Jeju Island’s Haenyeo: A User’s Manual, the daughter of a diver who came home to surf and save the sea

Ji Yeon is a magazine editor, surfer and granddaughter of a woman diver. She chose to return from the mainland to Jeju Island after hearing news of the contested second airport which is slated for construction near her native village. Ji Yeon’s passion for activism started as a teenager when she witnessed the environmental decline of her village firsthand.

Ji Yeon Activist Journalist

Where were you born?

Shinyang.

Can you tell us a little about Shinyang.

There are a number of villages in Seongsan County. Shinyang is one of them. I was born there. There aren’t any schools in Shinyang, so I attended school a little ways outside of my village in Goseong. I still live in Shinyang. It’s a small village where most people work in agriculture or work at sea. My grandmother and grandfather did that as well, so as a child I played in the fields and nearby the sea with the other children. In middle school, I started to go to Seopjikoji, a beautiful natural area, before they developed it with buildings and hotels. I used to go windsurfing out there. Now, windsurfing has disappeared from the area.

I saw people windsurfing there years ago.

Oh really? I was too young to understand why we had to stop surfing there, but later I realized it was because a large resort called Phoenix Island was built. The water used to be such a brilliant emerald color, and I saw the water’s color change over time. Little by little, I became interested in why the environment was changing for the worse in my village. I started asking myself, what can I do about this? I started to ask my science teachers about why the changes were happening. They seemed to think that since such a young person was asking them these questions, it wasn’t important to answer them. No matter who I asked, their responses weren’t satisfactory. There was no solution.

Were there other students who worried about the problem like you did?

Other students said that I was right when I brought it up. But they weren’t as interested in pursuing it as I was. For the most part, they didn’t think that there was anything they could do about it or that they had any relation to it, even though their parents worked at sea. I think it’s natural because they were so young. I was different because I surfed and often came into close contact with the sea. After middle school, I went to high school in a village a little further away from Shinyang.

I was too young to understand why we had to stop surfing, but later I realized it was because a large resort called Phoenix Island was built. The water used to be such a brilliant emerald color, and I saw the water’s color change over time. Little by little, I became interested in why the environment was changing for the worse in my village. I started asking myself, what can I do about this?

Where was that?

I attended Saewa High school.

When they were building Phoenix Island, the women divers there fought against it.

That’s right.

Do you recall those years?

It was really noisy in town. There were a lot of people against it. My mom was working at the village office back then, so I heard a lot about it. I was so young that I didn’t really comprehend what was going on, but now that I’m working to oppose the second airport, I certainly link the two things.

The reason I know that story is because while I was studying shamanism on Jeju Island, I met with the village shaman in Shinyang—now she’s passed away I believe—but she told me that story.

I used to hear a lot of news about the town when I was at my grandmother’s house, because so many people from the village would stop by there to visit and chat.

Which grandmother is the woman diver in your family?

On my mother’s side.

Can you tell us about her? Is she still living?

No. She passed away when I was twelve. More so than as a diver, I remember my grandmother from running a supermarket…well, it’s not very super if using the English term. It was a little town market. (Laughter) She sold things to eat, but she also prepared fishing lines for the fishermen. It always smelled like brine and fish where they worked on the fishing lines. I was always playing around there.

Did you hate the fish smell?

I actually like that smell and think it’s really sweet, even now.

Who were the people who visited the store?

Many people went there. Half of the store was a supermarket and the other half was a room where my grandmother lived. I came back from kindergarten everyday and watched tv there. My grandmother always told me to turn down the tv. She always called me a chattering bird when I’d talk to much. She told me to be quiet often. The elderly people from around there would always stop by. A lot of them have passed away now. A woman they called mother-in-law would always come, and then my friends would stop by. All of the neighborhood kids brought their bicycles and parked them outside of the shop. Some were my age, and others were older or younger. Ten or fifteen kids came.

All of the neighborhood kids brought their bicycles and parked them outside of the shop. Some were my age, and others were older or younger. Ten or fifteen kids came.

Have you always lived on Jeju?

I went to the mainland to attend university, but when I heard about the second airport project, I returned to Jeju.

So you returned to fight the second airport?

Yes, I did. I finished my last year and came down.

What did you study?

Journalism.

I heard you made a magazine. Can you show it to us?

Sure.

I heard you’ve done two issues?

Right. Since I was young I wanted to do something about the environmental destruction around my region. It was a great question mark hanging over me. Since I studied journalism, putting out a publication is something I could do.

When you were in Seoul did you visit the island often?

I visited a lot on the weekends and stayed during school vacations.

So you saw the changes in the environment happening little by little?

Yes, I saw it. But there were some things that shocked me. For instance, I came home to find there was a Starbucks here. I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying to myself, there are a lot of tourists here now. A lot of foreigners have come too. I had the same feeling like I had when I lost windsurfing. I felt like I’d lost my neighborhood this time. My friends said they felt unsettled. I felt like we had to do something. My friends and I kept meeting for a month or two. We came up with the idea that we could document everything that is happening and the people we’ve known all of our lives who live here. We think that the world we knew growing up is certainly disappearing.

Where did you distribute the magazine?

We distributed it to cafes and also to village offices. We gave them to the people we featured and distributed them amongst the elderly at the village recreation centers.

I’d like to talk about the proposed second airport now. I heard that you were very adept at convincing people to stand against it.

I didn’t focus on convincing people, but getting people to talk about the issue more. People were avoiding talking about it at first, because if they spoke they would start to fight. The announcement about the airport first came out in 2015. I came two years after that, and a lot of people still weren’t talking about it. In fact, not much information was going around. People weren’t talking to the newspapers much, and they were reporting only some of the vital information we needed. You have to give people information so they can take a stance on it. People came to me and asked, should I talk about this or not? What can we talk about? I wanted to make a newspaper covering the issue, but people told me that no one will want to use their names. People said it was dangerous to write about the issue. Then I started meeting people who felt like I did, and we started talking. From that point on, I started to feel brave. Since people’s opinions weren’t coming out much, I created a youtube channel and started interviewing the people I met. I started uploading them and people were watching and receiving the message. I spoke about my purpose and explained that we were in a state of not knowing what was happening. There were some commenters saying things like journalists get out of here and a lot of other strange things.

Do you feel comfortable talking about the issue of the second airport?

No, I don’t.

Why not?

I get nervous. Most of all, I didn’t want to cause an uncomfortable situation for my parents. On Jeju Island, we have gwendang culture. Following the customs of that culture, people I know contacted me.

The people involved in building the new airport can use gwendang culture to their benefit. Can you explain to my audience what gwendang is since its a foreign concept.

Well, in everything that we do, there is a kind of membership system. For instance, the class I attend school with and graduate with, and very importantly on Jeju, which school you graduated from. Which school did you attend? You hear it all the time. You are connected to those people and have a responsibility to interact with them. My seniors and juniors often contact me. When those people come together, they create a really strong bond. Sometimes, they aren’t even people that you know personally, but you say to them, ah, I’ll help you out since you are my junior from the same school.

Taking that into consideration, what kind of problems can arise related to the second airport?

I receive calls. They call me right up, and it’s not like they say stop! They put things more gingerly. C’mon, stop being so silly. Cut it out and work on something else. They say it playfully. What you’re doing is dangerous. Cut it out. Even my seniors attending University in Seoul call me up.

Wow.

You studied journalism and you know how dangerous this is. You shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.They got angry with me, so I got angry, and it pushed me to do something more about it. I’ve taken more action since then, and if they find out about our meeting today, or other meetings like this, they’ll be asking who I met. They’ll be angry with me again. (Laughter)

How do you feel when they talk like that? Do you feel a sense of betrayal? How can you overcome it?

It was really stressful for me, and I really couldn’t understand what I could do. What’s the point of what those people are doing? What’s their purpose? This is a huge development that is going to affect the wellbeing of Jeju Island. Why can’t I discuss it? We can’t talk and try to find a solution? We can’t even talk to try to understand what is going on? People acted like what I was doing had no meaning whatsoever. People implied I was lying about what I was observing. They didn’t want to meet or see me. I didn’t want to live anymore. My friends were witness to this. I cried a lot. I’ve never drank much alcohol in my life, but I drank a lot during that period. If only I was quiet, then I could just be a normal person without issues. I had doubts. There was a time I was really going through hell.

But there were some things that shocked me. For instance, I came home to find there was a Starbucks here. I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying to myself, there are a lot of tourists here now. A lot of foreigners have come, too. I had the same feeling that I had when I lost windsurfing. I felt like I’d lost my neighborhood this time.

Have you thought about the day that everyone will be evicted?

I have. The most striking thing is that the land price has skyrocketed so much on the island, so I’ve thought about where is it the people here can go. It’s so expensive that it’s not possible for them to go elsewhere on the island. Since they can’t afford a new house, would everyone have to live together in apartment rentals? It goes without saying that the land price will increase even more.

Who is the second airport project benefiting?

No one here. It doesn’t seem like it. The investors. It’s benefitting them. Real estate brokers. Those people.

What are you thinking about for the future? Will you release a third issue of your publication?

I don’t have too much energy these days, so I’m going to rest for a while. I want to meet my friends and enjoy their company. I want to return to normal life at its normal speed, but still we’re working on a third issue, and I want to hear what my friends have to say. We’ll work on the issue together.

Do you work here in this coffeeshop by chance?

No. I work at a surfboard company. I write their web contents.

Do you design the boards too?

Yes. It’s a small group, so we have to work on everything together. We go out and take photos too. As a group, we address the environmental problems. And all of us are in agreement, so we can talk comfortably together. We’re going to take more action together in the future. The covering for our boards isn’t plastic. It’s actually made from basalt fabric.

Basalt fabric exists?

Yes, it does. Of course, there is lots of basalt on Jeju, but this is from elsewhere. Glass fabric can be dangerous. Basalt fabric is very natural.

Do you surf?

Yes.

Where at?

I surf Jungmun beach in summer. I surf here near the village in winter.

Is there anything you’d like to leave us with?

I’ve met people from France who fought an airport project, and I’ve met people from Japan who opposed the Narita airport expansion. This situation is something that is going on all over the world.

Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual is available at Amazon as an e-book.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jan says:

    Hi Joey A good chapter! Thanks for republishing this and keeping the issue on people’s minds. What are you up to these days? We need to catch up soon. Take care J

    Like

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