Readings — From the December 2013 issue

The Old Women and the Sea

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From an interview conducted by Youngmi Mayer with Jung Won Oh, Ko Jun Ja, and Mun Yeon Ok, female divers on Korea’s Jeju Island, published in Lucky Peach: The Gender Issue. Haenyo gather shellfish, which they sell to small restaurants by the shore. A man who oversees the restaurants in the village of Gueom-ri, and who goes by “Manager,” was also present for the conversation. Translated from the Korean by Mayer.

youngmi mayer: At what age did you begin diving?

ko jun ja: I’m seventy now, so it’s been over fifty years. Where did that come from? Out of nowhere! I’m in big trouble.

mun yeon ok: It’s been around thirty-five years for me.

jung won oh: We were all under twenty.

mayer: How did you decide to become a haenyo?

mun: It wasn’t like that. Our parents would go diving, so we would just follow them and collect seaweed.

jung: We didn’t know anything else. We went diving one day at a time, and then one month at a time, and then we looked up and saw that we were haenyo. When we got married and had families, we gave the babies to our mothers-in-law. We’d go diving and come home to nurse the babies, then we’d go back out.

mun: Jeju women are tough. We haenyo earn our own money and don’t have to be dependent on anyone.

jung: Even past eighty, we can make ends meet by farming and a little bit of diving.

mayer: Are there — or were there — male divers?

mun: There used to be some, but now they are not working. They weren’t haenyo; there’s no such thing as male haenyo.

ko: Back in the day, we didn’t have these rubber suits; we had suits made of cotton. To make money as a diver, you had to go out even in winter, even if it snowed.

mun: Women can handle it for more than thirty minutes, but men can’t go more than five. They used to say that if men are in cold water, their penises will die. The cold water will freeze their penises.

jung: Men are stronger, but they can’t do it like we do. They get tired and tell us to do the work and manage us.

mun: We won’t let them do it.

mayer: What is your daily routine?

mun: We go in the water at around eight a.m. We come back at one or two, then go to the fields to farm.

ko: Sometimes we don’t eat lunch. You have to be hungry to dive well.

jung: Girls in their twenties used to dive for five hours straight. But these days there aren’t any shellfish left in the water and we are old, so it doesn’t even matter. If we do two or three hours, it’s a lot.

mayer: What scares you?

mun: There are big whales; I’m scared of those. The sky sometimes opens up with rain, thunder, and lightning. And sometimes when you’re swimming outside there are abandoned clothes. The clothes dance in the water and it startles me whenever I see them.

ko: I freeze; I can’t move.

mun: A haenyo died because she was hit by lightning. Thunderstorms are scary and they make you have strange thoughts. She was from a faraway village.

mayer: How long can you hold your breath?

jung: Two to three minutes. If I try to hold my breath now, right here, I can’t, but when you’re down in the water, it just happens.

mun: Especially when you see some sea creature that’s really worth it. Then you can hold your breath a long time.

mayer: How deep can you dive?

jung: Two telephone poles deep!

manager: Sanggun haenyo, the best haenyo, can dive deeper than twenty meters.

mayer: Are you all sanggun?

mun: No, these two are, but I am junggun. I don’t go that deep.

jung: One physical prerequisite to being a diver is no inner-ear pain. That’s why Yeon Ok is only junggun — because when she goes into the water her ears hurt.

mayer: Are you more prone to illness than other people your age because of diving?

jung: Yes, it’s called haenyo’s disease. It’s caused by the pressure of the water, also the weights we use on our backs.

ko: When we come out of the water, automatically the phrase “Ow, my back” just falls out of our mouths.

mayer: What does it take to be a good diver?

jung: Greed for money and sea things.

mun: Greed — you need greed to overcome the fear.

mayer: How many haenyo do you think were on Jeju back when you were in your twenties?

mun: Every girl in every seaside village was a haenyo.

jung: Every daughter was a haenyo.

mayer: What is the future of the haenyo?

mun: I don’t know. The ocean is polluted and nothing grows in it.

jung: I wish the government would distribute more sea-creature seeds. If I had the strength to affect the government, I would bother someone about that.

ko: We already have it good from the government. All our wet suits and equipment are free. I don’t pay if I go to the hospital. We are protected by the Jeju government.

mun: They do a lot for us. But without shellfish, there are no haenyo.

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  • andrea

    this is really beautiful. i especially love the phrases ‘greed for money and sea things,’ ‘falls out of our mouths,’ and the answers to ‘what scares you?’ something about the similes that appear in asian language translations…

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