▲ 1 and 2: Kim Jae-yeon on Marado's rocky shore. 3: In her Chinese restaurant. 4: Smiling with abalone ("jeonbok"). Photos courtesy Kim Jae-yeon. Photos courtesy Kim Jae-yeon
In many ways Kim Jae-yeon is a typical Jeju woman.
She is 38 years old and has two children with her public official husband, a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. Her erratic hours and busy weekends mean she doesn’t see them as much as she would like.
Born on Marado, she moved to Jeju proper in her youth for education and work, but feeling a spiritual disconnect in her work as a banker, she returned home 10 years ago to “rediscover her heritage.”
Working at a Chinese restaurant popular with tourists visiting Korea’s southernmost point, her story reflects those of working mothers across Korea. Kim’s, however, is a special kind of diligence, surpassing most others even on these islands of strong women.
While many parents take on second jobs, Kim is in a league of her own, diving into the waves as one of a handful of active haenyeo on her home island. After six years she concedes her rarity, but sees the calling as a form of catharsis.
Living with her mother, father and younger brother 0n Marado, haenyeo life is “pure, communal, faithful and humane,” prioritizing nature above greed, she says.
Her father is paralyzed on the left side after suffering a brain hemorrhage, and she joins her mother in caring for him. Her brother was also partially paralyzed after an accident, and he waits tables at the family restaurant.
There has been more pain elsewhere in her family. Her aunt — her “greatest mentor” — lost a son in a tragic accident and overcame the pain through diving. She has since been Kim’s role model, and was instrumental in Kim making the decision to take to the seas.
“It was a big decision to retrain, and I knew it would take a lot of hard work,” she says, but with her younger years (she is the second youngest haenyeo on Jeju) and new-found abilities she thought she had the edge on the older women. She concedes she was foolish for entertaining such thoughts.
“The eldest are the strongest,” she says.
A haenyeo’s work doesn’t stop once ashore, says Kim, despite their popularization as modern-day mermaids. Most also work as laborers and farmers, and Kim herself routinely carries 40kg sacks, the exertion failing to dull her fresh mind, she insists.
Kim starts her day at 6am and readies to go out with her tireless seniors. She can get two dives in if the weather is clear, staying in the water for up to 4 hours at a time. She catches mostly conch and abalone at up to 10 meters depth, and gathering some seaweed for her renowned jjamppong, Chinese-style noodles, at the restaurant.
Even that work is at the mercy of the weather, however, with inclement conditions meaning both no diving and no visitors. Not that she can relax with family at such times (roughly every other day) as her husband and children stay on Jeju, attending school and the office, meaning she mostly sees them when they go to Marado by ferry on the weekends.
Although often touted as a lucrative profession, the demanding training — “up to five years” — meant Kim was not able to earn much until relatively recently. She can now pull in $2,000 for three days’ work, a decent return for the working hours, she says.
This is just as well as working in the sea is “always dangerous,” with cramp and other obstacles a mortal danger. Most dangerous are the dumped fishing lines which become deadly traps when entangled in seaweed. Once she thought it was her time, before she managed to cut the line to freedom.
With such uncertainty the rest days are welcome, and although she feels the demands and hardships of haenyeo life are too much for young women today, she says she would never quit, “even if someone paid me to.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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