Korean Name for Grandmother

Ancient Wisdom, Modern Times Often Clash

Korean grandmother and granddaughter
Photo © Sonya Farrell / Getty Images

The Korean name for grandmother is halmoni. This term is transliterated since the Korean language uses a different alphabet from English. For that reason, it is sometimes spelled differently. Halmeoni is one such variation. Halmi is a possible shortened form that may be used by very young grandchildren.

Koreans use family titles extensively in place of given names, and the rules governing family titles are rather intricate. One's older brother, for example, is called by a different name than a younger brother. Grandparent names are, however, fairly simple. Maternal grandmothers may be referred to as oe-halmoni to distinguish them from the paternal side. 

Traditional Korean Culture

When Westerners discuss Korea, they are usually referring to South Korea. North Korea, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is closed to outsiders. Although the two Koreas share their history and culture, it is difficult to make assumptions about daily life in North Korea.

The influence of Confucius has been even stronger in Korea than in other Asian countries. His teachings have greatly impacted Korean culture for centuries. As Korea has become a modern, industrial society, citizens have found that the old ways do not always serve them well. But change comes slowly.

Gender roles are strictly defined in the Confucian model. The oldest male was the undisputed head of the household. Women were not educated and indeed were often secluded from the outside world. 

Marriages were arranged and could be a very traumatic event for a woman, who had to leave her family and move in with in-laws. A mother-in-law could (and often did) make life very hard for the new bride.

Women were expected to prepare food, to be obedient to their husbands and to produce male children. A woman who had no sons could be divorced.

Modern Korean Family Culture

When World War II ended the era of Japanese control of Korea, the leaders of the country sought prosperity through industrialization. This new direction required changes in family life. Sons could not stay in their parents' households. They were needed to work in the new factories. The oldest male could no longer serve as the benevolent dictator of his entire extended family. Women began to have access to more education and to enter the workforce.

The old ways, however, still have an impact. Many young people seek help from their parents when it comes time to choose a mate. Women who work outside the home still do most housework and childcare. Stay-at-home dads are rare.

These developments have led to a different role for many grandparents -- child care providers.

Grandparents as Child Care Providers

When Korean women return to work after the birth of a child, they face a severe shortage of child care facilities. Many families are turning to grandparents to provide childcare. According to Reuters, over one-third of Korean families had children in the care of grandparents. 

This arrangement has proven to be a financial boon for grandparents, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. One survey showed that around 80% of grandparents providing childcare are paid.

The grandparents love their grandchildren, of course, but they also regard providing their child care as a financial transaction. They may be strict about drop-off and pick-up times, much like traditional daycare centers. But they also are serious about providing the best care for their grandchildren, often attending grandparenting classes to stay current.