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Ajumma Joanne: Holding It Together During the Pandemic

From one Army to another (BTS), the rad Ajumma Joanne has always marched to the beat of her own drum. She loves helping children in Chicago’s public schools, and she hopes to expand Ajumma EXP’s reach into the Windy City.

PHOTO BY @puryearcreative


TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF

I’m badass (most of the time). My nickname as a kid was Little Monster and although I am a grown up now I still feel pretty ruff and tumble. I make a living as a school based occupational therapist and I am also in the Army reserves. I live in south side of Chicago with my amazingly supportive husband and my silly daughter. We also have two cats and a dog. We have been spending a lot of time together since the Covid-19 pandemic had us all working from home and we are ready to get vaccinated and get back to normal. It was hard not spending time with my parents during the holidays, we weren’t able to get together for Chuseok or New Years like we normally do.

My parents came to the United States in the 70’s after an arranged marriage in Korea. They settled in Chicago where I was born and raised. Like many Korean immigrants starting from the ground up, they were very entrepreneurial and tried to live the American dream by opening a restaurant, various retail shops, and eventually a dry cleaning business.

While my parents worked around the clock, I grew up accustomed to life outside of our home and living up to my nickname. My parents frequently tell me about how much trouble I caused as a kid. Looking back, I am kind of proud that I was able to assert myself and stay true to myself even at a young age. It was hard from the start so it seemed only natural to be smart and tough to survive. They also tell me how my daycare had to special order Korean food for me because I would vomit eating American food for lunch.

As I grew older I remained rebellious and probably brought my parents a lot of shame by dropping out of college. But I redeemed myself by joining the Army at 23 to become a health care specialist (fancy word for combat medic). Joining the Army gave me the discipline that I needed to complete my bachelors degree in criminal justice and then earn a masters in education.

I taught 1st and 2nd grade for a few years until I decided to get a degree in occupational therapy. Now I am an occupational therapist working in the public school system. It’s a tough job but I am tougher and I love working with kids and helping them reach their full potential.

I like to do anything that involves working with my hands. Before having a child, my husband and I used to be really into vintage mopeds. We used to restore them and go to rallies. After having a kid, I’ve been into more tame hobbies like knitting and other various crafting. I love any project that involves a hot glue gun!

WHAT DOES BEING AN AJUMMA MEAN TO YOU?

Being an Ajumma means that I won’t let anyone stand in my way (for real, I got elbowed in the Subway in Korea by an Ajumma and she showed me the way). It means that I take care of business and get shit done. It means that I succeed at anything I put my mind to.

AJUMMAS ARE KNOWN TO HAVE SUPER HUMAN STRENGTH AND ABILITIES. WHAT IS YOUR AJUMMA SUPERPOWER?

I guess my super power would be similar to Wolverine. When life kicks my butt I always heal from it and keep going. I’ve always been pretty tough and resilient.

WHAT IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU’VE OVERCOME?

One of my biggest challenges is trying to juggle life during the pandemic. The school buildings closed last spring so I have been working remotely while simultaneously ensuring my own daughter is getting an education.

On top of all that, I was also managing the household like many Ajummas do. So, how does one juggle all these different roles? I’ll tell you how. You give yourself grace because you can’t always juggle it all perfectly. There are many days where dishes are piled up in our sink and I haven’t vacuumed for days, but I don’t let that get to me. I’ve also forced myself to take some time to do stuff that I enjoy. I recently registered for a yoga instructor course and learned a lot about myself. It’s been very therapeutic. What also helps me is to be appreciative of my life. COVID sucks because it disrupted our lives big time but it gave me and my family the opportunity to spend more time together.

ANY SAGE ADVICE TO LIVE BY?

Breathe. Whenever I’m stressed I realize that I take shallow breaths. Once I start taking deep breaths, I feel better in a manner of seconds.

YOU SAY YOU WANT TO START AN AJUMMA EXP CHAPTER IN CHICAGO. TELL US ABOUT THAT AND WHY YOU WANT TO BRING TOGETHER AJUMMAS IN THE WINDY CITY.

I’d like to start a Chicago chapter of the Ajumma EXP because there is a large Korean population in Chicago but, with a city this large, there are few opportunities to meet and make friends with other Koreans.

I’d love to bring the new generation of Korean Ajummas together to spread the word about how awesome we are. I’d also like to add an element of charity work to support various Korean and non-Korean organizations. I feel that since the Asian community is smaller than other ethnic minorities, it's underserved despite a growing number of Asians living in poverty.

The message I’d like to send out to everyone is that Ajummas are tough but we’re also very caring and nurturing.


ANY GUILTY PLEASURE THAT YOU CAN SHARE WITH US?

BTS!!! I’m looking forward to their collaboration with Dan the Automator!! I’ve been in the BTS membership for about 2 years (I even have a membership card) but followed them for about 3 years. I was lucky to go to their concert at Soldier Field for Mother’s Day.

PHOTO BY @puryearcreative


AND FINALLY, WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE KOREAN FOOD?

Seolleongtang!! I love a nice big bowl of seolleongtang with extra scallions and a side of kkakdugi. Just typing this up is making me drool.



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