Thursday, June 10, 2021

The retired haenyeo Oh Yeong-Geum


I received my copy of Moon Tides, Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea, published in 2011.  I turned first to the section on Aging.  There is a photo of Oh Yeong-Geum, born in 1915.  She would have been 38 years old when I was there and might conceivable have been one of the women I saw bobbing up from dives to rest briefly on her float.  Here is what she's quoted as saying in an interview with the book's author Brenda Paik Sunoo in 2007:

"I learned to be a haenyeo all by myself when I began going to the sea when I was 15 years old.  My mother and grandmother were not haenyeo. I have never been to the mainland or the deep sea to do haenyeo work.  I've only dived around here, and only in shallow waters.

"I have four daughters and two sons.  Two daughters live in jeju-si, and two live here in Gimnyeong.  Two of them are haenyeo.  But the second one who lives here doesn't do haenyeo work because she is afraid of the deep water.  I live with my first son's family here in Gimnyeong.  He is 59 years old, a barber.  My second son lives in Seoul.

"I stopped doing haenyeo work when I was 75 years old, in the late 80s.  In past times, we never had rubber suits like the women divers wear today.  During the winter, we were really freezing when we came out of the sea.  We shivered terribly and even gritted our teeth a lot because it was so cold.  These days, the haenyeo wear rubber suits, so they can stay in the water for five hours straight without feeling too cold.

"When I was a haenyeo, we made a fire with dry grass or wood brought from home around a bulteok (fire pit).  These days, the haenyeo can take a hot shower after diving.  They're so lucky.  When we washed out our cotton suits and laid them on the rocks to dry, they quickly became frozen.  It was such a miserable and tough time back then.  One of my daughters went to the mainland to do haenyeo work.  No one has had a harder life than her.

"Before I got married, I took a boat for two days to Japan.  Many people got seasick and vomited and couldn't eat anything.  But I was okay.  I worked at a zipper factory.  While there, I met my husband through a matchmaker at age 20.  He was originally from Gimnyeong.  I am from Sehwa.  After we were married, and I got pregnant, we came back to Gimnyeong when the Pacific War broke out.

"Through the years, I did farming and haenyeo work.  I never went to school.  Because my husband was an only son, he didn't do much of anything.  While farming, I grew barley and foxtail millet."

Comment:  I gather Sunoo has never been a haenyeo or dived along with them to see what it was like.  I distrust some of her comments a little.

My recollection, which may be faulty is that the haenyeo I saw wore bathing suits, but I only saw them when they came up and then from perhaps 50 yards away so perhaps I'm "remembering" what was actually an assumption.  I started diving again perhaps shortly after 1963 and well before I could afford a wet suit.  The Pacific Ocean I dived in was probably warmer than the Ocean off Jeju Island.  It seemed pretty cold at the time, but then so did the Pacific after I'd been in it for a few hours.   At first I got a partial suit which was easy to swim with and didn't require many lead weights to allow me to submerge.  But eventually I got a full suit like the women are depicted using in the book.  They were cumbersome, but they did allow me to stay out longer.

I have a lot of pleasant memories of diving.  For me it wasn't the hard work that these women describe -- not really work at all.  If I could spear 3 or 4 fish that weighed over a pound each, that would provide more fillets than we were willing to eat in a week -- and I often speared more fish than that.  These woman had to keep working until their nets were filled and then swim them to shore so their good-for-almost-nothing-husbands could take them.  The husbands would then give them fresh nets so they could keep on working. 

Yeong-Geum is quoted as saying she gave up working as a haenyeo when she was 75 years old.   I gave up diving because Susan didn't really like to be along when I was spearing fish and I didn't usually want to just sail, but especially when Susan became too ill to do either.   It is interesting to read these active and former Haenyeo discussing matters like these . . . I too once took a sea voyage to Japan.  Mine was on the General Gordon and took 13 days.  Like Yeong-Geum on her voyage I didn't get sick, but most of the others did and everything below deck smelled like vomit.

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