▲ Foreign resident Mike Laidlaw sprints for the sea at the penguin swim. Photo by Brian Miller
Taking the plunge into the deep blue sea is what the penguin swim is all about. A vested tradition held at Jungmun Beach in Seogwipo each year, the swim is literally the coolest festival Jeju Island has to offer. This year commemorates the 10th chilly venture for Jeju’s human penguins.
The tradition stems from a Korean cultural belief that from great pain comes great strength, and thus leads to the perception that those who can bear the cold can face life’s challenges with ease. Similar to polar bear swims held worldwide, the penguin swim’s basic premise is a dive into frigid waters in celebration of the winter season, the New Year and simply being alive. The event offered in Jeju, however, has a few peculiarities that distinguish it from contemporaries elsewhere.
A unique feature of the penguin swim, in keeping with traditional Korean cultural ties, is the preemptive Ssirum grappling. Ssirum is a sport born of the warrior roots of Korea, as a mode of self-defense, which gained popularity during the Joseon dynasty. It entails a wrestling match around a ring in which opponents battle until the victor forces a part of his enemy’s body, above the knee, to touch the floor. The winner at the penguin swim is often handsomely rewarded, with prizes awarded to the top female and male fighter.
As a foreigner, I felt the challenge of Ssireum wrestling would be a unique experience so I volunteered to take on a group of women in the grudge match to win a prize. Unfortunately, no one had informed me that women do not engage in the sport and , to my dismay, they had me take part in in a Korean style chicken fight, where each combatant stands on one leg and attempts to knock over the other while holding onto their raised leg which is crossed to one side. Unaware of the rules I should be following, I pushed my opponent, which is an illegal move, and still lost; however, it was a fun learning experience.
Held under the canopy of green trees that looms over the fine golden sand of Jungmun beach, the penguin swim fulfills a primal hunger and offers a glance at the beauty that Jeju’s natural surroundings have to offer. One battles the forces of nature in the bitter cold of an early dawn in the first month of the New Year, and gains a personal sense of beating the cruelty that mother nature can administer in this snow-lined season. Jeju Island, in this rare instance becomes a playground for the blustery apparitions of winter to come forth full steam, with the red and blue shorts of the Korean Marines and Coast Guard providing the backdrop.
The foreign community had a limited presence at the swim, as its main constituency is the locals. The festival is claimed to draw several thousand participants, although in years past this has not always been the case due to inclement weather. This year, there were few more than a few hundred Penguins out to play.
The water was icy and after a gamut of pre-swim activities, it was time to dive in. Some swimmers drenched themselves in a covering of tangerine-colored paste to protect from the cold that was to overtake them momentarily. The paste was generously dobbed on from a large plastic tub in the event’s main space.
Next, the race to the kayakers and boats was on. I swam furiously to grab at one of the coveted plastic balls that are tossed out by event coordinators. Each ball affords the receiver a special prize that can be redeemed at a counter once back on land. A slew of tough-as-nails citizens raged into the ocean and swiped them up within the first minute. There was great revelry, chants in Hangeul streamed from the populace, fireworks streamed into the sky and the clear blue ocean waters were now full of the bodies of hundreds of Penguins.
Once back on shore, a feast replete with coffee, tea, dried persimmons, figs, fire roasted yam, pork and special seaweed soup lay waiting for the frozen participants to warm-up with. It was a grand event that made one proud upon completion of the swim.
For the rest of the year, one can calmly reflect on this, the chilliest of beginnings, and be grateful for the ability to attempt it again the following year.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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