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A purpose-filled lifeJournalist Brenda Paik Sunoo learns from Jeju's haenyeo
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승인 2011.04.23  13:03:39
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▲ Photo courtesy Brenda Paik Sunoo and Seoul Selection

Brenda Paik Sunoo, a third-generation Korean-American from Los Angeles, has always attempted to live a life of purpose.

Journalist, writer, and photojournalist, Paik Sunoo has made a career of words and images. Though she is the author of three books and numerous articles, it is the publication of her most recent work that has brought about her return to Jeju Island.

Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea” is a photo-and-text tribute to Jeju’s diving women, the “jamsu,” more recently known as “haenyeo.” The book reflects Paik Sunoo’s message – of her life and to the world – which she learned in part from these courageous and highly skilled women: to live and to age with purpose.

Paik Sunoo’s life has not been without its challenges. In 1994, she lost her 16-year-old son to sudden cardiac failure. As a result she experienced a profound emotional shock precipitating a lengthy grieving process. In her mourning and recovery, she became a grief counselor for other bereaved parents, founded Compassion at Work (, and wrote her first book, “Seaweed and Shamans: Inheriting the Gifts of Grief.”

From 2002 to 2008, Paik Sunoo and her husband Jan lived in Vietnam. Based on that experience and her love of her “adopted homeland,” she published her second book, the photo-essay “Vietnam Moment.”

For “Moon Tides,” she lived with and researched Jeju’s diving women for a total of seven months between the years of 2007 and 2009.

“It was an organic process,” she says of her research, “as I began without a clear direction specifically so that I might allow the book to evolve.”

She tells one story of a chance meeting with one diving woman, Woo Sun-deok, who almost immediately began referring to Paik Sunoo as “my twin sister in another life.”

This diving woman invited her to join the family “chesa” or ancestral rite, an unusual gesture toward a stranger, and in a deeply emotional experience the two discovered that each had lost a son.

Paik Sunoo recalls many such synchronous and touching moments.

Citing the 75 million “Baby Boomers” in her home country who are now in their 50s and 60s, she emphasizes the primary lesson she gained in her study of the diving women.

“We [in the U.S.] aren’t quite certain how to age well,” she relays. “Should we take up golf? Travel? But the haenyeo demonstrate how to age with dignity and purpose,” she continues, “by keeping the mind active, and by contributing to community – especially to those who are vulnerable.”

She describes this experience as significant to her own understanding of living a purposeful life.

“The theme of this book is that regardless of age, you can live your life with purpose, as an infinite and continuous journey,” she describes.

She also speaks of “destiny” and “fate” as she talks about the “seeds planted long ago:” her grandmother who lived with her and taught her about Korean culture, her first visit to Jeju in 1989 when she became aware of the diving women, her background in feminism and human rights activism and many chance encounters along the way.

“This book has emerged following a long process,” she recalls. “Now, it’s time to give it life, and to introduce the ‘haenyeo story’ to the world.”

Paik Sunoo acknowledges that there is already a wealth of material on the diving women, though not a great amount written in English.

“When I began my research, I noted a number of academic papers as well as pieces written by travel writers,” she recounts. “But I wanted to create something that represented the Jeju life more completely.”

Three photos from her book, one of which won top honors for “Community Choice,” were selected for the International Museum of Women.

She is visiting Jeju for two weeks “in order to thank so many people who were instrumental in this project” as well as to hold a press conference. Following this visit, she will have additional press conferences in Seoul, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities still to be determined.

Brenda Paik Sunoo embodies the purposeful life that she found in the diving women.

“I couldn’t have written this until I reached ‘hangap’ [60, considered significant in Korean culture],” says this vibrant 63-year-old. “Only now am I the diving women’s peer and have the confidence for such a project.”

Following her career as a journalist, author, and photojournalist, as well as grief counselor and management consultant and a personal life of human rights activism, she continues to seek new ways of “meaning-making” in her own life.

“I have many ideas in mind for what’s next,” she laughs, “but in America, we believe that it’s bad luck to talk about ideas too early.”

Without any doubt, when she decides on her next project, she will enter the process with dedication and enthusiasm.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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