▲ Tammy gives the thumbs up next to an underwater statue of a haenyeo during her 17-week haenyeo course. Photo by Junesun Kim
There are moments that Jeju teaches you to expect. The orange taewak buoy of a haenyeo, or woman diver, cradled among the black rocks. Her companion’s gapped smile beside the low plastic tanks of shellfish. The svelte statues of young, imagined haenyeo carved from black stone, backs bent above the busy streets.
But nothing led me to expect what happened at the Hansupul Haenyeo School Festival in August when I found myself in a circle of wetsuits following the K-pop moves of a dancing haenyeo opposite me. Her black perm bounced above her orange wetsuit, and her textured smile clashed against the dark blue of our team headband tied behind her wetsuit hood.
The moment perfectly fit my experience at the haenyeo school, a 17-week course in which absolutely nothing turned out as expected, and the unexpected moments came to be the course's very essence.
When I first drove my scooter to Gwideok in early May for the first class, I had a hazy but edged idea of how the course would be. I pictured us sitting in a circle around a haenyeo I would know by name, listening to her advice (kindly translated for me) on the mechanics of holding our breath for longer, or gathering shellfish at depths of 10 meters.
It took me about 30 minutes into class, my eyes squinting into hand motions alongside the other three English-speaking foreigners, to realize that any spoken instruction time would pass right over us.
Once I heard the whole class gasp. “What did she say?” I asked my English-speaking neighbor, gesturing towards the haenyeo on the podium.
“One day she was swimming and she looked down, and there was a whale beneath her,” my neighbor related.
The good news was that, by the next week, there was absolutely no more instruction.
The next week, we put on our wetsuits. We put on our masks. We put on our fins. We followed the haenyeo underwater. And we simply explored.
For the next 11 weeks, we would do exactly the same thing.
▲ Tammy Lang gives more thumbs up as she prepares to enter the water at Hansupul Haenyeo School in Gwideok. Photo courtesy Tammy Lang
After a day or two of aimless snorkeling, I started to learn to follow the haenyeo underwater, to copy the way they walked upside down with their hands grasping the edges of rocks. I watched the way they turned over rocks and did the same, breaking the surface with a handful of urchins. I memorized the shells of the sora, or conch, then followed rocky crevices until I had found where they huddled in groups of two, five, even eight.
Then I returned to the surface, where a haenyeo deftly cracked a sea urchin in two and motioned for me to eat its orange interior from the palm of her gardening glove. Another time, a haenyeo rubbed the living flab of a gunso, or sea hare, against my cheek. “Good for the skin,” she motioned.
I relished these moments with the haenyeo. These women were strong and brusque and perpetually shouting, but always flashed the next moment into a grin that was startlingly frank. I wanted to spend more time with them, to crack open a bottle of makgeolli and guess more stories of whales, but their part in our course ended when we left the water.
Instead the students met after each class in the upstairs classroom, crowding around six plastic tables and sharing dish after dish of seafood. I sat awkwardly in my chair at first, unsure what to do when I had nothing to say. But as the weeks progressed, my presence started to meld into theirs and by the end of the month I could wander around the room and feel the soft, shared warmth of the group, rather than the sharp otherness of being a foreigner.
This was my favorite part of haenyeo class: not the diving, or the field trips to Biyangdo Island or the Haenyeo Museum, or even the taste of fresh sora crushed beneath a belt weight, but that feeling of being part of a group.
Over the year and a half that I had lived in Korea, I knew Korean culture from the outside, as a foreigner, well-treated and welcomed, but still separate. Now, for the first time, I was able to glimpse some of the warm origins of the culture.
We went for makgeolli, and communicated using the language of “whoop-whoop” and hand motions for squid. We went to Oedolgae, and cooked fresh conch in a pot of instant noodles. For the final class, I baked chocolate cakes and shared them with the people I had grown to know over the last 17 weeks.
This is what made the haenyeo class so special: beyond the chance to spend each Saturday exploring the underside of Jeju’s coasts, I experienced the unending care and generosity of the Jeju people. And that connection, paired with the taste of sora, the sight of a drifting taewak against the bright underside of the sea, and the rhythm of dancing with a haenyeo in the sun, is what I will carry with me.
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