▲ Chae Ji-ae, one of the youngest female divers in Jeju Photos by Richard Seungmin Lee
When deciding to move to Jeju, Chae Ji-ae had some pretty common reasons for wanting to make the trip.
She spoke about having the chance to spend more time with her children, and about leaving the stresses of her job in Seoul.
However, while her reasons may be shared by many of the other people who move to Jeju, what she does here is certainly not.
As a hair designer working in Seoul, she could have continuing her career, perhaps setting up her own shop somewhere on the island. However, instead, she made the choice to join the ranks of the island’s haenyeo.
By doing this she became one of the youngest haenyeo on Jeju. She is one of only 10 haenyeo divers in their 30s and is working in a profession where the majority of her coworkers are aged 50 and over.
Her decision to become a haenyeo didn’t arrive completely out of the blue. She was born and raised in Jeju, in a village near to Seongsan. It wasn’t until she finished her education that she moved to Seoul to work.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, her mother is a haenyeo diver.
▲ Chae Ji-ae, diving for seashells Photos by Richard Seungmin Lee
For new people wanting to become a haenyeo, there is usually a long process they have to go through. This can involve living in the village and knowing the haenyeo who work there for between three to five years before you can actually start work.
Her background didn’t mean her entry into the job came without its challenges. In fact, as someone who knows all about the hardships of the job, Ji-ae said that her mother was actually initially against her plans to become a haenyeo. This was in part due to her first hand knowledge of the danger of spending long hours out at sea.
In fact, this danger was sadly highlighted by an incident just before our interview, when Ji-ae’s mother unfortunately suffered problems will out on a dive. Ji-ae said that despite her mother completing the dive, she has no memory after a certain point.
Fortunately, her mother is well on her way to recovery, although won’t be able to dive for a few more months.
Despite the danger and the hardships of the job. Ji-ae went ahead with her plan to become a haenyeo and has now been doing it for three years.
▲ Chae Ji-ae and her daughter Photos by Richard Seungmin Lee
I asked her if there are many differences between what she thought haenyeo life would be like, and what it is actually like. The first thing she thought is that the job is much harder than it looked from the outside.
She, perhaps like many people reading about haenyeo, looked at the average age of the divers and concluded that if it was something that people in their 60s, 70s and 80s could do, then surely someone like her in her 30s would have no problem.
However, she said that with that age comes great experience and a know-how of the job that someone just starting, no matter their youth and fitness level, will never have. She pointed out that despite some of the older haenyeo have difficulty moving when on land, as soon as they enter the water these problems vanish.
▲ Chae Ji-ae and her community Photos by Richard Seungmin Lee
Ji-ae also really wanted to focus on the amazing sense of community felt amongst the haenyeo. Working only in groups, they always look after each other. She gave lots of examples of this community spirit, including one time where she had to leave early. Worried that she would miss out on a day’s earnings, the other haenyeo grouped together to give her some of their catch so she wouldn’t leave empty handed.
She compares her life as a haenyeo favorably to her life working as a hair designer. Particularly the fact that since becoming a haenyeo she doesn’t have to deal with the stress brought from other people and customers etc.
She does acknowledge the difficulties of life as a haenyeo though, particularly the physical aspects of the job. Haenyeo go out to sea up to eighteen times in a single month and they spend the whole day diving. As well as this they have to deal with things like water sickness, strong tides, and the freezing winter weather.
Ji-ae was able to deal with these hardships and she points to one particular point that seemed to made all the hard work worth it. While, to outsiders to the haenyeo community she has long been known as one of the youngest haenyeo, her proudest moment was when she was first called a haenyeo by the other divers.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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