As I mentioned in a previous post, Mike and I spent a few days in Jeju in February and had what I thought was the awesome opportunity to visit the women’s dive centre at the base of Seongsang Ilchulbong, otherwise known as Sunrise Peak. I also mentioned that the women who work and dive there are complete badasses, and that’s why I’m revisiting them. They’re the best kind of women, and deserve more than a passing note of curiosity. So here goes.
At the dive centre near Seongsang Ilchulbong, I had the chance to meet and watch the Haenyo divers who run the place. The word “haenyo” loosely translates to “sea women”, and the name is well-earned. Haenyo divers are free-divers, all women as the name suggests, who start shallow sea diving when they’re only 11 years old and begin deep sea diving when they’re 18. For those who don’t know, free-diving is a term used to describe people who dive without oxygen tanks…which means that these women are even more badass because they’re doing shallow and deep sea diving not only at a rather young age, but without an oxygen tank too.
While this in itself if pretty cool, the fact that Haenyo divers are only women is even cooler, especially given the Confucian culture that abounds in South Korea. In a Confucian society, it is common for women to be rather firmly entrenched in a system that is still largely patriarchal. Haenyo first started diving in the late 1800s/early 1900s…which was most DEFINITELY a time in which the patriarchal system ensured a lesser place in society for most women, not just in South Korea but the world over. Then in walk the haenyo divers. Focused largely in Jeju, and later in Japan when some families emigrated there from Korea, haenyo divers reversed the typical family gender roles. Suddenly, it was the female divers who were bringing home the bacon from their dive excursions, leaving the men to do a lot of the home care.
Why were the women the divers, you ask? Good question.
Here, the people think that women, with their otherwise aggravating body fat distribution, were better suited for deep sea diving than men…which meant that women were better at it, and the job fell to them. This created a none-too-small community in which women were the bread winners in a society where other women still fulfilled the “get back to the kitchen and make a sandwich” stereotype; and that, in my opinion, is what makes them even more badass than the deep sea free-diving already made them.
In fact, some administrators from Seoul at one point tried to bar these women from diving; was it because they showed too much skin while at sea? Because they’re massive stones outweighed their husbands’? Who knows? Whatever the reason was, the point is that all these awesome women banded together and stopped this from happening…and a lot of those women still work at the dive centre that Mike and I visited. Not only did these women refuse to give up their jobs as deep-sea divers, they also worked against the Japanese occupation and, as such, are considered great WWII heroes by Koreans. Can I get a heck ya?!
Unfortunately, the practice of these “mermaids” is starting to die out. Some 60 years ago, there were about 30 000 haenyo on Jeju island, some 10 years ago there were only about 5500 haenyo registered…the majority of whom were over 50. Today, there are only about 4000 of these awesome ladies registered, and most of them are now over 60 years old. Happily, these few are still actively working. And we got to see them! But why the decline in numbers? Well, since this job is one of few that was pretty much barred to men, it became a job reminiscent of the “I learned it from my grandpappy and his before him”, which means that the female divers would teach their daughters, who would in turn inherit the badassery gene and go from there. With the lovely age of modernity that we’re living in however, many of these same daughters are choosing to pursue jobs in larger cities, or in more mainstream industries.
Maybe because of this, or because the women still working as haenyo are just that hardcore, the youngest woman at the dive centre near Seongsang Ilchulbong is 54, the eldest is 85. While it is unfortunate that this incredible tradition is declining, thanks to women like those at the Haenyo Dive Centre, the practice is still alive and kicking. In fact, South Korea recently applied to UNESCO to add the haenyo to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. From breaking patriarchal and Confucian society rules, to establishing a solid and successful tradition, to basically telling the Seoul government to piss off and refusing to give up their land to the Japanese in WWII, these women are, finally, being recognised as a most important part of Korea’s culture and heritage…and if you know Korean society, you know how important that is.
Hats off to a group of rockstar ladies that, if you ever have the chance, you need to go see and meet…and maybe have them slice and dice you up some of the fresh seafood that they’ve dove 20 metres on one breath to catch for you. I can’t dive 20 metres on one breath now, but there’s always still praying that I’ll develop a kind of Benjamin Button style of aging and find myself as young at 85 as these women are now.