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[Weekender] Storytelling grannies share their love with children

State program revives tradition of oral storytelling with retirees, becomes source of mutual enrichment for storytellers, children

By No Kyung-min

Published : Aug. 26, 2023 - 16:01

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Contagious laughter broke out among a group of 6-year-olds as 78-year-old Yang Moon-jah energetically narrated a Korean folktale about a fart competition between a man and a woman.

The septuagenarian delivered the tale with impeccable clarity, ensuring every word resonated throughout the entire 20-minute storytelling session.

Officially known as an "iyagi halmeoni" in Korean, which translates into "storytelling grandmother," Yang boasts nine years of storytelling experience with the Korean Studies Institute, an entity affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The institute deliberately employs the Korean term for grandmother, "halmeoni," to refer to the storytellers, aiming to sustain and carry forward the tradition of grandmothers entertaining and educating their grandchildren with Korean folktales.

With multifaceted objectives, including building character in children, fostering intergenerational bonds, preserving storytelling traditions and improving the quality of life for older people, the storytelling grandmother program engages 3,179 women between the ages of 56 and 74 across 8,537 child care facilities throughout the nation, as of 2023.

Every year, in January and February, new candidates for the program are selected, and they must undergo a seven-month training period before being bestowed with the title of "storytelling grandmother," who perform 20-minute sessions for an hourly rate of 40,000 won ($30).

Since its start in 2009 with just 30 storytellers, the program has continuously expanded its reach by recruiting professional storytellers from diverse walks of life.

Yang Moon-jah presents a folktale to children at a kindergarten in Seoul. (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald) Yang Moon-jah presents a folktale to children at a kindergarten in Seoul. (No Kyung-min/The Korea Herald)

Different lives converge into storytelling

As a long-standing member of the program, Yang embodies the cherished tradition of a grandmother regaling her grandchildren with Korean tales and legends while cradling them on her lap.

The act of storytelling has always brought Yang pleasure, dating back to her teenage years when she would take center stage to share various stories with her friends. This latent passion for storytelling then resurfaced after her retirement.

"I saw volunteers engaging in oral narration in front of patients with dementia at a local center. That's when I felt my desire for storytelling rekindle," Yang shared with The Korea Herald.

For Cho Kyeong-yeon, 69, who has been participating in the program since 2014, becoming a professional storyteller was a dream come true.

"Although I worked as a child welfare guidance worker before getting married, my aspiration to become a special education teacher remained unfulfilled," Cho revealed, adding, "the moment I learned about the opportunity to become a storyteller, I knew I had to seize it and participate in this program involving children."

In contrast to full-fledged storytellers like Yang and Cho, 66-year-old Kang In-ae is new to the game. Having worked as a middle school teacher before retiring, Kang began her first storytelling session in March and has found parallels between teaching and storytelling.

"When it comes to interacting and communicating with students, teachers are not so different from storytellers," Kang said. She further explained that her natural affinity for teaching and interacting with people guided her journey from being a teacher to becoming a storyteller.

Cho Kyeong-yeon is engaged in a storytelling activity at a preschool educational institution in Seoul. (Courtesy of Cho Kyeong-yeon) Cho Kyeong-yeon is engaged in a storytelling activity at a preschool educational institution in Seoul. (Courtesy of Cho Kyeong-yeon)

What storytelling gives

The grandmothers were in unison about the true joy that comes when their oral storytelling efforts connect them with children and bring positive changes in them.

According to Kang, the potency of narrating Korean folktales extends beyond imparting moral values to children. It also lies in nurturing their imaginations and fostering intergenerational unity through direct forms of engagement, such as eye contact.

Kang sometimes finds herself taken aback by the depth of emotions that children exhibit after hearing folktales.

"It's truly astonishing to witness how children become deeply engrossed in Korean folktales, evoking a range of emotions in response to the narratives. This underscores the cultural significance and captivating essence of traditional Korean stories," Kang remarked.

For Cho, years of interaction with children through storytelling have proved the profound transformative influence stories hold.

"As the oral narration unfolds, children gradually open up their hearts to me,” she said. “Compared to their demeanor on the first day of class, many exhibit changed behaviors, growing more attentive and compassionate," Cho said.

Echoing Cho's emphasis on the transformative potential of oral narration, Yang distills her perspective into a single word: love.

"The act of oral narration seems to teach them how to express and share love with others. Children willingly give as much love as they can, and, of course, it's reciprocated," Yang said.

Kang In-ae performs storytelling at a preschool in Gyeonggi Province. (Courtesy of Kang In-ae) Kang In-ae performs storytelling at a preschool in Gyeonggi Province. (Courtesy of Kang In-ae)

What storytellers receive

As much as it sounds exciting for children to immerse in the world of oral stories, storytelling grandmothers also experience benefits despite encountering their own set of challenges.

"We are tasked with narrating approximately 35 stories this year, as designated by the Korean Studies Institute," Yang explained.

"The most challenging aspect is memorization. Each story takes about seven to eight minutes to narrate, and I'm still struggling to become accustomed to the memorization process."

Cho finds the most taxing aspect to be on an emotional level.

"When I finish sessions and leave the classrooms, I make it a point to hug each and every child. However, some children hold onto me for an extended period, and it's always heart-wrenching to have to let them go," Cho said.

Her dedication to her role has led her to enhance her knowledge of child psychology through pursuing ongoing education and reading books in the field.

For novice storyteller Kang, there's a consistent need for practice.

"Since storytelling grandmothers relay a story every week, I engage in daily practice to refine my performance, aiming for the most natural delivery," Kang said.

Yet, despite the demanding tasks that can occasionally test their limits, all three concur that the rewards they reap surpass the hardships they encounter, as the activity of storytelling breathes new life into their postretirement phase.

"I embarked on this journey to bring joy to children through tales and stories, yet I find myself receiving more than I give. These beautiful children never fail to reciprocate with expressions of love," Yang recounted.

Cho and Kang revealed that they gained renewed confidence and a heightened sense of purpose within a community.

"In addition to experiencing more laughter these days, I have become confident, believing that I'm contributing to my nation by preserving our traditional and cultural values," Cho said.

"This realization has prompted me to be more mindful in my actions, setting an example for children to follow,” she added.

Kang echoed the sentiment. "Thanks to this program, I have come to realize that I can carry on working with both confidence and a sense of accomplishment even at this later stage of my life. Each day is now imbued with vibrant energy.”

"I'd also like to extend my gratitude to the officials involved in managing the program," she added.