Next Avenue Logo

Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina Draw for Their Grandchildren and the World

These 78-year-old Korean grandparents are sweet Instagram sensations

By Julie Pfitzinger

Taylor Swift. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Beyoncé. What do these celebrities have in common? Besides being significantly under age 50 ("The Rock" is closest at 48), they all have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers.

Add to that list Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina, a pair of 78-year old grandparents who live in Seoul, Korea and whose Instagram page, Drawings for My Grandchildren, currently has close to 400,000 followers.

Decidedly not celebrity types, in the traditional sense, the couple launched the site in 2016 to simply share drawings with their grandchildren, two who live in the United States and two in Seoul.

Grandpa Chan (Chan Jae Lee) does the drawing, with Grandma Marina (Kyong Ja Ahn) creating the stories – images may focus on something remembered from their own childhoods, a simple sketch of the natural world, a significant moment (such as a recent drawing of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg) or a sweet scene of family life.

Both have backgrounds in teaching, and at one time, owned a small clothing store together. Grandpa Chan's drawings have been exhibited in several galleries, and collected works from their Instagram site are featured in the book, "Looking Back, Life was Beautiful," now available in the United States.

To take their cool factor up a notch, Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina are also on TikTok, where they regularly post videos of themselves dancing, sometimes with their two teenage grandsons. For the uninitiated, TikToks are very short dance or music videos, fewer than 15 seconds in length. To date, the couple has more than 860,000 followers and 8 million views on the social media platform. Take that, Taylor Swift.

In this edited interview with Next Avenue, conducted via email and translated from Korean into English, the first couple ever selected as Next Avenue Influencers in Aging, talk about their special form of storytelling (and their particular creative process), becoming adept at technology, and finding a sense of purpose as you age.

Next Avenue: Grandpa Chan, have you drawn from the time you were a young boy? Grandma Marina, have you always enjoyed telling stories?

Chan: I never drew when I was young. Rather, as I sang and danced very well when I was four or five, I got gifts from adults and was invited to sing for feasts. When I drew in an art class when I entered my elementary school, my teacher praised me very highly and that was when I realized I was good at drawing. 

Marina: I really loved reading books when I was young. My mom scolded me as I was reading novels while I was having my meals.

How much time do you spend drawing and creating stories each day? Where do you find your ideas and inspiration?

Marina: The two of us talk about what to draw. We decide what the theme will be: a photo or video of children, TV news, an animal story, the weather of the four seasons, reflections of the past, etc. The moment the decision is made, the storytelling is already set up in my brain. [A post] usually takes two to three hours.

"Two years ago, I gave a talk about my Instagram activities at my [older] grandchildren's school and they told me they were very proud of me."

If I do not like the color choices or if part of the drawing is not what I thought, I point it out right away. We tend to have arguments often due to drawings. If the drawing is done in the way I wanted, I write a story.

However, if the drawing does not match the story in my memory, or if my husband himself does not like it, he draws it again. There are many cases of re-drawing. Often, the drawing is completed the next day.

Even if it does not match my story, if I like the drawing a lot, I change part of my story or writing.

The drawings you have done are creating such a wonderful legacy for your family. But they are also inspiring your thousands of Instagram followers. How do you feel about that?

Chan: This was started with the thought that we would love to [show them to] our grandchildren and I guess that inspired many people. Whenever we have a media interview, when people say [our site] is influential or inspirational to them, it is a bit embarrassing and we are thankful about it, too.

Marina: I got to know how wide the neighborhood boundary is. Empathy is not different between the East and West.

Through the responses on our posts, I got to learn that the thoughts on loneliness, yearning, fear of war, starving, pain, importance of nature and animals are the same regardless of the age or region. Their minds do touch our hearts.

We always try to not lose our initial intention -- we started this for our grandchildren! Just the thought of them makes me smile.   

Two of your grandchildren, Astro and Lua, are quite young, but what do your older grandsons, Arthur and Allan, think about how cool their grandparents are? Do you see your grandchildren in person very often?

Chan: Actually, I do not talk much about my drawings with my grandchildren. I do not even ask them if they saw them. Two years ago, I gave a talk about my Instagram activities at my [older] grandchildren's school and they told me they were very proud of me.

Marina: As they live five minutes away, they come over very often. To take TikToks, or, during the exam period, they ask me, 'Grandma, can I come over?' They come over to learn about literature, history, society, etc., from me. We study two or three hours together.

I know that learning the technology of Instagram took some time. Do you feel that you've mastered that now?

Chan: At the beginning, I tried to learn very hard and mastered it. As it is more like a repetitive function, it is not that difficult once you get used to it. However, as Instagram itself is evolving all the time, I cannot say I am a master of it these days.

It is hard to learn all the varying functions, i.e., posting multiple pictures vertically or horizontally, uploading movie clips, inserting music or adding special effects. In some cases, I have to get some help from my son and daughter.

"Take interest in things around you. Interest breeds curiosity."

Marina: I suggest background music or special effects are needed. When the theme is decided and when the storytelling is made up, I think something like, 'Ah, I need music, or it will be great if it snows…'

It seems that Drawings for My Grandchildren has brought special purpose into your lives. Many older adults struggle to find their own kind of special purpose. What advice would you give to them?

Chan and Marina:

1. You have to move around. Do not just stay at home. Take interest in things around you. Interest breeds curiosity. Curiosity is even better.

2. Get closer to the young people. The sense of authority as an adult should be abandoned.

3. Learn the functions on your smartphone. It is in the center of our daily lives. It is hard to learn the various functions which are getting updated all the time by yourself. You must get some help or advice from someone else. It is better to learn from young people. Sometimes, a young guy next door or a young grandchild is better than your own son or daughter.

4. Take a lot of pictures. Your cooking scenes, flowers, trees, puppies or cats… As you take more pictures, you get to take better ones, too. Show your pictures to others. The habit of taking pictures can generate something unexpected, too.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in the world, what would it be?

Chan: As both of us have not really thought about aging, this question is not easy to answer for us. As you grow older, it is natural that the body and mind change, too. We worked hard, and we enjoyed our lives.

Right now, I am thinking about what to draw, which was what I did yesterday. I am wondering what Astro and Lua are doing now. I tell my kids to send over their pictures again. At night (as it is morning there), the phone is ringing. It is a joyful moment that I can see them!

We do not think anything like, "Ah, I am getting old, look at these wrinkles!" "How old am I?" "Do I need more nutritional supplements?"

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

Marina: We are learning some things we were not interested before. We are learning non-contact [habits], for example, ordering foods, internet shopping and remote learning.

Also, we exercise at home at scheduled times, walk fast at the park, prepare three meals a day and watch cooking programs, too.

And, more than anything else, I am pleasantly surprised by my husband's changed habits. In the morning, he makes an ABC (Apple, Beet and Carrot) juice for me, cleans the house and makes a honey-dipped milk for my insomnia right before I go to bed at night.

As this life pattern becomes repetitive, my indifferent husband has changed. Now he is good at selecting the fruits and vegetables and knows the prices very well, too. This really makes me happy.

Headshot of a woman with curly hair.
Julie Pfitzinger is the managing editor for Next Avenue and senior editor for lifestyle coverage. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email at [email protected]. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2023 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo