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Jeju Island, South Korea: Haenyeos.

As I walked down the edge of Jeju’s volcanic mountain, the wind was harsh, stinging the side of my face. Jeju Island, an island off the coast of Korea known for its fresh citrus fruit, was especially temperamental that day. I had lived in Korea for a little more than four months and in that short amount of time had learned a great deal about both the beauty and strength that fills Korea. One of the most glaring embodiments of this was what inspired me to slide down the slippery path towards the water cove, where women three times my age readied for everyday work. Haenyeos.

Like most of my travels, my curiosity was fueled by food. As a child I was overwhelmingly picky about what I ate, but as my taste for travel grew, my taste for trying new things grew as well. I was intrigued by local cuisine and what it could inform me about the history of a country; families insisting on breaking up their work day to have a full meal together, friends meeting for afternoon tea, lovers going out to eat and drink for their 2am mealtime. All of these interactions with food told me about the people who are eating it. When I moved to Korea, I dove into the history of local foods and, fortuitously, found out about the famous female Jeju divers.

Haenyeos are more than fishermen; they are the backbone of Jeju Island spawned by a tradition that began centuries ago. There are different theories as to how it began, but among local historians and people, common thought seems to be that it was a result of the different Jeju massacres that had occurred throughout Korea’s dark history of invasion and control. Due to an overwhelming number of men dying, women became the providers and hunters for their villages and families. Thus grew the number of women suiting up to gather the crustaceans and seafood harvested in the coves. At a young age, Haenyeos begin their training, taking on short dives and shallow depths until they develop the strength and lung capacity to stay below the water long enough to truly gather for the village. Over time, a matriarchal society was developed in Jeju, with the Haenyeo as the leader of the family instead of the traditional male head. This is a lifelong occupation, with the oldest Haenyeo currently over 80 years old.

As I reached the bottom of the pass, women in full slick wetsuits geared up and gathered in a line to sing a traditional song as they made their way to the cove water. They swung their nets and buoys as their voices chanted the familiar notes. I watched them descend into the waving waters for what seemed like hours. Every few minutes a head would pop back to the surface for a breath and then disappear again as flippers swung up to the waterline and sank back in. With each breath, a Haenyeo travels for dozens of meters before resurfacing. The strength, the resilience, the commitment of these women over decades of their lives was both overwhelming and captivating. It was so different than my life experience, a world away from my childhood home, my occupation, my mother’s occupation. And while these women, these mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters seemed a world of difference away, the difference was so beautiful and inspiring. Breaking from traditional Korean gender roles, Jeju women created somewhat of a history because of how they coped with loss and attained food for the villages. Food had a deep and meaningful way of shaping the island’s way of life, starting a tradition that still lives on to this day.

When the women came back to land from the waters, salt sliding off their wet suits, they laid down the baskets and nets of sea creatures they had retrieved during the dive. A fresh abalone and octopus dangled over the edge of the market table. One of the Haenyeos, with the easy movements of many decades of practice, chopped it up in front of me. She handed me a taste and together, we ate.


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