The downpours of Korea’s rainy season can make even the sanest person a bit stir-crazy. This past summer, it was impossible to go anywhere without knee-high rain boots and a sturdy umbrella, as the storms never seemed to let up. And don’t get me started on the humidity. By the end of July, I thought I was going to go crazy if I had to stay indoors any longer. I was eagerly looking forward to my vacation in Jeju-do, Korea’s own subtropical island, but was a bit upset by the weather forecast predicted for the week I’d be there. So, when I landed at the Jeju airport to be greeted by sunshine and blue skies, I was ecstatic.
I spent five days on the island with my good friend Tira. We spent a lot of time on the palm-lined beaches, cooling off in clear, emerald waters when it got too hot. We snapped photos with the iconic hareubang statues. We ate well. Really well. Jeju’s famous black pork was almost worth the trip and I also got to try some new dishes, such as cactus naengmyeon (cold noodles) and raw fish bibimbap. We also managed to get ourselves up at 4:30AM for a breathtaking sunrise on Seongsan Sunrise Peak. While all of these things made for wonderful memories, the highlight of my trip was getting the opportunity to meet real Korean mermaids- minus the gills and all- known to the locals as haenyeo.
The word haenyeo literally means “sea woman” and this title appropriately defines their lives. These women make a living by making daily diving trips into the sea to gather seaweed, clams, and abalone. Using no special diving equipment, they’re able to hold their breaths for up two minutes while collecting the seafood. Perhaps these sea women have gills after all.
Just a few decades ago, it was not uncommon for haenyeo to begin this job at the tender age of 10 and even today, it is generally an occupation that runs in the family. Women worked for 6 or 7 hours a day in the sea and spent additional hours tending to the family farm. Unlike on the mainland, families in Jeju desired baby girls, as they ensured livelihood. Despite the Confucian values of Korea, women were not only the heads of their families but they also held a special place in society. So much so that they were recognized for leading the anti-Japanese campaign on Jeju Island and protecting the haenyeo culture during the occupation.
During the 1970s, there was a big boom in the seafood export business to Japan. As a result, haenyeo started raking in the big bucks. We learned on our trip that if a man married into a family with at least one haenyeo (even if she was the grandmother), he did not have to work. Jeju women were wearing the pants well and were able to provide for their families without financial worries and began to send their daughters to college. Perhaps it was at this point that would-be mermaids had a taste of the sweet city life and started to focus their career ambitions elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the number of haenyeo has been declining rapidly since then. In the 1960s, there were 30,000 of these women. In 2003, there were less than 6,000 and the majority of those that remain now are over the age of 60.
Tira and I were waiting for our hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus on Udo Island when I spotted two halmoni (grandmothers) donned in the signature black wetsuit. I got excited and Tira agreed to come with me to chat with them. Welcoming us with big smiles, they exuded a friendliness that only elderly women can. With Tira translating, I curiously inquired about their age. When they replied that they were in their 80s and had been haenyeo since their early teens, my mouth about dropped to the floor. I joked with them and mentioned that most American women their age could barely get around without a cane. I asked if they had daughters who had also joined the profession. “No,” they replied, “we wouldn’t wish this job on our daughters or any of our family.”
As Tira helped them up and assisted them in zipping up their suits, I could see what they meant. Though they continue to do their jobs, their hard work has taken a toll on their bodies. They walked slowly, hunched over with knees bent. Being a haenyeo is no doubt an honored profession, but it’s a lot of work. As our driver signaled for us to board, we snapped photos with the lovely women and exchanged bows of respect. As Tira and I headed off to explore the island, they no doubt looked for morsels of the sea, as they had done everyday for the past 60-something years.
During my trip to Jeju, I almost forgot that I was in Korea. The pace is a bit slower, the air is fresh, and the vibe is purely tropical. Yet, in other ways, Jeju seemed to be more Korean, in cultural terms, than the mainland. Houses are still made of stone and the inhabitants hold tight to their traditions.
The haenyeo are truly a cultural treasure of Jeju. Yet, I suppose that in a country that is so apt to rapid change, traditions such as the jobs of these amazing women will one day fade away. But some things, like legacies, never die. I like to think that the stories of these women of the sea will continue on and inspire their listeners. Korea is a man’s country after all, but lest anyone forget that on a charming island off the southern coast, women once ran the show.