave Now?” to encourage those ajummas to take a now-or-never decision to travel.
Two years ago, many ajummas were fascinated by a weekend drama, “The Angry Mom,” where the main character, a mom, leaves her home after making a bombshell declaration to go on a one-year vacation by herself.
Like the character from the show, Oh announced to her two children her right to an extended vacation to herself. “My children, too, were doubtful about my plan to go around the world alone.”
She was adamant that she deserved a break after devoting her whole life to her family. Such a way of thinking is not common among ajummas, and Oh needed courage to take the plunge. Having very poor English and being middle-aged were not going to stop her taking her journey.
“The only word I knew in English was ‘Thank you.’ I just made sure that I carried around my cell phone at all times, because there is a little dictionary inside the phone. It played my guide to 50 countries,” she told The Korea Herald.
However, she was never dispirited.
“Rather, my broken English gave me more meaning to my trip. I learned to communicate through heart, thanks to my poor English skills, I could really feel their kindness, something that has less sentimental value when it’s done verbally.”
She said one Yemenite got out of their car just to explain directions for her.
“I loved the Patagonia region in Argentina, Tango, wine, steak and the free spirited atmosphere there. And I will never forget Yemen. They are the nicest people in the world.”
Nevertheless, she faced difficulties due to her lack of English.
“In Oslo, Norway, I had a hard time finding a lodgment, I ended up sleeping in the open, like a homeless person, there.
“The richer the country, the colder the people.”
There were even lower points: She was robbed of her cell phone and even sexually harassed during her trip. “Every time, I was robbed, harassed, or lost, I said to myself, ‘I’m a courageous Korean ajumma, and I can overcome anything with ajumma power!”
One after another, Oh recounted her tormenting experiences and unforgettable episodes.
In April, 2008, she left Korea to travel through Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and North America, mostly by bumpy bus rides and on foot. In October 2009, after 19 months, she returned home.
“I usually stayed in the dorms at the youth hostels or cheap home stays. At nights, I went online to pick the next day’s destination.”
But her tight budget meant her typical daily meal was a modest affair.
“I saved a lot of money by cooking and eating in. With the electric water pot, I could cook eggs and potatoes when I stayed over at a place without a kitchen. Who am I? I’m a Korean ajumma!”
Each time she entered a new country, the first thing she would do was buy a postcard to write to her son, who was then in the army, and upload pictures on her caf blog, through which “my son told me that I became famous among his comrades in the army.”
Oh had never thought that her return would accompany such honors before receiving a phone call from a publishing company to request she write a book on her trip. She has also appeared on TV.
For a typical Korean ajumma, there is no time to spend on one’s self.
“I, too, have children to look after, and as for everyone, the weight of my life isn’t that light. Things are stacked up to be solved, and life is full of urgent things. So as soon as I got on the plane, I hypnotized myself, ‘forget about Korea for the next 19 months.’”
Many people have probably dreamt of going around the world once in their life time, but not many make it a reality.
“I ask myself, ‘until when are you going to just dream about it?’
“Pack up now, before it’s too late.”
Oh Hyun-sook in front of Vasila Cathedral in Moscow.
wow. People and their amazing spirit!