What South Korea's "Sea Women" Can Teach Us About Community
When I reflect on where I was in my life in 2012, standing on a jutted basalt cliff on an island south of South Korea, alone, waiting for a band of women to plunge into the sea together, I didn't at the time notice the contrast between myself and them, but today I honor it fiercely.
Ok, so I wasn’t completely alone. I was with Michael, my travel mate and probable husband-to-be. We'd only been traveling together a few months, but it was enough time to know if one's company (sans shower or adequate sleep) was the company you could keep in perpetuity, if you know what I mean.
Michael had been planning on coming to Jeju, a subtropical volcanic island south of the Korean Peninsula, to photograph its subterranean lava tubes and Mount Hallasan. A musician by trade, I was far less interested in geological phenomena and more in a subculture of women, many of them in their 80s, who free-dived to the ocean floor to harvest seafood by hand.
Along with their own traditional work songs (I’d looked them up online before), they had developed a style of breathing called "sumbi” that signaled their safety out in the water. As they popped up to exhale Co2, a resounding chorus of singsong breathing would echo along the coast.
Haeyneo, or "sea women,” have for centuries been the primary divers in Korean culture. During the 1600s as men were increasingly drawn away to war and conquest, women were left behind to provide for their families and communities. Eventually, they became known as “Korea’s first working moms”: the reversal of traditional gender roles made haenyeo an outlier in the country’s traditionally patriarchal society, and diving became exclusively female.
The work these women do is perilous. Most of them over the age of 60, they submerge themselves into oftentimes freezing conditions for 6 hours a day, holding their breath for minutes at a time to pluck abalone, clam, seaweed, sea cucumber, sea urchin and squid from the bottom of the strait.
I remember watching them emerge from behind a bulteok, a walled-in rock area with a fire and food, in wetsuits and carrying their baskets, orange buoys and spears across the basalt tide pools, paying no attention to the few bystanders and chatting with each other, almost like surfers heading out into the morning break.
It was a blaring contrast to me, a Los Angeles singer-songwriter now in travel pants and Tevas, who had fumbled semi-unsuccessfully through the digital revolution and gig economy of the West. Unlike these women, I had no sea legs. But even more at odds with haeyneo were Jeju’s tourists: honeymooners from the mainland who flocked to the island for its K-drama film locations, theme parks and coastal waterfalls.
Haeyneo have become a dwindling legacy. In 2016, 84 percent of divers were by working standards far into retirement, and only about a fifth of practicing haeyneo than in the 1960s. It is a signal of the times: most Korean women today would rather work in metropolitan careers than plunge into the cold sea as their grandmothers and mothers have done.
Yet haeyneo are experiencing a significant cultural renaissance. In 2016 UNESCO designated them a Cultural Heritage of Humanity for their sustainable marine harvesting practices and the collectives- empowering women, opening schools and environmental education about their work- that they form in their communities.
It’s a template, albeit extreme, but a template, for how we can perceive our own vision of life in the 21st century. Haeyneo show us a simplistic, streamlined approach being present and effective in our own communities. By reaching into the past to inform how we choose to live our lives in the future, we can look at our immediate surroundings and what we can do to regenerate them, rather than a grandiose gesture of changing the world.
In a way, as a musician trying to change the world myself, I had lost out by not quieting myself and taking care of my own immediate surroundings. I had moved to the giant metropolis of Los Angeles, from San Francisco, a smaller yet more nurturing community. It was through this transition, grasping for something bigger, where I had lost the plot.
I watched them out at sea, plunging under and coming up minutes later, forming almost a seamless Fibonacci pattern of orange buoys. Sometimes with an octopus coiled around their arm, sometimes empty-handed, I heard the sumbi breath-song bounce off the cove as if in a natural amphitheater. It was comforting to hear they had made it up to the surface for air, but even more comforting was to think were calling to me, “I’m here, with you.”