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Portrait of a diving womanA glimpse into the life of Jeju's famed 'jamsu'
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승인 2011.08.14  02:50:41
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▲ A jamsu, more commonly known as haenyeo, harvests sea products from the ocean floor. Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of “Moon Tides”

“We go to the Otherworld to earn money and return to the earthly world to save our kids.”

From mother to daughter, this proverb has been passed down through generations of Jeju’s diving women. It provides encouragement, solace, and purpose in life.

“When I’m in the sea and the weather is bad, the water unclear, I often wonder: why am I doing this? But when it’s a good day, and the catch is in sight, my mind is completely empty except for my goal. And when I emerge from the water, all of my worries and cares have somehow disappeared.”

A common sentiment among the diving women, these are the words of Hong Kyung-ja, 62, the chief of Hansu village fishing collective – and a diver for 50 years.

Hong describes her profession in terms of freedom: ease of both movement and spirit when in the water, the right to decide for herself each day whether she dives or not, and a measure of control over her own destiny.

Jeju Island has 100 fishing villages and thus, 100 “eochongye” or economic collectives which govern both fishers and divers. With fewer than 20 women in the position of “gyejang,” an office decided by election, Hong – who has served as such for 8 years thus far – is in a minority.

She cites little difficulty being a woman in this position, mentioning only that she would sometimes like to meet with a colleague over dinner or drinks to thank him or discuss business, but as a woman in Jeju’s Confucian society, is prohibited by social norms from doing so. However, there are also advantages conferred by her gender.

Hong continues to dive nearly every day, believing that she can better help her divers by having firsthand, up-to-date knowledge of the profession and the sea’s condition – including its pollution.

She also helps other divers develop leadership qualities.

“We are a community,” she says. “We fight at times, yet we are like a family.”

According to Hong, members of the collective take care of one another, contributing to the well-being of the sick and elderly, and split their profits equally regardless of individual ability. They cook and eat together and often collaborate in small businesses like seafood restaurants.

The Hansu collective recently won an award for community spirit from the Haenyeo Museum located in Hado village, Gujwa district.

There is often confusion regarding the term for these diving women. Though it differs from one village to the next, the divers generally prefer “jamsu” (diving women), according to Hong and others.

“Haenyeo” is the most well-known term, first appearing in 18th century Jeju literature but it has gained in popularity only recently as a tourism term. It means “sea-female” and evokes images of mermaids.

Hong explained, “In [the] Korean language, the word ‘nyeo’ means female but is typically used for young girls: to women, it can feel demeaning.” ‘Yeo’ or ‘yeoseong’ are the generally accepted terms for women.

“Among ourselves, it’s simply ‘onni’ [sister] or ‘samchun’ [liter. ‘uncle’ but used generically for those village members who are one’s elder],” Hong said. She added that a few years ago, the Jeju government asked all collectives to forego “haenyeo” and use “jamnyeo” or “jamsu” instead. This has not yet become common practice.

The Hansu collective has 152 members, including 81 women and 71 men. Of their earnings, 3.5 percent remains with the organization, 1.5 percent helps to maintain the office and other buildings, while the remaining 2 percent is applied toward “ceremony” and “reinvestment in the sea.”

Hong explained that there are two annual ceremonies, or shamanic rites, held for the collective: Yeongdeung-gut, held early in the lunar calendar for both fishers and divers to entreat the beneficence of a sea deity; and Jamsu-gut, also held in early spring but strictly for divers.

In addition, divers regularly perform their own rite, known as “pungeogiwonje,” for safety and prosperity.

As to “reinvestment” in or “feeding” the ocean, each collective cultivates shellfish seedlings that they release into the sea, a common marine practice.

“The sea is turning white,” Hong said. “There is no more seaweed left. The marine life is much less than it was in my youth.”

“When a typhoon damages the farmers’ crops, they are compensated by the government,” she added, “but we are not compensated for the destruction of the sea by climate change — because the damage is invisible to those who do not enter the water.”

This damage is but one change Hong has seen during a career that spans the last half-century. She has also witnessed changes brought about by modernization.

The wetsuits now worn by diving women enable them to dive for longer periods and throughout the year, according to Hong, which seems ironic in light of the decrease in available marine product.

“We can dive more often, but we harvest much less,” she said. “However, since there’s less product on the market, we can also get a higher price for it,” she further explained.

Fishing villages and their ceremonies have increasingly become tourist sites, a phenomenon with which Hong takes no small issue.

“It isn’t the real, authentic life” of the diving women, she argues. “The ‘haenyeo school,’ the ‘haenyeo experience,’ and festivals – these are not real. Our community is dying out. But we must revive the old ways, not recreate them as tourist attractions.”

She has also witnessed a change in the sense of community shared by diving women. Where once the women dived wearing only “mulot” or “water clothes” – a specialized bathing costume – and warmed themselves in the “bulteok” or stone enclosure surrounding a central fire, talking and sharing their lives, they now go from diving in wetsuits to the use of modern seaside shower facilities, then quickly hop into their cars to return home.

“We don’t share with one another like we once did,” she sighed.

The government provides the wetsuits, as well as hospitalization costs, specialized oxygen treatments, and seaside facilities. When asked what the diving women need from the government, Hong replied, “a policy book to help explain things better to the membership, a retirement or pension plan, and no reduction in the current budget.”

She further suggested that government officials “get out of their offices and come down to the sea to see for themselves the damages brought on by pollution and climate change.”

The famed “strong Jeju woman” is most often visualized in these diving women. Taught the skills of diving by her mother and grandmother, Hong reported feeling “very proud” of her lineage as a member of this “woman’s island.”

“We hold our breath, go into cold water, and raise our kids,” she said, referring back to the proverb she has repeated throughout her life. “And we are brave, and we survive.”

(Interpretation by Back Hee Youn)

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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