Jeju Island’s Haenyo: A User’s Manual, the diver who tried to die at sea

Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual will be released as an e-book this July on Amazon. Pre-orders help sales rankings. If you enjoy the series, pre-order the book and receive it on July 14th. (Description on the book’s amazon page)

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The traditional free diver, Ok-sun Lee, was born in the very waters in which she planned to carry out her own drowning some 85 years later. Her life-long friend and fellow diver, Man-bok Kim, seeing the practicality of her choice, aided her in the attempt. The two women survived much together—over seventy years of work at sea, the violent onslaught of the 4.3 Jeju Uprising of 1948, even a shipwreck. 

Note: Place and character names have been changed to protect the identities of the people depicted, as in all posts in this series

The Jetty

The first time I saw Ok-sun Lee, I was on the west side of Insi-ri village. There, traversing a beaten shore of angular basalt rock, is a small cobbled jetty, marred with slime. Years of advancing and receding tide have rendered the far end a treacherous mess, far slicker than glass. Not a convenient staging area for the traditional shellfish diver—the ‘sea-woman’— or haenyo. Yet, that is where the elderly diver I’d later come to call ‘Mrs. Lee’ emerged from the water.

The diver, in her eighties, skated expertly over the jetty slime. A number of children followed behind. Two young boys, not able to match her speed, each lost their footing and came crashing down onto the slick stone. A man in his thirties, wearing a wetsuit, followed the boys. He jumped down from the jetty and walked along beside it over rough rocks. Once he was in the clear, beyond the slime, he hoisted himself up again in a quick, able-bodied maneuver.

I stood at the opposite end of the jetty, camera in hand, photographing the group of them as they approached. The diver, shouldering a large sack of mollusks, looked at me as she walked past. The man pursued her, carrying a pair of flippers. “Grandma, why didn’t you let me go out there with you? That’s what we agreed upon,” I heard him say.

Stepping towards the diver, he tried to unburden her of her load. She shrugged away from him, keeping the sack of shells from his reach. He rolled his eyes in frustration and then looked over at a woman, also in her early thirties—who was standing a few meters beyond me at the entrance of the jetty. Her arms were crossed. A set of car keys dangled from one of her hands.

“Grandma, you promised,” the woman said sharply. “You said you’d never go diving alone again. Think of all the bad things that could happen. Just think of all the worry you are causing us.”

The diver was indifferent. She stared blankly past the woman. Perhaps looking for a diversion, or maybe curious about the fact a westerner had found his way to her jetty, she paused to turn back and look at me. She grinned a big smile. I smiled back. The woman, evidently the man’s wife, shot me a pained look—seemingly asking for my understanding. Soon, the man and the woman were bowing and issuing apologetic pleasantries. I wasn’t sure why they were apologizing to me, but in any case, the diver used the moment to steal away.

The man stamped after her in a fury. When he caught up, the diver, still shouldering her catch, spat her words out tersely.

“There’s seventy-five thousand won (approx U.S. $75) in this bag,” she said. “Now move out of the way.

“Grandma,” the man said, dramatically pulling at the collar of his wetsuit, “you are supposed to wait for me.”

“It’s illegal to wear scuba gear,” she barked.

“Who’s policing this harbor?” The man demanded. “You? There isn’t even a harbor master here. Anyway, it’s illegal to fish with scuba gear, not to swim.”

I stayed nearby, snapping a photo now and then, and listening to them talk. It was evident that the man and woman had reached an accord with the elderly diver. She would dive only one day a week, and the man—her eldest grandson as it turned out— would accompany her to make sure nothing went wrong. The family intended to make something of a weekly Sunday afternoon out of it. The outings could be carried on until their grandmother was either too tired or too weak and had to give up diving for good. All was set and agreed upon. Or so they had thought. Instead of meeting her at the appointed time and in the appointed place, the industrious octogenarian had snuck off to the jetty, a good half-kilometer away from the sandy beach where the divers normally entered the water. She’d arrived hours before the appointed time. It must have been from the vantage of the sandy beach where the family spotted her, her head breaching the surface of the water as she came up for air. By the time they had arrived to the jetty, her diving session had concluded—a big success!

The diver, tired of arguing, stalked towards the shore. Still shouldering the bag of turban shells, she brushed past her eldest grandson. Droplets of water hurled off the load with her every step.

“Look,” said the man’s wife, as the diver approached close to her. Her face drew up in horror. “She’s written her name on the leg of her wetsuit. Do you know what that is? She intends for us to be able to identify her body when she drowns. I knew it. She’s trying to drown herself at sea.”

On hearing this, the diver thrust her chin up. She jerked her free arm down to cover her left thigh. The grandson, letting the flippers he carried drop to the ground, ran up to her. He reached for her arm and flung it aside. There it was, clearly visible, her name—Ok-sun Lee—written out in white.

Kim, if not, then Lee

I’d come to the village of Insi-ri several times to visit the diver Ok-sun Lee—‘Mrs. Lee’—before I’d come to see the diver Man-bok Kim—‘Mrs. Kim’. Yet, while engaging in my work of collecting the island’s oral mythology, making recordings and filming shamanic rituals, it was Mrs. Kim who was most helpful. And it was through Mrs. Kim that I really got to know more about Mrs. Lee. No one got to know Mrs. Lee on their own. Despite her extremely helpful demeanor (to me anyway), she wasn’t exactly known, as it turned out, for opening up to people on a personal level.  It was personal stories I wanted to hear most—stories of what role the village’s shamanic shrines and myths played in people’s lives. Stories of miracles and the tragic sort of stories I’d discovered to be so common in the villages—the hardships that drew locals to their shrines and the gods within.

Mrs. Kim, a well-dressed, well-coiffed woman, still pretty in her eighties—one of four diving women still working in the village—had known Mrs. Lee since they were in their teens. Presumedly, the two of them used to talk about everything under the sun, but as Mrs. Lee progressively experienced a number of personal losses, her husband to the Sino-Japanese conflict and then a number of family members during the massacres of 1948, she had closed herself off from others. She’d ceased engaging in any self-reflective discourse, not caring to share her feelings. Her work came to dominate the vast majority of her waking hours. Kim had seen this happen to the diver over the years—a sort of self-imposed isolation, the constraints of which were wrought from her pain, she supposed. Lee dedicated herself doggedly to her work. She claimed that she was providing for her family, but according to Kim, her children hardly needed financial assistance. Her two sons each ran their own successful tourist operations, marketing chocolates and an assortment of souvenirs to vacationers from the mainland. On festival days, when feasts were held in the meeting hall for the elderly, Lee was conspicuously absent. While others gossiped, played cards and sang karaoke, she worked in the fields—or dove. “What goes on under the surface is solely her business,” Mrs. Kim told me. “She hasn’t spoken to anyone about anything personal for years,” she complained. “Who am I to talk to?”

As engaging and warm as she was, I observed Man-bok Kim to be sort of like that, too, at times—uncommunicative, stubborn when she wanted to be. None of the divers attended the village events. They were sort of their own little group.  Kim, too, had lost family to the wars and the violence of the massacres. By 1949, the upheaval of the conflict often referred to as 4.3 Jeju Uprising had migrated to their region of the island. She bore the physical effects of surviving herself, most notably a scar from a knife wound that ran thinly across her left cheek. It was nearly translucent. Kim had received the scar months prior to the major onslaught, while she and her friends fled a police station they had occupied, a place where others would later be tortured. She had been assisting one of the students passing out anti-police pamphlets, in the period before their leaders decided to take up arms and stage an uprising–facing off the police and the national government’s forces. “Was it wrong of us to get involved?” She mused one day. “How could we have known what was going to happen? I can’t even remember why we believed what we did back then. We were only kids.” She bore the past very differently than Lee, though I can’t imagine that their pain was equal. Kim’s husband and many other men from the village survived. Luckily, they hadn’t been able to inform anyone of their whereabouts before they left for the mountain, where they hid out for some months. “Even if they tried to coerce it out of me,” said Kim, “I didn’t know where they were. That’s the fortunate thing.”

Kim seemed to relish my visits. I could see that she desired, sincerely, to unpack her past. She’d made an art of making some sort of sense of what had happened to her in the village over the years—what had happened to them all. She squeezed a lot of drama into her narratives, squeezing in tears, too. Lee, on the other hand, her next-door neighbor of sixty years, remained impassive. It was as if she had become the expression of the diving work itself in her old age, an ideal form of the centuries-old profession as it was eclipsing from practice. This lack of normal behavior (Kim’s words) sometimes made Kim uncomfortable. She couldn’t understand her friend and felt that she had given up on life. But they were still great companions, like sisters.

When I went to the village looking for Kim, and she was nowhere to be found, Mrs. Lee would lead me to her. If I needed to meet Kang, another diver in their group, a woman in her seventies, whose lips only pursed when she smiled, and Kang was nowhere to be found, then Kang would lead me to Lee or Kim. If I needed Kang, Kim or Lee would lead me to her. The three of them were always on the move, so it was often difficult to pin down each diver. Being familiar with one another’s patterns for years, if not through some sort of mysterious dead-reckoning, they seemed to be able to guess the others’ whereabouts. Kim knew everything there was to know about village history, its folklore and religious practices. If I wanted to see how a particular thing was done—setting traps for octopus, prepping various creatures for the market, stripping the needles from sea urchins or gathering some herb or other—I’d go to Lee. Kang was a great source of information on the marine animals she dealt with, the tides, the various behaviors of aquatic life. For whatever reason, I never got to know the fourth diver very well—Mrs. Im. Unlike the others, she played cards with the grannies at the senior center.

Master of Myths

Man-bok Kim was master of the village lore, guardian of its shamanic shrines—a shamanic holy-roller—to use a term I reserved for such particularly fervent believers, who I came across during my research on the island’s shamanic culture.  Kim could be found praying and performing rites, often on the beachfront, in the stead of the very last village shaman who died some thirty years prior. The last ceremony the shaman had performed took place in Kim’s home, a funerary rite dedicated to helping a family member’s soul pass on to the afterlife. Kim had accompanied the shaman’s performance by playing the buk drum.

The ancestral gods of Insi-ri included one Grandfather Lee, a direct ancestor of the Lee family, of which Mrs. Lee herself was one of the the current matriarchs. According to Mrs. Kim, the Lee family didn’t perform shamanic rites as rigorously as they once did and thus had squandered some of the their junsaeng—shamanic karma whose starting value was based upon the acts and historic station of ancestors. Despite their family having a particularly good advantage as far as junsaeng went, the Lee family myth being one depicting an ancestor of high status, they hadn’t done their part in making offerings. Their ancestor had earned his godhood like the Catholic martyrs, by sacrificing himself—in this case, for the very survival of the village residents. Mrs. Lee, even as the head of a family, wasn’t particularly devout. Perhaps she felt that she simply had no time for such things, so obsessed was she with her work. Or maybe she felt betrayed by the ancestor. My guess is that she was an atheist. On occasion, she would speak in what I perceived as mocking tones when I asked about the village deities.

I had my first insight into Lee’s unique personality, sitting with Mrs. Kim in her home by the sea, drinking sugared coffee mix. Kim’s place felt more like an improvised shelter than a permanent residence. When the wind howled outside, the structure shuttered.

“So you visit that grandmother next door, don’t you? Ok-sun Lee? She didn’t tell you anything much, did she?”

“She tells me about practical stuff.”

“But you said you wanted personal stories. She hasn’t spoken about anything personal in decades.”

“Mrs. Lee’s grandchildren say she wants to die at sea, ” I said. “The grandson’s wife is upset she wrote her name on the leg of her wetsuit.”

Mrs. Kim guffawed.

“Mrs. Lee can’t write. She never learned. I wrote on her leg.”

“You wrote it?”

“She asked me to write it.”

“Why’d she want you to write her name on her suit?”

“So, if she drowns, they can find the body.”

“And you thought it was a good idea?”

“Well…which is better, her dying at sea and us knowing who it is or her dying at sea and no one knowing?”

“I guess it’s better to know.”

“Well, yes.”

I wondered how, with only four divers in the village, the authorities wouldn’t be able to identify Mrs. Lee–a macabre thought, but the situation seemed absurd.

“Is it possible there would be any dispute over whose corpse it was? I mean, how is it they wouldn’t know who had drown?”

“No, it’s not that,” said Mrs. Kim. “If you die at sea while diving, the government gives the family a little stipend. She figures that it’s better that way than being useless. That grandmother has a lot of pain in her past. So did her mother. Her mother gave birth at sea, you know.”

“You mean gave birth to Mrs. Lee?”

“Yes!” Mrs. Kim laughed. “Her mom didn’t know her water had broken or anything. She thought she’d swam into a tangle of seaweed. Then she realized it was Mrs. Kim floating around in all that mess. She grabbed her up and swam her into shore. Mrs. Lee almost drowned at birth. “

“That’s incredible.”

“I know the family wants her to stop diving and maybe when she turns 85 she will. But, at least until then, she’ll keep going to sea. That’s for sure.”

Mrs. Kim paused for a moment, sipping her coffee. She looked up at me and spoke again, “It’s a wonder they didn’t all die that time out on Gwantal Island.”

“What time on Gwantal Island?” I asked. Gwantal Island was a small island off the northern coast, not much more than a huge rock really. It was barely visible on most days.

Mrs. Kim set down her coffee, gripping the paper cup with a thumb on the inside. She gave me a look, a look that said if you don’t know about Gwantal Island, then what do you know? It frustrated her that the other villagers neglected to tell me what she considered to be the most important information. Of course, whenever anyone in Insi-ri told any story, they usually referred me to Mrs. Kim for validation. And it wasn’t only me. In some of the anthropological work done on Insi-ri related to the village’s shrines, you can guess whose testimony is featured. She was very much the person in the village who kept everything in its right order.

“As far as I know,” I said, “the fishermen take young divers from the city port out there sometimes. You need at least a ten tonner because it’s a rough area.”

“That’s right. And it’s a dangerous place. No kidding. The neighbor grandma and the rest of them were stuck out there for six days. You never heard that story?”


Gwan Tal Island shot at full 200mm zoom from the shore, upper left corner, photo by the author

Gwan Tal Island

I knew that there was no way Mrs. Lee was going to tell me anything about Gwantal Island. I tried probing anyway, on several occasions. I asked her directly one day while she was peeling garlic, in the garden space, where the four divers often processed their catch together. When that didn’t work, I employed her youngest grandson to do the deed. No success there either. To the boy’s chagrin, he was put to work instead, loading sacks of garlic onto a truck.

Mrs. Lee’s favorite way of answering a question, when she didn’t want to, was to stick an arm out in the air and point off in some direction.

One day, I inquired:

“Auntie Lee, I heard that your cousin is the one who pulled the giant oarfish out of the water? The one in the national history museum.”

Not bothering to look up from her work of husking soybeans, she pointed in the direction of the harbor. What did it mean? Yes, her uncle was the one? The oarfish was brought in at the harbor…the harbor just over there? Go ask someone else?

Another inquiry:

“Auntie Lee, is it true your mother gave birth to you in the water?”

Again, the arm went up, this time in the direction of the sandy beach.

One day, my friend Hee, a housewife in her early forties, had come along with me to Insi-ri. She was anxious to meet the diver who once survived being shipwrecked on Gwantal Island. She was convinced that, woman to woman, she could get Mrs. Lee to talk. I had hopes—my doubts outweighed the hopes.

Mrs. Lee, we discovered, was down on the rocky beach processing turban shells, cracking them open and scraping out the edible innards. The process sounded like a mason working brick with a trowel.

“You’re the only one alive who knows the story,” Hee spoke in a high, saccharine voice that young Korean women often use to speak to elderly people with. “Auntie, no one could tell it like you could.”

For a while, Mrs. Lee didn’t say anything. She kept going about her work. Then suddenly, she hissed, “Everyone knows that story. Ask someone else.”

“But auntie, you’re the only one who is still alive who was actually part of that event.” Hee added, quite dramatically, “Joey came all the way from America and you’re the last one who can tell the story. If you don’t tell him, then who will ever be able to tell it? Who will ever know what really happened that time on Gwantal Island?”

Mrs. Lee crashed open a turban shell with a piece of basalt. The creature’s black, slug-like innards ejected out under the force. She picked the gelatinous, black mass up with her fingers and threw it into the bucket.

“I’ll tell you when I’m dead,” she muttered.

Hee, seeing that we had failed miserably, stood up from the squatting position she’d been in and backed away. She shrugged her shoulders. “Be careful, auntie,” she said. “The tide is coming in fast.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Mrs. Lee, kindly.

She’d won.

If not Lee, then Kim

The next time I came to the village, a day when I couldn’t readily locate Mrs. Kim, I found Mrs. Lee conversing with two other women in one of the narrow village lanes. She greeted me proudly in front of her friends, who quickly took their leave, donning bonnets and work gloves caked in mud. Despite her resistance to relating any personal stories of her own, Mrs. Lee enjoyed facilitating my work and letting others know she was doing so. We went traipsing through the bean fields that flanked the southern end of the village, looking for Mrs. Kim. We searched all over the place only to find her at home. Mrs. Lee, satisfied with the outcome, took her leave.

“We thought you were in the fields,” I said. It was evident Mrs. Kim had gone to town by the finer clothes she wore. She explained that she had been to the traditional market. We went inside and sat down on the heated floor pad in the house’s small anterior room. She poured out sweet coffee-mix into paper cups, then filled them with hot water.

“Mrs. Lee won’t tell the Gwan Tal story,” I said, after taking a few sips of the sweet coffee. “You’re going to have to tell it.”

I told Mrs. Kim about my efforts to get Mrs. Lee to talk, ending with Hee and I ambushing her on the beach. I told her about how she’d said she’d tell us all about it only after she was dead.

Mrs. Kim took a moment to gather herself, then spoke. “Gwan Tal Island,” she sighed, then shook her head. “I always hated going there.”

 “You wouldn’t believe the trouble they caused. The six of them went, the neighbor Grandma—of course we weren’t grandmas back then—and five other women from the village. We never had a large amount of divers here. Most of the women married into neighboring villages or went away to the city. Most of the time, the women from Insi-ri would tag along with the city harbor divers or divers from other areas—they’d go out to Gwantal Island together. You needed a ten- or twenty-ton boat for the job. But this particular time, being greedy as they were, the six of them hired a five-ton boat.”

“The six of them sailed out to Gwantal Island. They dove for a couple hours, but when it was time to swim in, treacherous waves started breaking. To avoid crashing the boat into the islet, the captain steered away from the divers and out to the open sea. Mrs. Lee and the others scrambled up the cliffs. The worst weather you can imagine rolled in—a full-blown typhoon. It made it impossible for the captain to get back to the women. They were stuck there.”

“So, what happened to the boat?” I asked.

“The captain ended up on Chuja Island. He escaped the storm by the skin of his teeth. The women, including the neighbor grandma, were trapped. Without hope… Well, we didn’t have the warning systems like we do now. And no cell phones, either. “

“I was left with the six women’s children, from ten years old all the way down to the neighbor grandma’s young son. He was just a little infant at the time. I suckled him and the other little ones myself, just like I was their mom. I would carry the children to the Grandfather God’s shrine at the far end of the village. Every day I laid out six bowls of rice as an offering, one for each diver. I prayed so hard. I squinted my eyes until tears came out and pressed my hands together until they shook. While the children wailed, rain would spatter down. The rice bowls filled up with rainwater and overflowed.”

“By the sixth day I was getting really desperate. The waves had settled down, but the weather was still bad. I thought to myself, I’m going to have to take care of all these children—the poor things. They’d done nothing but cry and shiver for days. The ones who were old enough to know what was happening thought their mothers were dead. And so did I.”

“And then, on the sixth day, when hope had dried up—here comes a boat. The whole village went out onto the beach. There they were, the neighbor grandma and all the others. Their wetsuits were ripped. Some of them were half-naked. Their skin looked blue. They’d lived off of shellfish and rainwater, clinging to that awful rock. Some of them had been deathly sick. Eventually, word had gotten out that divers were stranded on Gwantal Island and someone came from Mokpo to fetch them. Only the Sky God knows how they made it.”

“You must have been overjoyed to see them,” I said.

“I was furious,” Mrs. Kim grimaced. “Gwan Tal Island,” she said, her voice pitching up to a raspy scrape. “It’s the neighbor grandma and the other women’s greed that led them there. The neighbor grandma has always been like that. Stubborn for money. Always working under dangerous conditions.”

“Gwantal  Island?” Mrs. Kim shook her head. “Who needs that place? Who needs that kind of money? Is it really worth the risk of leaving your children behind?  Are you going to take the money with you when Death’s Messenger comes?”

Where You Go When it’s Over

The system for advancing the soul to the afterlife on Jeju Island is an interesting production. Concerning death, like so many shamanic traditions, there is the figure of a psychopomp—a messenger god, like the Greek Hermes or the Egyptian Anubis, who spirits the soul away. On Jeju Island, news of the individual’s passing begins locally in the village where the deceased is a resident, and is communicated up a chain of command—from one divinity to the next. In Insi-ri, following this protocol, the grandfather god first receives the news of the death, possibly from a roving spirit or human visitor to his shrine. Being the major resident deity, he relates the news of the death along the chain.

From shrine to shrine, word travels across the island until it reaches the village of Songdang, wherein the famed goddess Baekjuddo resides. From Baekjjudo, news of the death is voiced to the supreme deity, the Sky God. The primary psychopomp, Ganglim, and his somewhat less competent colleagues, then speed off to Earth to retrieve the soul. They seek out the individual, finally checking off their name in The Book of the Dead. (Famously, this enterprise doesn’t always go to plan, as can be illustrated in the Chasa epic myth, when a certain man called ‘Somani’, to the Lord of the Afterlife’s chagrin, evades the inevitable by tricking the messengers. We can assume that in well than more than 99.999..% of cases the messengers’ duty is swiftly dispatched. According to the Chasa epic, it was due to this sort of incompetence that the brilliant Ganglim was so lauded as head messenger in the first place. The Sky God wanted a wise man to fill the position. It was the resourceful Ganglim who finally brought Somani over.) This system may seem surprisingly bureaucratic, but similar processes are reported in many polytheistic traditions. Such structures and systems amongst gods for communicating information up a hierarchal ladder are even present in cuneiform tablets. *

At shamanic funerals on Jeju Island, village shamans functioning as spirit mediums receive the souls of the dead who speak through them. Family members gather in the home of the deceased for this ritual. One by one, they are confronted with the shaman, who relates the final wishes and concerns of the dead. It is of utmost importance for the shaman to provide a sense of resolution for family members, for it is believed that ancestors play an active role in the living’s life. These spirits continue to affect their circumstances. Apart from this negotiating of fate between the deceased and living, the object of the ceremony, like funerary rituals worldwide, is to comfort the bereaved. Offerings for the dead are made on an individual basis in other ceremonies as well, even years after the event of the death. It is up to the individual making the offerings to decide where and when. Family members might also take counsel from the shaman, to choose an auspicious time and place.

Insi-ri, of course, hadn’t had a shaman to perform such rituals since the 1980s. Mrs. Kim related to me that she has lived with a gnawing feeling of emptiness since the last shaman had passed away. No one qualified to take her place remained.

“If the shaman was alive, we’d have a big ceremony for all the village dead. A big feast,” Mrs. Kim said one day, while burning prayer paper on the beach. She handled the translucent paper, called baekji, carefully, as flames crawled up its edges. Since Mrs. Kim knew many of the shamanic songs and held traditions so close to her heart, she looked on herself as the last protector of the village shrines. People in the village saw her very much in the same way.  Since there was no shaman to perform the task of praying for the dead en masse, she had taken to doing little abbreviated rituals herself—to be certain that the gods realized that people in the village were still concerned about the wellbeing of those on the other side.

“You wouldn’t believe how we used to sing and dance—right here on this coast. Back then, everyone attended the rituals, all the women—and the men, too.”

“How about the women that were trapped on Gwan Tal?” I asked.

“Of course, they were there. We all believed back then, very deeply.”

Mrs. Kim shifted her hands further down the baekji, taking it into her fingertips, so as not to burn them. A small amount of smoke billowed up into the air, carrying with it bits of burning paper. This was auspicious.

“I don’t know what the young people are doing nowadays. But to be a proper islander you have to make offerings to the gods. How do you think I’ve lived into my mid-eighties? I’ll be around until I’m a hundred, I suppose. Anyway, some of these young people look dead to me when they are around thirty.”

The Village from a Distance

The story of Mrs. Lee being stranded on Gwantal Island, at some point, was swept up in a flood of other inquiries. Originally, I had wanted to scour through old newspapers to search out any mention of the incident in the local press. I even reserved a place on a commercial fishing boat that was going to skirt by the islet. Alas, that day I missed my alarm. I realized anyway, that going to Gwantal Island, more like passing by it for a few fleeting moments, wasn’t going to help me finish the documentary film I was already supposed to have completed a couple years prior.

Despite missing that boat, Gwantal Island is still very much with me. On clear days, if I’m in a place that has the right vantage, I’ll often search the horizon for the faint form of the islet, looming out there at sea.

As far as Insi-ri goes, it’s been a couple years since I have interacted much with the divers there, though I do pass by the area every few months. The village is certainly changing.

Many of the tiny homes have been converted to coffee shops or guesthouses. Mrs. Kim’s little battered house has an addendum now, too. A sushi place abuts a wall of her home. One day when I ran into her along the coast, I learned that her son had returned to the village, giving up employment in the city. This has long been something she desired. The sushi place is his.

The last few times I’ve been to the village, I haven’t seen Mrs. Lee in the water. Not in the vicinity of the stony beach or the far jetty. On my most recent visit, when I passed by her home, peering in through the slats of the gate into the small patio area, I could see there were no longer any diving tools—no trowels used for prying turban shells from the sea rock; no fluorescent floats that the divers used for buoyancy, hung on the walls. I pushed opened the gate and peered into the converted storeroom which served as Mrs. Lee’s apartment. It was entirely empty. There was no bedding or dresser, no furniture whatsoever.

I know that Ok-sun Lee hadn’t succumbed to the sea. When a diver passes on Jeju Island while performing her duty, the whole island mourns. One could catch a sense of this, in the tone of the newscasters’ voices who covered the story on the local news, or overhearing people converse about the event, in the staccato manner of the island’s language, in a restaurant, or on a bus—or elsewhere.

There is so much tragedy that resonates with the occurrence of a diver dying at sea. So many have experienced waiting for the women in their lives to swim in, counting the minutes of a late arrival. It is as if a collective mother has died.

The thought of it stirs up something which is almost primal.


*see Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Mesopotamia: The Gods as Owners pg. 178-88 for the presence of such hierarchies as far back as Sumerian traditions

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Holy crap Joey, this was wonderfully articulated. Such an intense story. So glad you got around to posting this.
    i’ve burned the baekji before, in the mountains of Muju at a mountain man’s shrine, during various Dangun rituals, one for Chuseok, another for the start of spring. i wish i could remember the chants in detail, the rhythms were incredible, very emotive.


    1. Thanks Daniel. You’ll have to tell about those rituals next time we meet up.


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