▲ Female — and a few male — students at the Haenyeo Hakyo listen to instructions as they prepare to dive in the manner of the famous woman divers of Jeju. Photo by Sherrin Hibbard
The haenyeo, in their black rubber wetsuits, diving masks and fins are a common sight here in Jeju. Diving in groups of up to 20 or 30, these women scour the sea floor looking for saura shells, abalone, octopus, sea urchins, sea squirts, sea cucumbers and other edible sea foods.
Diving on only a single breath of air, without artificial breathing equipment of any kind, the haenyeo’s work is hard and fraught with danger.
History Before the nineteenth century it was the men of Jeju who dived in the sea. However, women took on this work when new laws required that men had to pay tax but women were exempt.
The result was a new-found financial independence from men which did not fit the Confucian ideology of the time. Eventually the administration elites in Seoul tried to ban women from diving, supposedly because their dress was considered too revealing. During the Japanese occupation the haenyeo rallied against their invaders and today are proudly acknowledged for their anti-Japanese protests.
Culture The taewak is an integral part of the haenyeo divers’ equipment. Originally made of pampas grass and a dried gourd, it provides a float on which the haenyeo can rest to catch their breath while the attached net holds their catch. These days the taewak is made from modern polystyrene foam and fishing net.
It is usual for the haenyeo to sing songs that help take their minds off their work. Many of these songs are made up on the spot as circumstances dictate.
The shaman rituals of Young Deung kut are another important aspect of haenyeo life. Held every 1st and 14th of February of the lunar calendar, shamans all around Jeju ask the sea god to keep the haenyeo safe and give them bountiful catches.
Adventures on Jeju In another life I used to be a commercial fisherman, which left me with a lifelong love and passion for the sea and all things maritime. On discovering the haenyeo of Jeju I was beside myself with excitement and curiosity. I was determined to find out as much as I could about these women – and dive with them!
My first dive with the haenyeo was as part of a lifestyle show. I traveled all over Jeju Island being filmed meeting people associated with many aspects of haenyeo lifestyle and culture – a wetsuit maker, men who made traditional taewak, fishermen and the haenyeo women themselves.
I dived with the haenyeo over two days and learned that there are three kinds of haenyeo. There are those that dive close to shore, those that dive further out, and those that dive out to sea from a boat. I also learned that there are a few haenam – male haenyeo. They were wonderful experiences but my time diving with these women was very short and severely constrained by my inability to speak Korean.
The Haenyeo Hakyo (school) In trying to find out about Jeju’s haenyeo I heard about a haenyeo school located somewhere on the west side of Jeju. With help from my friends I found out that the Haenyeo School was located at Gwideok and was busily preparing for their second intake of students.
I was excited to learn that this year’s classes would be held every Saturday. Any concerns about language were dismissed when a woman standing next to me, hearing my doubts, said in perfect English “If you want to join the class, I will help you”. I joined the Haenyeo Hakyo.
It turns out that some of the haenyeo students can speak English. Nearly all the haenyeo students are educated women whose mothers and grandmothers were haenyeo. For them it is a way of connecting with their roots.
For me it has been a dream come true. I am not only diving with the haenyeo, but through our shared experiences in the water, I am finding out who these women are. I’ve found that, like myself, they also have a lifelong love and passion for the sea.
For information in English regarding the Haenyeo Hakyo at Gwideok, contact Youngsoon on 010) 069-3595
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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