Jeju island, South Korea
Dawn calls the haenyo. They return to the shore, the soles
of their feet worn smooth. They listen for the ripples of pearls
and urchins, sing the sun from darkness. Soon-hee swings
a net over her shoulder, her fingers entwined in its deep sea stories.
The hand-me-down buoy, a taewak, rests on her back. Soon-hee
walks toward the sea, swims into the chop of icy waves, inhales
the wrinkled sky, dives into the ocean’s inky womb.
Mi-sook watches the haenyo. When her mother is nothing more
than a black dot, a speck of pepper sprinkled over endless blue,
Mi-sook forgets the sea. It is not yet hers to know. She gathers
half-moon shells, dribbles wet sand through her fingers, watches
her footprints disappear into white foam, waits for her moon,
knows her time to dive will come.
Soon-hee slips into silence, plunges 62 feet below the surf.
Her goggled eyes search the murky depths.
She does not think about sharks.
With salt-cracked hands, she plunders the ocean floor, collects
abalone and octopi, sea snails, and conch. Inside minutes that pass
like hours, even trained lungs flame. Soon-hee bursts
into daylight, gasping. Sumbisori—the hiss of sea women returning.
Soon-hee sells her treasures at market, feeds her family, sends
her daughter to college. She does not need a husband to survive.
The men of Jeju need the haenyo. Wives, mothers, sea women, providers.
But abalone buys books and new ideas. Little girls do not learn the language
of the matriarchal mermaids. They trade tradition for college degrees,
wet suits for business suits. A new moon pulls women to shore.
Soon-hee’s daughter forgets the sea. She drives a Hyundai.
Honeymooners flock to Jeju, Hawaii of Korea, Western tourists
charter buses to the Haenyo Museum. Fifty years ago,
thousands of sea women ruled this island,
gave birth to daughters they prized
in a country of prized sons. Only 5,000 haenyo remain,
kindred grandmothers, last of all Korean divers.
The tour guide introduces them. They sing
for tips. Several dive for the crowds.
Soon-hee emerges with a sea cucumber.
The audience applauds, snaps cell phone shots.