Instagram’s Most Heartwarming Account Belongs to this Korean Grandpa

A work by Grandpa Chan depicting a family memory of a Korean holiday. | © Chan Jae Lee
A work by Grandpa Chan depicting a family memory of a Korean holiday. | © Chan Jae Lee
Photo of Mimsie Ladner
9 April 2018

A 75-year-old Korean haraboji (grandfather), who not long ago was inept at social media, recently found a way to interact with his family living abroad using Instagram and his artwork. In doing so, he has become an internet star. We wanted to find out more about this inspiring man and his project. Here’s what we learned.

I re-encountered Astro after nine months. Now he can easily say “I don’t need a diaper,” “It’s itchy,” “Farewell,” in precise Korean. The initial awkwardness lasted only one minute. He started to laugh and run and grandpa gets tired quickly. When his dad mentioned drawing, he brought the crayons right away. When he’s not pleased with certain part of the drawing, he’s adamant about erasing it. When I say let’s draw again, he insists in erasing it. There’s no way to win him over. I get surprised with so many things about him and I can’t help but to think how cute he is. While I watch my grandson, I forget everything. #grandpaandgrandson #mynameisastrolee Reencontramos o Astro depois de 9 meses. Astro agora com 2anos e meio já não precisa mais de fraldas e diz "está coçando", "até logo", "é muito grande" em coreano perfeito. Foi somente 1 minuto de estranhamento. Ele corre dando risadas e o vovô se cansa rapidamente. Vamos desenhar? Ele logo traz o giz de cera. Se ele não gosta manda apagar. Mesmo que eu tente redesenhar, ele manda apagar. Como vencê-lo! Vendo esse netinho que só me surpreende e é lindo de qualquer jeito, o vovô esquece de tudo. #vovoeneto #vovoeastro #vamosdesenhar 9 개월만에 다시 만난 아로, 두 살 반이 된 아로는 이제 '기저귀 필요없음'은 물론 '가려워요.' ' 안녕히 가세요.' ' 너무 커요.'를 한국어로도 정확히 말한다. 어색한 시간은 단 1분. 깔깔 웃으며 달리기 시작, 할아버지는 금방 지친다. 그림을 그리자고 하니 얼른 크레용을 가져온다. 맘에 들지 않으면 단호하게 지우라 한다. 다시 그리겠다 해도 지우라고 한다. 당할 수가 없다. 이래도 놀래고 저래도 귀엽기만 한 손자 녀석 보며 할아버지는 모든 것을 잊는다. #손자와할아버지 #같이그림 #할아버지하루

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Following his retirement, Chan Jae Lee, who today lives in Brazil, volunteered to take care of his two young grandchildren, Arthur and Allan. Lee found great joy in taking them to school, playing games with them, and spending quality time with his family. But a few years later, his grandsons and their mother–his daughter–moved back to South Korea. Being so far away, with limited means of communication, Lee felt a great sense of loss, and began to miss his family terribly. When a third grandchild, Astro, was born, his sadness only intensified.

Astro, who will be this child grandpa drew? The boy who’s dressed in a pretty hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) is looking at a dog, and the dog is looking at me taking the photo. The boy is your dad and the dog is our family member “Kong-Kong!” This was even before Arthur and Allan’s mom was born. This is the dog’s year and I remember “Kong-Kong.” Astro’s dad’s childhood friend “Kong-Kong” who was very cute and smart. #grandpamemories Astro, quem será esta criança que o vovô desenhou? Esta criança vestida com um hanbok lindo está olhando para o cachorrinho e o cachorrinho está olhando para mim que está tirando a foto deles. A criança é o seu pai e o cachorrinho é o 'Congcong'. Isso foi antes da mãe do Arthur e do Allan ter nascido. Este ano é o ano do cachorro e o vovô se lembrou do 'Congcong'. O amiguinho do pai do Astro quando era bebê, o 'Congcong' que era tão lindo e esperto! #memoriasdovovo 아로야, 할아버지가 그린 이 아이는 누구일까? 예쁜 한복을 입고 있는 아이는 지금 강아지를 보고 있고 강아지는 사진 찍는 나를 보고 있다. 아이는 너의 아빠, 강아지는 우리 집 식구 ‘꽁꽁이’! 아직 알뚤 알란의 엄마가 태어나기도 전의 일이란다. 올해는 개의 해, 할아버지는 꽁꽁이가 생각난다. 아로 네 아빠 애기때의 친구, 참 예뻤고 영리했던 꽁꽁이! #할아버지의회상 #꽁꽁이 #한복

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It was then that his son Ji, a designer living in the US, proposed that “Grandpa Chan,” a once-avid artist, take up drawing again and share his works on social media. At first, Lee was hesitant, having no experience using a social platform, Google, or even email, but with a little help and motivation from his wife, who was proficient in Instagram, he agreed to go forward with the plan. With his grandchildren as inspiration, Lee picked up his drawing tools. The collection of drawings became known as “Drawings for My Grandchildren,” which is still frequently updated with Lee’s works.

There are photos of city scenes, landscapes, Korean and Brazilian landmarks, dinosaurs (Astro’s favorite animal), and of course his grandchildren. Each of the images are posted with a heartfelt story directed at the children–written in English, Korean, and Portuguese–about Korean culture, life lessons, or special memories.

When grandpa saw a street garlic vendor near home, I was so happy I followed him for a while. As the man walked energetically, he screamed: "Look at the garlic!" In that moment, I remembered the early days of our immigration. While we were driving and crossing the canal near the Central Market, I saw a garlic vendor on the street. There were mountains of garlic. Wow! These garlics which were braided and hung in bundles, looked just like the ones in Korea. Brazilians also eat garlic! I thought this one fact alone would make our immigrant life easier. You guys can't imagine how many sad stories there were around the world because of the saying "garlic stinking Koreans." You guys know Brazilians even add garlic in their rice, right? Ah, you used to eat Brazilian rice all the time! #watercolor #garlic #immigrants #korea #brazil #grandpamemories Vi um vendedor de alhos perto do apartamento onde moro. Fiquei tão contente em vê-lo que fui seguindo atrás dele por um tempão. Quando passava em frente a um bar falou bem alto: "Olha o alho!" Com isso acabei lembrando de quando acabara de chegar no Brasil. Havia um mercado de alho ali perto da marginal perto do mercado central que acabei descobrindo quando passava de carro. Alhos de montão. Uau! As cabeças de alho ali penduradas… que susto levei quando vi que estavam trançadas iguais como na Coreia. Brasileiros que comem alho! Só por esse simples fato pensei que a vida de imigrante seria tranquila. Vocês nem devem imaginar que passado triste se esconde atrás da expressão 'Coreanos que fedem a alho!' Vocês sabem que os brasileiros colocam alho até no arroz, não é mesmo? Vocês também costumavam comer.. #vendedordealho #olhaoalho #vidadeimigrante #memoriadovovo 우리 아파트 근처에서 마늘 장수를 봤을 때 할아버지는 정말 반가워 한참 뒤따라 갔지. 그 아저씨는 바르를 지날 때 번쩍 들어 외쳤어. "마늘 보세요." 나는 순간 이민 초기가 떠올랐어. 차를 타고 중앙시장 근처 개천가를 지나다 우연히 보게 된 것이 마늘시장이었어. 산더미 같은 마늘들. 와! 주렁주렁 매달린 마늘 꾸러미, 그런데 마늘 꿰어 놓은 모양이 한국에서 보던 것과 꼭같은 것에 더 놀랐어. 마늘을 먹는 브라질 사람들! 그 사실 하나만으로도 이민생활이 편할 거라고 생각했지. ‘마늘 냄새 나는 한국인’ 소리에 얼마나 슬픈 과거가 있었는지 너희는 모를게다. 브라질사람들은 밥을 지을 때도 마늘을 넣는다는 것 잘 알지? 참, 늘 그런 밥 먹었지? #마늘장수 #브라질마늘시장 #마늘냄새와슬픈역사 #이민초기 #브라질밥 #할아버지의추억

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Some of these memories are happy, recalling visits to a park or watching a movie together, while others take a more comical tone, such as the time Grandpa Chan learned of his son being born. “Although my colleagues congratulated me, I couldn’t really get a grasp of being a dad, and I couldn’t refuse my friends who wanted to buy me congratulatory drinks,” Lee writes in an Instagram post. “As soon as I arrived at the warm maternity room, ugh… I threw up on the floor. Astro, the night your dad was born, your grandma had to crawl and sweep the floor while washing the dirty cloth in the cold water. Sigh! Why do I have so many embarrassing memories?”

Lee notes that by sharing these drawings and stories, the family is able to communicate on a daily basis, and that the children will have something to remember him by in the future. “This is how we show and tell everything we want to share with them for now and for the future,” he said.

As well as sharing his work on Instagram, Grandpa Chan has two book deals, has participated in a number of exhibitions, and also has been commissioned by National Geographic. He also sells his prints online and uses the profits to help cover the costs of his and his wife’s trips to visit their family.

Lee plans to continue to expand his collection of stories on his Instagram account and, in doing so, will certainly inspire not only his grandchildren, but thousands across the world through his beautiful art works.