Grandma, Halmang,1


Yeongran Suh

  • “Auntie~ It’s me.”

  • “Well, look who's here. Ya come to pick me up? How wonderful. Let's go home.”

My aunt did not recognize me at first sight. But when she did, she got up and said that we shall go back home, greeting me with the most pleasant look as if I came to pick her up. The social worker at the care center sat her down, saying she couldn’t go home just yet. I stood from a distance so as not to give her false hope. She 
eagerly waited to go back home during her entire stay.

Figure 1. Front of a day and night elder care center on the outskirts of Jinju (Sep. 2021)

Between September and November 2021, I began an observation-participation research at a day and night elder care center (주야간돌봄 센터) in Jinju, where my aunt with dementia visits regularly. This fieldwork began after I participated in the medical-anthropology project at Copenhagen University called Sensing Old Age as an artist-researcher.2 This research compares elder care services in Denmark and South Korea, a country set to face a super-aging population in the coming years, and measures how a government interested in the digitalization of social care affects configurations of aging. I visited this elder care center with my 3-year-old son to experience Korea's elder care system and see the current state of service. Thanks to the social worker at the care center who played with my child, whom I had no choice but to bring to this fieldwork, I was able to look around the center and talk to the elderly women by butting in their conversation. They said that they came here after becoming so ill that they could not keep living on their own, and they used to be wary of this place at first. I, too, felt wary of this place, as I was used to seeing grannies chatting with their neighbors while resting in a gazebo. The daily routine in the center looked very different from what these women used to. Their schedule included morning exercise, problem-solving to improve memory and cognitive abilities, coloring seasonal drawings, and mealtimes with snack times in between. As they had to do completely different activities from what they used to; they also had to establish new social connections with those completely unrelated up until now. A question popped up in my head. ‘What might an ideal setting for these older folks to enjoy their final years look like? How would I want to spend my later years... If I was them?’

Figure 2. Cognitive activities for the elderly at the care center

In times like today, when society consists mostly of nuclear families whose members work tirelessly day and night, the burden of taking care of the elderly in the family falls squarely on the shoulders of an individual, unlike in the past when village communities and extended families were still prevalent. This is why the care service provided by the government is almost quintessential in easing their burden. Due to this necessity, the Korean government operates a long-term care service for the elderly (장기요양보험서비스), and this day and night care center is a part of said service.  The social workers in the care center operating under government permission took care of the elderly without any long holidays while having to understand their familyhood and circumstances. Despite all this, as elderly care was transferred to the national sector from the village and extended families, an inevitable friction felt unfamiliar within our bodies. I kept thinking about what my auntie, who was losing her memory, said. “Let's go home.” Her words seemed to embody the friction.

“That’s what we think about our late years. It’s all gonna go downhill from here...”

Media researcher Maria Edström said in Nordic-Korea Connection Program Art & Ageing held in Västerås, Sweden, in April 2022. Maria was researching “ageism,” where the image of the elderly fabricated by the media becomes reproduced and distributed, eventually leading to discrimination on a daily basis. She suggested that while the elderly can be sporadically seen in media, their roles and opinions are left blank, and elderly women are almost absent. 

Maria showed me a Swedish folk painting from the 18th century to illustrate that our image of the elderly was more akin to this painting. The painting depicts life in linear time, with people going upwards during youth and downwards during their twilight years. It embodies the perception that youth is upward ascension and old age is downhill with loss. Based on this perception, the changes in our aging body and mind are something to improve and train upon instead of a blessing. The moment I saw the painting, I was reminded of various indigenous mythologies where life and death were expressed as an infinite circle that kept engaging each other. Image sequences like the moon waning and waxing and waning again, and spring becoming winter and back to spring again. Is it possible to think of aging and years beyond like a circular cycle? Can we bless our changing body and mind brought about by aging?

Figure 3. Winter Carl Hansson, ‘Kurbits,’ (1799)

“I like growing old here. This is my home. The
scenery and the air is so nice here.”

That was the answer I got from an elderly woman who was walking around the mountain in Yaksan-do’s Dangmok Village when I asked her ‘How does it feel like to grow old on this island?” It was also a question I asked myself after my visit to the elder care center in Jinju. How do we want to live out our later years? 

I first visited Yaksan Island in Wando in October 2022, when I participated as an artist during the preliminary field trip for the Song of the Wind project. Accompanying me was the anthropologist Kristina from the Sensing Old Age project. We naturally became interested in the lives of the elderly in Yaksan-do, as Kristina met with the elderly at a care center in Denmark’s Æro Island and I have done that in Jinju. The elderly who came out for a walk in the local mountain in Dangmok were satisfied with their lives on this island. They said they were happy with their lives thanks to the clean environment, good neighbors, and pensions, which were just enough to get by, if not paltry. The elderly woman’s face was smiling throughout the entirety of our conversation.  We decided to visit the Village Hall that the elderly woman visits daily because we wanted to interact with her more. 

The elderly women started coming into the village hall one by one at around 2 pm, just after lunch. They put on some trot music program on the television and sang along. Some were playing hwatu (a Korean variation of the card game “Hanafuda”), with a bystander offering unsolicited advice. We asked them what they do with their lives. They seemed to spend their days in a similar fashion. They cook food in the morning, do chores, tend to the vegetables in the garden, get therapy from the local physiotherapy center, go for a walk in the mountains, or meet up with other elderly women in the village hall after lunch. Then they go home for supper and rest, watch television, and sleep. 

These women knew every bit of detail about each others’ schedules and circumstances from their time spent together. They would keep an eye out for the grandma living alone, giving out necessities and keeping track of sore parts on each others’ bodies. By peeking at each other’s homes, these elderly people keep an eye out if someone falls ill. This type of care is called ‘elderly-on-elderly care (노노케어),’ and it directly shows a facade of a super-aging society.3 Dangmok Village elders who are too ill to go out receive visiting home care services provided by the government. However, this service set off an unexpected phenomenon. Elderly women stopped visiting those who started to receive visiting home care services. I thought that this too, was a sort of regional friction caused by the government’s top-to-bottom operations and changes.

Figure 4. View of Dangmok Village, Yaksan-do, Wando

Figure 5. Photo hung on the Dangmok Village Hall, which was taken from a group travel 
Figure 6. Current household status board of Dangmok Village

I could feel a deep bond between the elderly women who visit the village hall. While such a bond may be due to living with each other for their entire lifetime, it was also because they all share a lifetime of labor with each other as well. They all began kelp and seaweed farming at a very early age. Most of the households in Dangmok Village have made their livelihoods through fishing or kelp and seaweed farming. What was especially fascinating was that the entire village commonly owned the coastal area dedicated to kelp farming. The head of the ‘fishing village fraternity’ (어촌계) allocates ocean area according to how much area a household's labor force can cover. The allocated area may be passed on to the farmers’ children should they wish to succeed in their family’s work, but it must be returned if the farmer wishes not to continue with seaweed farming. The area is distributed sporadically as a shared village asset, not as a personal ownership. This practice stemmed from the traditional perception that “coastal waters in front of villagesare our waters,” which was combined with the modern legal system to form fishing village fraternities.4 Not only do village fisheries seek common economic profits and amass social capital through shared resources, but they also allow shared social and cultural activities.5 This can be observed from the shared leisure activities of Dangmok Village’s elderly women.

This shared resource is akin to indigenous societies where people guard forests together and gather just enough berries and vegetables to redistribute resources in the field. In the research on Borneo’s agriculture and forestry, I observed the phenomenon where a tribe became plagued by strife and wealth disparity after the notion of personal ownership of capitalism and commerce shattered shared land.6 It seems that Dangmok Village still has the notion of a shared ocean despite the industrialization and mechanization of the fishing business and strikes a balance between shared and personal assets. 

Shared resources and solidarity of the villages have another kind of social influence. Every adult in the family used to participate in kelp farming before aging in the fishing village started to take effect. Younger children would play while the adults were working or even help them out. Official workspace and private childcare space were not separate, meaning work and child-rearing were not divided. Also, men and women were involved in every step of the seaweed farming process. This shared labor and childcare do not enforce the burden that has demanded invisible labor and care on one specific gender. Therefore, in those circumstances, the socio-economic status of men and women is bound to be flat.

Figure 7. Anthropologist Kristina singing a Danish song to the elderly women at Dangmok Village Hall

Grandma Halmang Amihan

The bond and care between elderly women at Dangmok Village allowed me to imagine my ideal twilight years and care community, regardless of the old age model provided by the government in this super-aging society. It was about this time when I was contacted by Zeke (Joshua Ezekiel Sales), who was a resident artist participating in the Song of the Wind project. He requested a meeting with me after reading my article Rice, Rituals, and Spirits (2021), which was about the transformation of traditional agriculture. After a few online meetings, Zeke invited me to collaborate with him, which I accepted with much enthusiasm. My now 5-year-old son and I headed to Yaksan-do in September of 2023, full of anticipation for the collaboration with Zeke. A native Filipino, Zeke talked about the parallel histories of the Philipines and South Korea and the farmers and laborers who were crushed under the two countries’ dictatorships and economic development projects. We planned a performance to summon Princess Baridegi (바리데기), a goddess of the underworld tasked with leading the souls of the dead, in order to relieve these people of their agony and sorrow.  Zeke also taught me about an entity that connects Wando’s coastal waters to Jeju and beyond Jeju to the Philippines through the Pacific. She was the goddess of wind who flew straight to the Philippines via Jeju Island. The Yeongdeung Wind brought by Yeongdeung Halmang (Yeongdeung grandma goddess,영등할망), the harbinger of Jeju’s spring and rejuvenator of all creation, and Amihan, the summer wind that cools the Philippines, was one and the same.  

We carried out the entire ritual on October 2nd atop Sammun Mountain near Dangmok Village. We drew constellations connecting invisible beings in between Korea and Philippines and gathered goods to summon our gods. We performed a meta-ritual where Zeke transformed into the bleeding spirit of a farmer, while I transformed into Princess Baridegi, who will carry his soul.  Later, we headed to the cliffs of Sammun Mountain and spread the seeds on the coastal waters of Wando with our audiences as a remembrance of Yeongdeung Halmang, who will bring us new lives.

Figure 8, 9. From a performance with Zeke / Photo credit: Wan Chantavilasvong)

After a long journey, meeting my aunt at the care center in Jinju, the image of the elderly I encountered at Västerås, and the elderly women at Dangmok Village Hall, I  faced Princess Baridegi and Yeongdeung Halmang back in Yaksan-do. It is uncanny how both are goddesses, with one being the deity of the underworld reliving tortured souls of the dead from their sorrow and the other grandma goddess being the harbinger of spring after a long, dark winter. This reflects how Korean society of yore regarded women and grandmothers. Besides, look at how a grandma is the harbinger of spring, not a young, beautiful, or even a fertile goddess. This perception shatters the modern prejudice that old age is their decline, loss, and end, as shown in the 18th century folk painting. Grandmother is a being of ‘regeneration,’ who bring warmth and make living beings come to life again after the ‘end’ where everything has disappeared. Beings who take care and hold us in their arms.  It’s not so surprising when we think of our similarities. We all came from our grandmothers. Men, women, binary, and non-binary people came from their mothers, who came from their own grandmothers. My mother's egg, which allowed me to enter this world, the seed could have been made inside my grandmother’s womb. 

The myths of Princess Baridegi and Yeongdeung Halmang take us to the circle of life curving the end of the linear life of a person aging and sailing towards death. The goddess of the past has come back to us in our present. In our multi-layered temporality, where the past, present, and future are all intertwined, she keeps returning to our projections of re-imagining our desirable future. I overlap these goddesses' warm, regenerative care with the community care of Dangmok’s elderly women. The coastal waters shared by the elderly women in Dangmok and their solidarity are marked on the map where we imagine our future as elderly people and our desirable care community. We remember and imagine time and time again through these stories. We patch up these awkward cracks in our lives like a grandmother, with her deeply wrinkled and thick hands, slowly, yet skillfully, one tear at a time. These tasks are stored in our sewing kits.

Figure 10. Coastal waters of Wando, as seen from Sammun Mountain. The waters extend to Jeju Island, which connects to the Philippines through the Pacific

*This essay was written as a connection of experiences, starting from 2021 Medical-Anthropology project Sensing Old Age from University of Copenhagen, 2022 Nordic-Korea art connection Art and Aging, 2022 preliminary field trip for the Song of the Wind project in Yaksan Island, Wando, 2023 Song of the Wind project, and 2024 (TBA) Future Reproduction and Care Making Project, Co-Weaving. I would like to express my gratitude to Kristina Grunenberg, Line Hillersdal, curator Oh Sunyoung, Korea Arts Management Service, Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation, Joshua Ezekiel Sales for supporting me throughout this experience, and the elderly women at Dangmok Village Hall, the elderly women and social workers at the day and night care center in Jinju, and Chunghae Welfare Foundation for participating in our interview.

Ran Suh is a choreographer and artist-researcher based in Copenhagen and Seoul. She has created her multidisciplinary/dance performances based on her ethnography in shamanism, traditional dance, modernization, and mythology. She is currently a member of <Becoming Species>, a climate activism performance group, and she writes and works on traditional ecological knowledge and collective future-making.

1 Grandma in Korean is ‘Hal-meo-ni’. ‘Hal-mang’ is a Jeju dialect of grandma, simultaneously the name of Jeju grandma goddesses. The original title of this essay is ‘Halmeoni, Halmang, Amihan.’ At the end of this essay, readers will understand this title is three different names of grandmas.
2 Medical-Anthropology Project <Sensing Old Age: Travelling technologies and the configurations of ageing in Denmark and Korea>,

3 Quoted from an interview with secretary general Kim Jonghwi of social coop <Chunghae Welfare Foundation (청해복지원)>, an organization in charge of long-term care service in Wando area (Chunghae Welfare Foundation, Oct. 2022)

4 Park Chulhwan. (2019). Referenced pg. 1-2

5 Shared resources and labor are tied to community’s beliefs and socio-religious rituals. In my article <Rice, Ritual, and Spirits> (2021), I discussed the situation in which a community loses not only its social, cultural, and religious activities, but also its very life as a result of the loss of shared labor.

6 Referenced various cases such as Dove, Michael R., Percy E. Sajise, and Amity A. Doolittle, eds. (2011).

7 The socio-economic status of women in agricultural areas where both genders worked together has reduced due to industrial mechanization. Refer to Partasasmita, Ruhyat, et. al.(2019) for an example of this phenomenon.

Dove, Michael R., Percy E. Sajise, and Amity A. Doolittle, eds. (2019). Beyond the Sacred Forest: Complicating Conservation in Southeast Asia. Duke University Press.

Hansson, Winter Carl. (1799). Kurbits,

Park, Cheol-Whan. [박철환]. (2019). A Study on the Fishing Village Fraternity in Korea 우리나라 어촌계에 관한 연구(석사학위논문), Graduate School of Management and Public Administration of Mokpo University 목포대학교 경영행정대학원.

Partasasmita, Ruhyat, et. al. (2019). Impact of the green revolution on the gender’s role in wet rice farming: A case study in Karangwangi Village, Cianjur District, West Java, Indonesia, Biodiversitas, Vol. 20, 1, 23-36.

Suh, Yeong-Ran. (2021). Rice, Ritual, and Spirits: The possibility of plural and sensory approach to Traditional Agricultural Knowledge, Critical Reading: Functional Dissonance, Project Seven and a Half, 65~8