The first in a series of posts for 2017 in which I explore issues affecting the women divers (haenyo) of Jeju Island, South Korea– issues primarily related to the gentrification and rapid development of South Korea’s largest island. I’ve been speaking with the haenyo in depth over the last five years as part of my ongoing documentary project on the spiritual aspects of island life.
The following is an interview with one of the island’s younger divers who I will be calling Kyoung Jin Park. Kyoung Jin wishes to remain anonymous and asked not to have her photo featured in the post. On our first meeting, we sat down together at a coffee shop. In the following interview, she reflects on the trials and joys of being a young diver. We discussed her experiences with overbearing photographers, the artisans capitalizing on the women divers’ image and the recent environmental disaster in her village that may force her to give up diving, her life’s passion.
Jeju Island’s women divers have recently received the much-deserved distinction of being recognized by Unesco as intangible cultural heritage of humanity . (More links following the interview)
I’m also currently writing on cold-exposure as practiced by the haenyo. Post
Enter Kyoung Jin:
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Kyoung Jin Park. I was born in 1975. I have young children at home and work solely as a woman diver.
How did you start diving?
I was living in another part of South Korea and, as a result of my divorce, returned to my home village on Jeju Island. I would sit and cry wondering what I could do with my life. It was then that it occurred to me. My mother was a woman diver and so was my aunt. If they could do it, then so could I. I said to myself, “I can really do this.” There was a great benefit for me, because divers work only three hours a day. This way, I could have plenty of time to spend with my children. I started diving in the month of February and the water was so cold I couldn’t dive for more than a few minutes.
At first, when I went into the water I couldn’t stay in very long, but my mother taught me the correct methods. My mother would go out with me and stay at my side.
How did you manage to dive in cold water later on?
There are two types of diving suits. One is 3mm in thickness, the other 5mm. I chose the 5mm and a thick diving cap. With these you can manage to stay in the water for two to three hours while you work. At first, when I went into the water I couldn’t stay in very long, but my mother taught me the correct methods. Back then, my mother would go out with me and stay at my side. She would help to pull me down into the water as I had trouble with my buoyancy. Long ago, before divers wore modern suits it was much easier to navigate. Now, you have to attach weights to your waist in order not to pop out of the water. Once I found the appropriate weight, it was much easier.
Which sea life is the most difficult to catch?
Octopus is much harder than other sea animals. Particularly, the larger octopus. They tend to hide in the rocks in small holes where they can’t be seen. And if you try to catch them they can easily escape.
We see on science programs that the octopus is a smart animal. Do you think so?
Yes, they are smart. There is another issue, too. Objects in the water appear larger than they are due to visual distortion. Sometimes you try to grab for something and your judgement is off. You get used to this later on and can compensate for the mistakes in your vision.
When you are in the water can you identify each diver by the way they breath when they break the surface of the water? I’ve heard that this is true.
Yes. It’s true. Each diver has a unique sound they make when they break out of the water. Most divers make a typical breathing sound, and a few make the famous ‘hui hui’ whistling sounds. I can tell where someone is in the water by the way they breath.
How does it make you feel when you hear the other divers breathing around you?
Hearing the other divers makes me feel a sense 0f security. I feel safe because I know if anything is to go wrong, someone will be nearby to help me. This is just my own idea, but having someone nearby is better than diving alone. When you come up, you can say to yourself, “Ah, so-and-so is close and so-and-so is far away.” Knowing where everyone is signifies that you can be confident when you dive.
I only know diving and that is my only job. I spent long years learning techniques and having experiences to learn what I do. I can’t just get on the TV and speak about being a woman diver unless I have the experience, which means extensive experience and study.
Some of the younger women divers have become famous due to appearances on social media and TV. What do you think about this phenomenon?
Yes, that’s right. I know some of these women and have a Facebook friend who appears on TV all the time. The biggest problem concerning this, in my opinion, is the women diver’s school. They have a school set up where women come down from Seoul to Jeju Island to study (our style of) diving. They are able to get into the water because they have experience with scuba diving. I draw a distinction between them and myself. I only know diving and that is my only job. I spent long years learning techniques and having experiences to learn what I do. I can’t just get on the TV and speak about being a woman diver unless I have the experience, which means extensive experience and study. Some of the girls from the woman diver’s school get called up for interviews and then do another interview the very next day. It’s really not fair to the established divers. It’s especially dumbfounding to the elderly women and the experienced divers get upset. Honestly, there aren’t any real master divers except for the elderly divers who are already grandmothers in their seventies. You can’t replace the current population of divers on Jeju Island so easily. The experienced divers working now have been doing this all their lives and the skills have been passed down from generation to generation. I think the women who take the diving school course need to be careful. They come out of the school thinking they know how to dive after studying only a couple months. Experienced divers dive in all seasons of the year and we know what to expect when we go to sea. I don’t think that is the case for the graduates of the woman diver’s school.
It seems like this would be dangerous because the inexperienced new divers could make a mistake and have an accident.
It’s possible. There’s another problem, too. Women divers are very ambitious. So, if a new diver comes to the neighborhood she would need to study with another diver for six months maybe. Not many of the elderly divers would want to spend this amount of time since they are focused on catching as much as possible. Even in my experience, my mother and aunt tossed me off as soon as I got the hang of it. They were concerned about their own catch. If someone is right beside you in the water it can be hindering, so for that reason my mother and I dive on opposite sides of the harbor. I dive on the east side and mom dives on the west side. Plus, if I am anywhere near my mother she will keep nagging me. (laughter)
The information on TV always talks about how much the haenyo work together in a tight-knit team. Why is it you say each diver is so ambitious?
That’s because what each diver manages to catch is their income. There is a lot of comradery when it comes to issues in the village, but otherwise each diver works on their own. Personal conflicts cause people to fight, but for the most part, people make up the following day. The following day, they are already eating lunch together.
I think you live in two worlds. The world of the older generation that takes place in Jeju Island’s native language, which is very different from standard Korean, and your own generation’s world, a world that has abandoned much of the native culture.
Honestly, sometimes I can’t understand things that the oldest divers say. I have to ask them. I’ve lived on Jeju Island since I was young, but sometimes there are things that escape me. I have to whisper to someone and ask, “What did she say?” Jeju Island’s native language is very difficult.
How about religion? Do you practice shamanism or Buddhism?
The other divers attend the shamanic shrines for prayer twice a year. I’d say, out of our group, maybe ten or fifteen people regularly visit the shrine. My father, because he is a boat captain, visits as well. I don’t visit the shrine, but I’ve been there with my father when I was young. For sure, the women divers have a strong belief in that sort of thing. Some divers wear bracelets or necklaces that they believe protect them at sea. I have one necklace that I wear. When I was at sea, I saw a dolphin. I think I was supposed to be scared when I saw it, but it was like we were instant friends. I wasn’t the least bit afraid. I’ve seen turtles as well. We say that turtles are gods themselves. For this reason, you are never to attack or kill a turtle. I’ve been out to Gwan Tal Island (a small islet off the Northern coast of Jeju Island). When the fishermen see a turtle out there, they will chum the water with rice to honor the turtle as a god.
Tell me about Gwan Tal Island.
Gwan Tal Island? (laughs) Gwan Tal Island is dangerous. The sea life is large and worth a lot of money. But, it’s dangerous. There are sharks out there, too.
Have divers died out there?
No. We head out for one day, then head back. It’s not somewhere where you can go very often. If we go, we’ll skip lunch and just work as hard as we can. When you go out to Gwan Tal Island you really can’t maneuver very much because of the rocks and the waves. The area in which you can forage is very limited.
Have you ever almost died at sea?
I’ve had that kind of experience. Nowadays, women divers wear proper rubber flippers. When I started, I went out in plastic flippers. Once I was harvesting sea urchin, my foot got caught between some rocks while I was deep in the water. I tried to get my foot out and couldn’t. At that point my breath had ran out as well. Finally, I twisted my foot out and was able to escape. I’m the sort who will go after sea life under dangerous circumstances. The older divers hate it. If I see the smallest hole in the rocks I’ll go for it. When you use plastic flippers there is no give and you can get stuck.
I guess you use rubber flippers now?
Of course I do! (laughter)
When you are working does time move fast or slow?
When I’m catching a lot of things, three hours goes really fast. If I don’t catch very much or if it’s a day where I’m sick or not feeling well, then time drags on.
Do you love the ocean?
Yes, I do. I’d lose my mind without it I think.
Will you encourage your kids to be divers?
No way! I won’t encourage them.
Because this work is too hard on your body. My children know it, too. They often tell me, “Mom, don’t go out to sea. It’s dangerous.” I tell them it’s dangerous, but it’s also enjoyable for their mom. Truthfully, hardly anyone is encouraging their children to be divers now. A lot of people ask me why I’m diving.
I’ve heard there are problems with pollution in your area.
The pollution has been severe in our area since 2013. Starting around 2014, I began to sense there was something wrong. I started talking to people, telling them that there was something strange about the water. At first, people denied it. I was going out and coming back with nothing but two sea urchins. I started to notice a foul smell when I went out to sea. I’d get a headache and sometimes need to vomit. I kept telling the older divers that there was something strange going on. But they kept denying it. Eventually, I went to the head diver and told her that it had come out on the news that there was a lot of pollution in the water. Honestly, for two months during the summer I couldn’t dive.
It was too polluted?
Yes. Usually, when we divers work at sea, we have a good time. We love going out to do the work. But, now, it really isn’t that enjoyable. The water has become really fetid and people are vomiting after they come out of the water. People are starting to go a little mad. If there were more things to catch, it would be better. But that’s not the case.
Can you move to another neighborhood?
We can’t. Because of the laws in place. Frankly, if this was a farming neighborhood then I’d give up diving for farming, but we can’t farm here. There is no land for it. Diving is our primary source of income. Sometimes there are days when we can only go out for a few minutes and have to return, and mostly there is very little sea life left. Sometimes I return with only enough to make 20.000 won (approx. twenty dollars). How am I suppose to live on that? I ask myself, will I have to get a part time job? Maybe at the supermarket?
Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.
I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama (Japanese women divers) are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.
How about when you are photographed?
That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer. My mother’s image travels all around the world. I have the artist’s information, so I see her image being featured in galleries in Europe and other places. I can easily find out which museums her image is shown in and which magazines, but I don’t know much about the artist really. When I get news of a new exhibition, I usually send a message back to the artist that says, “oh, that’s nice”, and I guess I’m alright with that. But there are other people who get furious about it and curse when they see their image somewhere.
What do you want me to tell English speakers about the women divers?
I don’t know about foreign people, but Korean people have many bad ideas about the women divers. They think we are lower class. Some of my friends always tell me how great of a job I do and others wonder why in the world I do this. It’s about fifty-fifty. Some people think we are ill-mannered because when people come to take photographs of us, we yell at them and curse. Well, this isn’t that bad because you have to understand that we are at work and need to focus. It really pisses me off when I come out of the water and people are snapping photographs. Sometimes, they ask nicely for permission. We tell them no, and they keep taking them anyway.
The truth is, I am the same person in the water and out of the water. I’m just a person trying to make a living like everyone else. Don’t think of me as a woman diver. Think of me as a person.
Is that right?
Yes. And get this. You have to understand. Women divers are women. When I come out of the water after three hours of diving my face is red and exhausted from working. Do you think I want to have that image of me floating around? Usually I don’t even know if people are taking my picture. Sometimes there are people on the shore screaming like crazy and I look up from the water and see them. The truth is, I am the same person in the water and out of the water. I’m just a person trying to make a living like everyone else. Don’t think of me as a woman diver. Think of me as a person. I want people to know that I’m not doing this work because I couldn’t go to school or was born poor. No, that’s not it. I’m a woman diver because I chose to be a diver.
To learn more about Jeju Island’s women divers, I recommend Brenda Paik Sunoo’s beautiful photo essay Moon Tides, available from Seoul Selection: http://www.seoulselection.com/publishing/?q=node/20 It’s truly a very comprehensive exploration of the life and culture of Jeju Island’s amazing divers.
A number of documentaries have been produced on these amazing women, all of them are excellent to my knowledge. A google search should put you in business.