My grandmother and her ancestors came from Jeju Island, the southernmost island of the Korean peninsula, known today mostly as a travel destination and home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Revered for its delectable seafood, it is where my grandmother’s matriarchal roots lie. It is where, for generations, haenyeo—or sea women—have supported men and children by free-diving to the ocean floor, harvesting such prized sea creatures as conches, abalones and sea cucumbers to supply the local economy. When Jeju men were called out to other seas or lands to fight wars, or languished in prison, the haenyeos of Jeju Island found an opportunity near home, off the choppy waters of the island’s coast. Haenyeo women went under water more than 100 times a day, as low as 65 feet under, grabbing precious sea treasures with their bare hands, trading them for money that would be used to feed and clothe their families, pay for their children’s college education and pay off the steep taxes and fishery fees formerly imposed by the Japanese colonial government. By the 1970s, the women of the island, through matrilineal inheritance of their diving skills, had become the main breadwinners in most Jeju households, flipping the larger society’s patriarchal norms.
The haenyeos of my grandmother’s generation were pioneers, women who embodied a changing culture and economics necessitated by war and famine, and who would come to define a new class of women empowered by a profession—an emerging concept, once reserved for men. Even after the infusion of Western culture with the arrival of Western missionaries throughout South Korea at the turn of the 20th century, a “working woman” would have been a bewildering phenomenon. What’s more, within the context of the then-deeply Confucian, ancestor-worshipping culture, such a fate would have befallen an “unlucky woman,” who would be expected to carry out a precarious earthly existence with little guidance or blessings from her male-doting ancestors.
Despite such a fated-to-doom start, the haenyeos of Jeju rose from their low status to draw local, national and eventually international acclaim. In 2016, UNESCO awarded haenyeos a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation. They unwittingly became masters of a one-a-kind trade by cornering a women-only market and filling in a gap created out of wartime necessity.
The profession, however, came with risks. Although they now have something of the status of alluring mermaids, the women once endured public shaming in a far more misogynistic society. As pre-colonial records document, women were flogged as part of a public shaming ritual, at times even by their own family members, for not being able to bring in dried abalone and other prized delicacies needed to pay their taxes. Women were also forced to risk their lives diving into cold waters, even when pregnant, to provide for their husbands, children, elders and for their community.
Like the old haenyeo ballads that sing of diving with a coffin on the head, the chances of dying from this perilous profession were ever-present. To become a haenyeo and not die from it, the women had to master the art of confronting danger, the kind that could overtake them within mere seconds. Wearing minimal diving gear, with lead weights around their waists while tied to a tewak, a long flotation device, she had to count on her long breath, and not on the weeding hoe, the spear, the flippers or goggles, or not the headlight-shaped scuba masks sometimes worn as aids. To orchestrate this hazardous act, day after day, women learned to calculate, down to mere seconds, how much to risk, how much to ask of their own bodies and minds, in order to seize the rare underwater prizes that would garner the respect of their children and husbands, and of their community. Over time, they learned to recognize and follow with a trained eye the intense, singular light that rose up from the crevices of every living thing amid the seaweed-filled, muddy waters. They learned to trust their intuition, cultivated over generations and lifetimes, guiding them through their environment, and not to indulge in the allure of the material beauty surrounding them. They learned to draw out their last breath, somehow, even when it seemed there was none left.
Like the sea women, my grandmother was resourceful, a trait undoubtedly tied to her Jeju roots. Her family had long before chosen not to take up sea diving as a profession—I suspect it would have been deemed lowly for their status at the time. But like so many of the haenyeo women of her generation, who have toiled in the netherworld so their husbands could leisurely play rounds of Godori and their children could go to college, my grandmother, too, was deeply rooted in matriarchy and carved out a singular life independent of men.
She was a minimalist and liked to do everything by hand; she paid extraordinary attention to small things, rendering them with clarity and beauty and dignity, as if such focus would give way to her last breath: that is to say, a life of honor, a life well lived. Just as the sea women dove into frigid waters, without oxygen tanks and sometimes without wetsuits or scuba masks, relying only on their breathing to sequester the sea treasures tucked deep in the sea bottom, my grandmother also relied on her long breath. I imagine now, in the reverie of her storied childhood, without war or missing limbs or husbands, in the face of bewilderment, that she would have learned how to remain still and wait for the answers to come from the tall branches set deep within the snow-capped Mount Halla at the center of Jeju Isle.
In my own childhood spent in Korea, my grandmother took me into the mountains and taught me how to gather the peace and the joy found there. Behind our house, on the tall mountain that stood majestically atop tiny shanty villages, she took my small hands and guided me up to the monastery at the summit where she went to pray every Sunday. We walked with our hands locked tightly, balancing our feet over fallen trees and broken birches, her slow and steady ways opening our path forward. I knew then that we were not alone, and my love for the natural world around us would only deepen, as the silence around us grew more profound. There, I felt pure joy, and the intense, singular light that rose up from every living thing, from beneath rocks, a slant beauty hidden under every limb of every tree. I sensed, too, the ephemeral nature of the earthly joys that emanated from them.
Like the women who were driven to support their men and children and the local economy of Jeju, and who did so while bearing windy and icy conditions of the sea well into their elder years, my grandmother learned the ways and means of survival, rose out of the ashes and wreckage of war, necessitated by her husband’s disappearance. As a young woman, she refashioned an existence that would afford her and her family a small dignity required of the good life, the kind that would be deserving of approval not only by the people in her community but by the ancestors.
The profession of haenyeo is dying, as is the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the straits surrounding Jeju. At their peak in the 1960s, there were over 23,000 haenyeo in Jeju; now, fewer than 4,500 remain, with 84 percent over the age of 60. Drawn to other careers on the mainland, the young women of Jeju have been reluctant to join the profession, and for good reason. The remaining haenyeo, now in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, dive in shallower waters with younger, less experienced women. They, in turn, are watched over by a corps of highly skilled middle-aged female divers who are capable of plunging into the deepest waters. Before setting off to dive, they huddle over a makeshift table made of wooden planks and warm their hands over a small fire built inside a hut erected by the Jeju government, which depends on their continued success. Together, the women pray to the shaman gods for their protection, and make an offering to her of rice, fruit and imitation currency. After prayer, the women walk along the rocks, their arthritic knees carefully bent, dotting the shores that lead to the choppy waters, hoping this dive won’t be their last.
Jung Hae Chae has been published in AGNI, Calyx Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Ploughshares and Third Coast, among others. She is the winner of the 2019 Pushcart Prize and the Emerging Writer’s Contest in nonfiction from Ploughshares.