On a recent trip to Korea, I shared clips of my grandma on social media. Overnight, she became a star — or as they say on TikTok, the main character. I was simply background noise and the videographer.
There’s something universal about grandmas that is so sweet. My grandma’s 89. She lives alone outside Seoul in a carpet-less apartment. We consider it the family apartment, where there’s room to stay on vacations and visits. I, the American foreigner, was forced to quarantine there from COVID-19 in May for two weeks — even though we both got vaccinated.
So, I worked a bit and when I wasn’t working, I watched her every move — from getting up to do her daily beauty routine, to how she made food for us, and the Korean dramas she watched at night. I caught it all on camera because I wanted to mark the time we had together.
As I followed her slippered feet around indoors, she became my best friend. I moisturized her wrinkly hands and held them at night when we slept on the same bed together. I set up selfie mode on my camera, wore her pajamas and helped fold the laundry.
Even though I have created videos throughout my career, it finally felt authentic, super fun and educational. Her kimchi making video got more than 1 million views within a few days. I had struck gold. People were amazed at watching Grandma do the Asian/yogi/kimchi squat and using traditional ways to make yummy dishes (sans written recipes). Her fans and I were tickled by her cackle.
“She’s our grandma now,” people commented. “We must protect her at all costs. Queen.”
After a depressing, anxiety-ridden pandemic, this was the delightful, moving meditation I needed: being totally present with this curly-haired matriarch. She made me reach for the cup in the cabinet that was too high for her. She made me do laundry a certain way. And most important, she made me laugh. Every time I even thought about getting sad about how old and wonderful she was and that I would be leaving again, she would indirectly stop me by moving on with her day.
Now that my TikTok account boasts more than 25,000 followers, and my grandma has made me an influencer, I’ve reflected on what influence can truly mean. Grandma is more; she is a role model of strength, joy and resilience. That’s why she is so charismatic and amazing. She’s survived postwar Korea, immigration woes and, yup, that pandemic.
In the face of recently increased racism in America, I am glad she’s in Korea because neither she — nor I while in Seoul — will be attacked. Still, my adult self worries about her. For the most part, Grandma is by herself. It’s not often my brother, parents or I are there to keep her company. She even told me that sometimes she waits for the hours to pass. And it’s lonely to eat by yourself.
Back in Seattle, I FaceTimed with Grandma, telling her I successfully followed her seaweed soup recipe and that I missed her. She’s still so sharp; she said: “We’re talking now, why do you miss me? Get married before I die.”
I chuckled. I’m sure my followers miss regularly seeing her, too. I’m trying to figure out who I am without Grandma by my side on my platform. Beyond that, I know I am who I am because she helped raise me this way. Because of her, I’m something beautiful: a granddaughter.
I’ve seen how Grandma likes to gab. I can imagine her good ear glued to the pink cellphone, sitting on the couch. And I, along with her new fans around the globe, hope to see her in person again very, very soon.