Like many grandparents wishing to stay close to their grandchildren in a world in which so many families are spread across the globe, Korean grandparents Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina, decided to learn how to use Instagram as a way to stay connected. What started as an intimate family project, their Instagram page @drawings_for_my_grandchildren has attracted a large following and their story has been featured in major press around the world. This book inspired by their Instagram page features Chan's watercolors accompanied by Marina's texts. Whether it's to celebrate Astro becoming a big brother to Lua or to share the story of how the grandparents met for the first time and fell in love during their college years, Looking Back Life was Beautiful echoes with the kind of family love that spans generations and traverses geography.
A testament to the great wisdom only grandparents can provide to younger generations, Looking Back Life Was Beautiful will inspire families to always stay close and connected.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Today, as we do every day, we’re thinking of what to draw next. We are always searching for inspiration and talking over our ideas and then, when my husband draws a picture, I write something to go with it. Though my husband wouldn’t call himself an artist, and I wouldn’t call myself a writer, we keep going.
Ah! But there’s a little more to it. Whenever I think of what we do now, there is a word that always comes to mind and makes my heart jump, so I have to spend a moment calming myself down. The word is in-yeon and it means something like a fated meeting, a destined connection.
We were both born in Seoul in 1942, the year of the horse. And entered Seoul National University’s College of Education in 1961, where we met. It happened at the beginning of our third year, when there was a poems and paintings exhibition held in our college. I submitted a very short poem entitled “Apple,” and another student I had never met before was assigned to illustrate my poem. From the very moment I saw it, I was so pleased with the painting for my poem. It was an abstract painting, and it was perfect for my poem; it made me appreciate anew the words I had written.
Filled with joy, I looked at the student who had painted the picture. It was Chan Jae Lee. On the final day of the exhibition all the participating stu- dents celebrated with a popcorn party. And, realizing that our routes home went in the same direction, the two of us ended up walking together.
Who would have thought that the seed of a new in-yeon planted in 1963— that poem and complementary painting—which brought us together and grew into our love, would grow new shoots fifty-two years later in 2015, and produce such a lovely bloom as this book in 2020, when we are ap- proaching eighty.
We both lived through the Korean War at the same age and spent our childhoods in poverty before making it to university, so there are many traits and experiences that we share. While Chan Jae was away for three years completing his compulsory military service, I suffered so much that I might as well have gone and served in his place. The rest of the time we were dating, we’d meet almost every day and talk about everything under the sun. I can’t remember all the details from back then anymore, but something I can still clearly remember are the students with acoustic gui- tars sitting on the campus lawn singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
We got married in 1967 when we were just twenty-five. In hindsight, it seems early, but it felt right at the time. We talked about it a lot, and since we were both set on becoming teachers we agreed there was no need for us to have our own children. We started out our married life in a rented room in Singil-dong. It was just a small room in our landlord’s home, but it did have its own kitchenette. I can still see that redbrick house vividly in my mind’s eye. Both of us worked full time as schoolteachers; my hus- band taught earth science and I taught Korean. We were happy for a couple of years without having children, but after a while the idea of hav- ing our own little people around became more appealing, and early in the morning on March 1, 1971, I gave birth to our first child. Right after our son was born, we bought our most-prized possession, an Asahi Pentax camera, just to take photographs of him. We were a conscientious young couple and adhered to the government slogan of “Regardless if they’re girls or boys, have only two and raise them right.” Well . . . we weren’t really all that conscientious. It’s just that was what everyone did back then. You’d encounter that slogan day and night, everywhere you went, and it had a strange persuasive power that you couldn’t help but follow.
In the 1970s South Korea was still a very poor country, and in 1974, my parents and younger siblings packed up and emigrated to Brazil in search of a better life. Then in March of the following year, our daughter was born. I cried so much, feeling utterly alone . . . I didn’t have any particular reason to be sad, but I cried and cried. Back then there was no word for it so I didn’t know, but I think now that I must have had postpartum depres- sion. In the summer of that same year, however, I was excited when we bought a Taihan Electric Wire refrigerator. Those were happy days. As we installed our new refrigerator in the kitchen of our first proper home, we whispered that it was our second most-prized possession, after the camera. We kept rabbits in the yard and there was a wild red rose vine that spread along the wall outside. The dog, Kongkongi, and the goldfish living in the little pond in the garden were our son’s friends.
Then one day, my father visited from Brazil. When my parents moved to Brazil with my three younger brothers and sister, they had left behind three daughters, including me, who had already married. But now Father had come back to take the rest of us and our families with him. He met each of his three sons-in-law in turn and asked them if they would go. The three sons-in-law all answered “Yes!” and so he went to see the three sets of parents-in-law, to ask if they would allow their sons and daughters-in- law to go, and their answers were the same. It was 1981 when we got on the plane from Gimpo Airport, without any fear or trepidation.
Thanks to help from my younger siblings, we were able to settle down in São Paulo comfortably enough. Two years later, when we were getting used to life in a new place, we opened up a clothing store called Boutique Symphony. My husband would buy the clothing and our three Brazilian employees and I took care of selling it. That first year, and the next year, too, our sales were so good at Christmas that the kids would come out to the store to help with folding gift boxes, and we had to hire a couple of extra part-timers. Who knew that running a store could be so exciting? It really is true what people in Korea used to say, that being in business is better than being a PhD! Of course, we thought then that the economy would stay that way forever. Not because we were foolish, or couldn’t read Brazilian newspapers. Being ordinary, ambitious, and hardworking people—unable to sense that a world of uncertainty, an unpredictable time had arrived—we just lived according to the law of inertia, expecting each day to be like the day before. Even now, Koreans living in Brazil say the same thing every year, “This year was even worse than the last. What can we do?” And then their Brazilian friends comfort them with, “Vai melhorar,” it’ll get better.
The years rolled by and our children had their own children. First, Arthur and Allan, our daughter’s two sons born a year apart, were our angels. Sometimes, as I held one of them in my arms, they became my own son, who I would hug that way so long ago back in Seoul. Other times they would become pure softness itself, the likes of which I had never felt before. The love I have for them has been a huge gift to me in my old age. When the children turned three, I felt as though I was turning three, too, and when they entered the first year of elementary school, I was there right with them. We would play hide-and-seek together and a game where we tried to think of as many words starting with the letter “A” as we could. After my husband retired, it became his job to drive Arthur and Allan to school, and he worked hard at the morning and afternoon school run for five years.
The time we spent with our grandchildren was so warm and lovely, but then our daughter suddenly announced that they were moving to Korea. It came as such a shock.
Although he was already living far away in New York, it was our son who was most worried about what would become of his father once our daughter’s family left for Korea in January 2015. He knew his father would end up spending all his time staring blankly at the television. One day, out of the blue, our son suggested, “Dad, you should draw.” He had remembered how, when he was a boy, his father would draw him pictures on scraps of cardboard. But having grown stubborn over the years, my husband wouldn’t listen. “What nonsense! Why would I suddenly start drawing?” But I joined forces with our son to persuade him to take up drawing again. One day he finally got tired of listening to us and drew a cityscape with the caption: “depressing clouds,” followed by a horse, a statue, and some random things like lampposts, palm trees, and trash cans. I began to write longer captions for the drawings and then our son taught us how to post them on Instagram so he could keep track of what we were up to. But after a few months, the frequency of drawings diminished as my husband’s interest dwindled.
A few months later, our third grandson, Astro, was born in New York! We were overjoyed and we traveled to New York to meet him in person. Over dinner one evening my husband suddenly asked our son, “I wonder what Astro will be when he grows up?”
“Why is that?” our son asked.
“Because, by then, I won’t be around anymore.”
My son fell quiet for a moment . . . He said later that he had never thought about his parents’ old age in that way before, or about what was inevitable someday. Then he had an idea, and suggested to his father that he start drawing for his grandchildren, so that when they were older, they would be able to know what kind of person their grandpa was. We also agreed that when I wrote a little story to go with each picture, our son would translate it into English and our daughter would translate it into Portuguese.
That was how my husband started drawing for our grandchildren.
We called the Instagram account “Drawings_for_My_Grandchildren.” Then our son made a very simple video, explaining why and how a grumpy old man more than seventy years old had started using Instagram, and posted it on Facebook. The video resonated with people around the world and quickly spread, getting millions of “likes.”
Amazingly enough, since my husband began drawing for our grand- children, even though he usually hates being tied down by anything, he keeps drawing every day. Without anyone pushing him, he also photo- graphs the drawings with his phone and uploads them to Instagram. And he shares them and reads the comments people leave us, all by himself. He takes a lot of pains not to make any mistakes, and although he is quite used to it all now, I know that it really isn’t easy for him. It’s hard for older people to have confidence when it comes to being creative, not to mention working with technology. After just a day or two without practicing, com- puters and smartphones can feel so confusing.
Eventually, our son’s video caught the attention of a BBC journalist who shared the video along with an article about us. That’s how this “Korean grandfather’s long-distance Instagram story-telling” became famous. We had a flood of requests for interviews from all sorts of media outlets, and it was really strange and wonderful when former students and school friends started getting in touch after having seen the news. The comments and messages we get from around the world always touch our hearts, even now. Things like,
“Thank you for sharing this with us,” “This picture is so warm,”
“I miss my grandparents now that they have passed away.”
Our two grandsons left Brazil for South Korea not fluent in speaking Korean or reading Hangul, but they enjoyed Korean school life. It was such a surprise to me, and I felt truly thankful . . . They enjoyed their lunches at the school canteen and walked to school together and tried out all sorts of different sports in the park with their new friends. But there was just one thing. “Grandma! Grandpa! When are you coming to join us?”
And so, the two of us returned to Korea in late October 2017, after thirty- six years away. While we were gone, Korea had become a developed coun- try. A wonderful but bewildering country, where the young people are all much taller, and our cell phones beep with warnings to beware of the bad air quality and notifications to check whether our supply of blood pressure medication needs topping up.
One day in August 2019, when we were finally feeling more accustomed to life back in Korea, we jumped for joy when we heard the most wonder- ful news from New York.
Today we welcomed Lua into the world! Mother and baby are both doing well.
Poring over the photographs our son sent us, we both felt so elated. Just like her name, which means moon in Portuguese, Lua was bright and beautiful. In her face the two of us could see a resemblance to her great- grandma, Chan Jae’s mother. And we could also see our son, Ji Byol, and our daughter, Miru. Family resemblance is some wondrous magic!
At the end of January 2020, when we traveled to New York and finally held baby Lua, we just couldn’t stop chuckling because Lua kept looking up at us with the biggest smile. What an amazing power she has to make anyone she smiles at happy!
In the beginning, all the drawings were signed “For AAA,” taking the initials of each of our grandchildren’s first names: Arthur, Allan, and Astro. Now that our granddaughter, Lua, has come along, her very proud grandpa has added an “L” to the end of his signature, saying to her, “I hope you’ll read my heart, too, little one.”
Back in Korea again, just like before, we draw pictures and write about them for our grandchildren here and our grandchildren in the United States. Today, just like yesterday, and tomorrow, too, we’ll keep drawing pictures and writing, just like this.
—Grandma Marina with Grandpa Chan