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Ajoommas and the Wisdom of Ichi-Go Ichi-E

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Writer: Erin Lee

As the end-movie credits of the 2022 film Ajoomma rolled on, I remained slumped in the cinema seat, reminiscing the touching moments in the movie that earned tears and applause from audiences, along with multiple Golden Horse nominations.

Ajoomma tells the story of a middle-aged Singaporean woman struggling to find a new lease of life after fulfilling her roles as a mother, a daughter, and a wife. Ajoomma is the Korean word for a middle-aged woman, or "auntie" as they are fondly called in Singapore. On a trip to Seoul in pursuit of her love for Korean dramas, our auntie Lin Mei Hua chances upon unexpected connections with people who didn't speak her language, namely an ajusshi (a middle-aged man or “uncle”) who kindly took her in for a night after she got inadvertently left behind by her tour group, and a young tour guide whose personal difficulties reminded Mei Hua of her own struggles with her son. At the end of the movie, Mei Hua bid a heartfelt farewell to each of the two men who had unexpectedly offered her some important insights into her life. She would most likely never see them again.

For me the theme that stood out was the wisdom of ichi-go ichi-e, a Japanese term that means “for this time only”, and translates to “一期, 一会” (pronounced yì qī, yí huì) in Chinese. "一期" (yì qī) refers to a period of time, and "一会" (yí huì) refers to a meeting or encounter. When conditions are right, we meet another person for a period of time. This person may be our family, partner, friend or acquaintance, or perhaps even a stranger whom we cross paths with for only a while. Each meeting may last a lifetime, some decades, a number of years, months, days, or even just a few fleeting moments of our life. The thing is, we never know how long the encounter will last, until it comes to an end.

Practicing ichi-go ichi-e then involves fully embracing every connection we have with another person, for the limited and unknown period of time we are allowed. Every connection deserves our full presence, and reminds us to never take any moment of the encounter for granted, for we never know if we will get to meet again. And when the time comes for the encounter to end, we practice generously letting it go.

Ajoomma reminded me of an ichi-go ichi-e experience back in 2019, when I traveled to South Korea. I had just emerged from a ten-day silent meditation in the suburbs some four hours away from Seoul, and had arranged to travel back to the city along with three fellow meditators - two young ladies and a Korean ajoomma. As we conversed and struggled to make sense of each other’s language, I learned that ajoomma led an interesting life, part of which was dedicated to supporting and counselling female victims of sexual assault.

Out of respect and fondness I called her unni, which means "big sister" in Korean. I also told her we are "myung sung chingu", or "meditation friends", and she chuckled, perhaps at how silly it sounded. We continued chatting and bonding throughout the trip back to Seoul, and agreed to bid each other goodbye at the metro station where I was supposed to alight. In the train ajoomma asked if I knew how to get to my hotel from the station. I smiled and said it should be easy, I would just use Google Maps to find my way. Just before alighting I hugged her goodbye and we wished each other well.

I hopped off the train with my luggage and paused to find my bearings, as I didn't consider myself to be particularly savvy with directions and navigation. I walked towards the left, stopped abruptly, turned back around to walk towards the right, and stopped again. The background of my awareness caught the sound of the train doors closing, and without turning my head I mentally bid ajoomma farewell once more.

Just as I was about to walk off again, I felt a tight grip on my arm. I turned around and was surprised to see that ajoomma had gotten off the train. "Aiii!" she said while panting. "Come, I take you." And without another word, she took over my luggage with one hand and determinedly dragged me along with the other.

Her pace was spritely for her age. As I worked on catching up with her, I asked why she was doing this. Ajoomma explained that she was watching me from behind after I got off the train, and saw that I was struggling with directions and looked confused and worried. At that moment she felt like she had to be with me, and in the nick of time decided to jump off the train just before the doors closed. "It's okay," she assured me. "Come, come."

I fell silent for a few minutes and allowed feelings to wash over me. Every step I took with ajoomma beside me became more apparent in my awareness, and I found my body naturally aligning with her walking pace and footsteps. A hundred and one thoughts appeared in my mind, trying to evaluate and make sense of the encounter. The body, on the other hand, felt authentic and much less complicated. I had no physical contact with ajoomma at this point, but there was an unmistakable felt sense of connection with this person, whom I had barely known for half a day.

In under ten minutes we arrived at my hotel. Ajoomma seemed pleased that I had made it to my destination safely. After I thanked her, she waved goodbye and began to walk off.

"Unni!" I called out to her. She turned around, expecting to help me with something else.

I whipped out my phone and asked, "Selfie? Sajin (i.e. photograph)?"

Ajoomma looked a little flustered. "Me?" she asked. I nodded and beckoned her to come back.

I put my arm around her and took a picture of us with big warm smiles on our faces. I showed her the photo and said, "Unni yeppeoyo" (i.e. Unni is pretty). She blushed a little, shook her head, and pointed to me, indicating that I was the pretty one.

With that, we exchanged phone numbers so I could share the picture with her, and we parted ways, this time for good.

Ichi-go ichi-e.

I knew I would not see or even speak with ajoomma again. But it didn't matter, because the connection was real and left a deep imprint on my heart. Although we took a selfie as memorabilia, we didn't really need technology to capture the moments of our encounter.

一期, 一会.

For this time only, we are destined to meet. When time is up, we part. What are we like at the time of parting? Are we happy, are we at ease, are we grateful, are we wiser?

And what about the people with whom we have the privilege to spend longer periods of time? Would it be as easy to practice ichi-go ichi-e?


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