Dances With Halmoni

By Dr. Sook Wilkinson, Ph.D.

As a young girl growing up in South Korea, the only people I saw dancing were halmonis-- the grandmas. In my era, young women from “proper” families were told not to smoke, drink, dance, talk too much, or be loud. Modesty in everything was the norm, and humility was considered a virtue. 

Unless you majored in dance, like my sister did, you wouldn’t move your body in front of other people, especially in public. I secretly envied the halmonis. They seemed to have all the freedom and fun that was forbidden to me. 

I couldn’t wait to become old enough to be a halmoni. And now age has given me what I’ve always longed for. 

GG is my special name for my granddaughter, my wiggle dance partner. When she hears music, she hunkers down on all fours and wiggles up and down using every part of her body. Thanks to GG, I’m learning the secrets of dance. 

Recently as I watched her do her usual wiggle dance, I sat down and analyzed the movements. What I discovered is that both Gangnam Style horse dance and GG’s wiggle dance have something in common – lots of hip movement.  I was never taught to dance growing up in Korea, which makes the popularity of the Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style in the US a surprise to me. Too shy to try these dance moves in front of others, I tried them in my own living room. I found it to be a great exercise, because when I moved my hips, my whole body moved just like GG’s. 

Today I can picture myself along with the halmonis in Korea doing Gangnam Style horse dance at picnics, laughing and talking loudly, and drinking Soju, the rice wine.

GG became the ultimate "trump card" in my life even before she was born. This tiny granddaughter who has become an addition to our family has motivated me to change my priorities in life and resulted in my daughter and I becoming closer. Although GG lives more than 2,000 miles away in San Francisco (while I'm in Michigan), but thanks to technology like video chats and Face Time, I “see” her frequently.  Even so, my arms itch to hold her wiggly body and dance with her.

When our two children, TJ and Gina, were born, my mother traveled several times all the way from South Korea to stay for months to help raise them. She was the best Halmoni, with a capital “H” that my kids could have had.  They knew that she loved them no matter what and that they couldn’t do anything wrong (ever!) in her eyes. Even though there was a language barrier, the bonding they developed with their Halmoni is unbreakable. It’s the kind of bonding that comes from deep trust and lots of shared experiences, the kind that instills a sense of unconditional acceptance and security in a child. 

I’d been waiting for a long time to become a halmoni just like my mother. With the announcement of GG’s upcoming birth, I knew instantly that I needed to retire from my work as a psychologist. To make myself available to my daughter and my grandchild, I knew I needed to re-prioritize my life and make room for them. 

GG was only one month old when her first Christmas came around. My daughter and son in law sent me a tiny envelope as their Christmas gift, and we put it under our tree. On Christmas Day, as I opened their gift, tears welled up in my eyes. Inside of the envelope was a note that read “All I want for Christmas is a visit from Halmoni!” 

Now that GG is older we have had wonderful experiences together: strolling along Lake Michigan in Chicago; traveling to Spain, and building a sand castle on the beach in Cancun. I’m the happiest when I’m GG’s nanny Halmoni.  And it makes it even better when my husband can join us as GG’s “manny.”

There comes a time in life when things, no matter how precious, beautiful, and expensive, don't mean much. What matters most are experiences with family and friends that enhance the quality of my life. Centering my thoughts on GG keeps me grounded. Visualizing her big smile at seeing my face appear from peek-a-boo, her cry of relief when rescued from the top of a stairway, her spontaneous wiggling whenever she hears music, her concentration and proud look taking her first couple steps are moments that wash away all the ills of the world. Finally, I am able to focus on the simple things in life, and feel content all over.

Copyright © Dr. Sook Wilkinson, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Sook Wilkinson, Ph.D. has enjoyed a wonderful life in America.  As a native of South Korea, she came to the US at age 22 with $100 in her pocket. Since then, she has become a renowned clinical psychologist, author, and a respected community leader while raising a son and a daughter with her husband, Todd.  Michigan has shaped her life profoundly and she is committed to giving back to her community and state.

As a passionate advocate for active participation in her communities, she gladly accepted the opportunity to serve as the Chairperson of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, appointed by Governor Granholm. Through her leadership, the Asian Pacific American community is gaining much-deserved recognition and visibility. 

Professionally, Wilkinson holds the highest level of license to practice psychology in the State of Michigan and has been in clinical practice for over 30 years. A leading expert in the field of international adoption, she authored Birth is More than Once: The Inner World of Adopted Korean Children and co-edited After the Morning Calm: Reflections of Korean Adoptees . She also authored the script to the documentary, We the People, about the history of Asian Americans. Her leadership extends to the Upper Peninsular serving on the Board of Trustees of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, appointed by Governor Granholm.  

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