Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Well Ralph, I agree. My haenyeo school classes are over and the experience has definitely been a journey for me. Over the past four months, I have faced fears, made lifelong friends, I hope, and become a part of a tradition and culture I respect more than my words can express.
My biggest and most genuine fear that resurfaced while attending haenyeo school was nudity in the women’s locker room. For me, this fear was more terrifying than any shark bite, mauling by jelly fish, or death by drowning. In life, I have managed to avoid most circumstances that would force me to deal with this most uncomfortable situation. Imagine my shock and horror when I first stepped into the ladies washroom, a.k.a. naked room, and standing before me, approximately forty naked women, all of whom seemed perfectly at ease with the nakedness surrounding them. I have no doubt that all the blood drained from my face as if I had seen a ghost.
Each week, I would dread the time before class where we changed into our wetsuits and after class when we would bathe and change back into our regular clothes. And each week, I practiced my highly developed skill of dressing and undressing without showing any skin and bathing in the most private manner as possible when shoved in one room with so many women. I was like a ninja, darting from corner to corner, back turned to the crowd, carefully watching for prying eyes. After several weeks, in an attempt to ease my concerns, I finally ask my translator, Jackie (her English name), if she thought Korean women bothered to look at foreign women when bathing together. I fully expected her to say “Oh no! We are all the same. No need to stare.” Or something similar that would put me at ease. Instead, she smiled and said “Of course we look. How do I say… we are curious.” I was horrified. This matter of fact statement only intensified my need to avoid every jimjilbang (public bathhouse) inside Korea. It is safe to say my fear has not been overcome nor will it anytime soon.
My second fear was of singing karaoke. It is clear to me now that I’m in the wrong place to avoid this fear as well as the nudity fear I just mentioned. Every party at school, and there were many, involved karaoke. I managed to avoid singing at the first few “after class” parties but eventually caved under the pressure of my Korean classmates somewhere around the third gathering and sang You Look Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton with my husband. He did a decent job but I simply butchered the song. Yet, at the next party, with enough liquid courage, I jumped on stage with my friend Terue and belted out Dancing Queen by Abba, as if I were a rock star. I have conquered this fear.
▲ The last swim on graduation day. Photo courtesy Wanda Wynn
I have met so many incredible people over the past four months that it would take an entire diary to say all the wonderful things I would love to say about each and every one of them. To name a few, there is friend Terue who is from Japan. We came into this experience as 'outsiders’ from different points of view and cultural experiences yet bonded in a way that I didn’t expect and I don’t think she did either. I received this lovely note from her just last week.
“I just wanted to tell you how much it meant to me to have someone like you observing my challenging life in Jeju from another unique point of view which I did not expect to have before meeting you of course.”
She is just one of the many people who became a part of whom I have become.
Another truly unlikely person who shared this experience on the sidelines is Barry, my landlord. Back in May, during one of his many BBQ’s, where all are welcome, I shared with him that I had applied and had been accepted to the haenyeo school. Most Saturdays, he was sitting outside as I would leave for class. I always took a few moments to chat with him and afterwards he would send me off with a smile and tell me to have a good day. Barry is a dive instructor and it was obvious that my participation in the school made him very happy and he was so encouraging. On my graduation day he and his wife came to the ceremony and brought me flowers. I had not expected this and was deeply touched by their kindness.
To mention one more, there was my translator Jackie. I simply love her. During a field trip to Aqua Planet, we spent hours talking and came to realize that we were two women who have basically lived parallel lives on different continents. My list of wonderful new friends could go on and on.
The cultural lessons provided by this experience have been significant. In hindsight, I do not believe there is or was any other situation or place in Jeju that would have allowed me to be so near the haenyeo in such a personal way. A very emotional moment for me was at my graduation when I was on stage with several of my classmates and some of the haenyeo we had been diving with for the past several months. Together, we sang the Anti-Japanese Song of the Haenyeo. My blonde hair was out of place as the only foreigner on stage but my heart was absolutely in the right place. I also do not believe there is any other situation that would have allowed me to feel as connected to Jeju as I did at that very moment in time. I am eternally grateful for the experience and it was an incredible part of my journey so far!
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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