The Island of Sea Women Swallowing Water Breath
My first day of sea work started hours before sunrise when even the crows were still asleep. I dressed and made my way through the dark to our latrine. I climbed the ladder to the stone structure and positioned myself over the hole in the floor. Below, our pigs gathered, snuffling eagerly. A big stick leaned against the wall in the corner in case one of them became too enthusiastic and tried to leap up. Yesterday I’d had to hit one pretty hard. They must have remembered, because this morning they waited for my private business to drop to the ground to fight among themselves for it. I returned to the house, tied my baby brother to my back, and went outside to draw water from the village well. Three round trips, carrying earthenware jugs in my hands, were required to get enough water to satisfy our morning needs. Next, I gathered dung to burn for heating and cooking. This also had to be done early, because I had a lot of competition from other women and girls in the village. My chores done, my baby brother and I headed home.
Three generations of my family lived within the same fence—with Mother, Father, and us children in the big house and Grandmother in the little house across the courtyard. Both structures were built from stone and had thatch roofs weighed down with additional stones to keep the island wind from blowing them away. The big house had three rooms: a kitchen, the main room, and a special room for women to use on their wedding nights and after they’d given birth. In the main room, oil lamps flickered and sputtered. Our sleeping mats had already been folded and stacked against the wall.
Grandmother was awake, dressed, and drinking hot water. Her hair was covered by a scarf. Her face and hands were bony and the color of chestnuts. My first and second brothers, twelve and ten years old, sat cross-legged on the floor, knees touching. Across from them, Third Brother squirmed as only a seven-year-old boy can. My little sister, six years younger than I was, helped our mother pack three baskets. Mother’s face was set in concentration as she checked and double-checked that she had everything, while Little Sister tried to show she was already training to be a good haenyeo.
Father ladled the thin millet soup that he’d prepared into bowls. I loved him. He had Grandmother’s narrow face. His long, tapered hands were soft. His eyes were deep and warm. His callused feet were almost always bare. He wore his favorite dog-fur hat pulled down over his ears and many layers of clothes, which helped to disguise how he sacrificed food, so his children could eat more. Mother, never wasting a moment, joined us on the floor and nursed my baby brother as she ate. As soon as she was done with her soup and the feeding, she handed the baby to my father. Like all haenyeo husbands, he would spend the rest of the day under the village tree in Hado’s central square with other fathers. Together, they’d look after infants and young children. Satisfied that Fourth Brother was content in Father’s arms, Mother motioned for me to hurry. Anxiety rattled through me. I so hoped to prove myself today.
The sky was just beginning to turn pink when Mother, Grandmother, and I stepped outside. Now that it was light, I could see my steamy breath billowing then dissipating in the cold air. Grandmother moved slowly, but Mother had efficiency in every step and gesture. Her legs and arms were strong. Her basket was on her back, and she helped me with mine, securing the straps. Here I was, going to work, helping to feed and care for my family, and becoming a part of the long tradition of haenyeo. Suddenly I felt like a woman.
Mother hoisted the third basket, holding it before her, and together we stepped through the opening in the stone wall that protected our small piece of property from prying eyes and the relentless wind. We wended our way through the olle—one of thousands of stone-walled pathways that ran between houses and also gave us routes to crisscross the island. We stayed alert for Japanese soldiers. Korea had now been a Japanese colony for twenty-eight years. We hated the Japanese, and they hated us. They were cruel. They stole food. Inland, they rustled livestock. They took and took and took. They’d killed Grandmother’s parents, and she called them chokpari—cloven-footed ones. Mother always said that if I was ever alone and saw colonists, whether soldiers or civilians, I should run and hide, because they’d ruined many girls on Jeju.
We came around a corner and into a long straightaway. Ahead in the distance, my friend Mi-ja danced from foot to foot, to keep warm, from excitement. Her skin was perfect, and the morning light glowed on her cheeks. I’d grown up in the Gul-dong section of Hado, while Mi-ja lived in the Sut-dong section, and the two of us always met in this spot. Even before we reached her, she bowed deeply to show her gratitude and humility to my mother, who bent at her waist just enough to acknowledge Mi-ja’s deference. Then Mother wordlessly strapped the third basket to Mi-ja’s back.
“You girls learned to swim together,” Mother said. “You’ve watched and learned as apprentices. You, Mi-ja, have worked especially hard.”
I didn’t mind that Mother singled out Mi-ja. She’d earned it.
“I can never thank you enough.” Mi-ja’s voice was as delicate as flower petals. “You have been a mother to me, and I will always be grateful.”
“You are another daughter to me,” Mother replied. “Today, Halmang Samseung’s job is done. As the goddess who oversees pregnancy, childbirth, and raising a child to the age of fifteen, she is now fully released from her duties. Many girls have friends, but the two of you are closer than friends. You are like sisters, and I expect you to take care of each other today and every day as those tied by blood would do.”
It was as much a blessing as a warning.
Mi-ja was the first to voice her fears. “I understand about swallowing water breath before going beneath the waves. I must hold as much air within me as possible. But what if I don’t know when to come up? What if I can’t make a good sumbisori?”
Swallowing water breath is the process all haenyeo use to gather enough air in their lungs to sustain them as they submerge. The sumbisori is the special sound—like a whistle or a dolphin’s call—a haenyeo makes as she breaches the surface of the sea and releases the air she’s held in her lungs, followed by a deep intake of breath.
“Sucking in air shouldn’t be troublesome,” Mother said. “You breathe in every day as you walk about the earth.”
“But what if I run out of it in the watery depths?” Mi-ja asked.
“Breathing in, breathing out. Every beginning haenyeo worries about this,” Grandmother blurted before my mother could answer. She could be impatient with Mi-ja.
“Your body will know what to do,” Mother said reassuringly. “And even if it doesn’t, I will be there with you. I’m responsible for every woman’s safe return to shore. I listen for the sumbisori of all women in our collective. Together our sumbisori create a song of the air and wind on Jeju. Our sumbisori is the innermost sound of the world. It connects us to the future and the past. Our sumbisori allows us first to serve our parents and then our children.”
I found this comforting, but I also became aware of Mi-ja staring at me expectantly. Yesterday we’d agreed to tell my mother of our worries. Mi-ja had volunteered hers, but I was hesitant about revealing mine. There were many ways to die in the sea, and I was scared. My mother may have said that Mi-ja was like a daughter—and I loved her for loving my friend—but I was an actual daughter, and I didn’t want her to see me as less than Mi-ja.
I was saved from having to say anything when Mother started walking. Mi-ja and I trailed after her, with Grandmother following us. We passed house after house—all made of stone with thatch roofs. The main square was deserted except for women, who were being pulled to the sea by the scent of salt air and the sound of waves. Just before reaching the beach, we stopped to pick a handful of leaves from a bank of wild mugwort, which we tucked into our baskets. We turned another corner and reached the shore. We stepped over sharp rocks, making our way to the bulteok—the fire space. It was a round, roofless structure made of stacked lava rocks. Instead of a door, two curved walls overlapped to prevent those outside from seeing in. A similar structure sat in the shallows. This was where people bathed and washed their clothes. And just offshore, where the water reached no higher than our knees, was an area walled with stone. Here, anchovies washed in at high tide, were trapped at low tide, and then we waded through with nets to catch them.
We had seven bulteoks in Hado—one for each neighborhood’s diving collective. Our group had thirty members. Logic would say that the entrance should face the sea, since haenyeo go back and forth from it all day, but having the entrance at the back gave an added barrier against the constant winds blowing in from the water. Above the crash of waves, we could hear women’s voices—teasing, laughing, and shouting well-worn gibes back and forth. As we entered, the gathered women turned to see who’d arrived. They all wore padded jackets and trousers.
Mi-ja set down her basket and hurried to the fire.
“No need for you to worry about tending the fire now,” Yang Do-saeng called out good-naturedly. She had high cheekbones and sharp elbows. She was the only person I knew who kept her hair in braids at all times. She was a little older than my mother, and they were diving partners and best friends. Do-saeng’s husband had given her one son and one daughter, and that was the end. A sadness, to be sure. Nevertheless, our two families were very close, especially since Do-saeng’s husband was in Japan doing factory work. These days about a quarter of all Jeju people lived in Japan, because a ferry ticket cost half the price of a single bag of rice here on our island. Do-saeng’s husband had been in Hiroshima for so many years that I didn’t remember him. My mother helped Do-saeng with ancestor worship, and Do-saeng helped my mother when she had to cook for our family when we performed our rites. “You’re no longer an apprentice. You’ll be with us today. Are you ready, girl?”
“Yes, Auntie,” Mi-ja responded, using the honorific, bowing and backing away.
The other women laughed, causing Mi-ja to blush.
“Stop teasing her,” my mother said. “These two have enough to worry about today.”
As chief of this collective, Mother sat with her back against the part of the stone wall that had the best protection from the wind. Once she was settled, the other women took spots in strict order, according to each one’s level of diving skill. The grandmother-divers—those like my mother, who’d achieved top status in the sea even if they had yet to become grandmothers on dry land—had the best seats. The actual grandmothers, like mine, didn’t have a label. They were true grandmothers, who should be treated with respect. Although long retired from sea work, they enjoyed the companionship of the women with whom they’d spent most of their lives. Now Grandmother and her friends liked to sort seaweed that had been washed ashore by the wind or dive close to the beach in the shallows, so they could spend the day trading jokes and sharing miseries. As women of respect and honor, they had the second most important seats in the bulteok. Next came the small-divers, in their twenties and early thirties, who were still perfecting their skills. Mi-ja and I sat with the baby-divers: the two Kang sisters, Gu-ja and Gu-sun, who were two and three years older than we were, and Do-saeng’s daughter, Yu-ri, who was already nineteen. The three of them had a couple years’ diving experience, while Mi-ja and I were true beginners, but the five of us were ranked the lowest in the collective, which meant that our seats were by the bulteok’s opening. The cold wind swirled around us, and Mi-ja and I scooted closer to the fire. It was important to warm up as best we could before entering the sea.
Mother began the meeting by asking, “Does this beach have any food?”
“More food than there are grains of sand on Jeju,” Do-saeng trilled, “if we had an abundance of sand instead of rocks.”
“More food than on twenty moons,” another woman declared, “if there were twenty moons above us.”
“More food than in fifty jars at my grandmother’s house,” a woman who’d been widowed too young joined in, “if she’d had fifty jars.”
“Good,” Mother said in response to the ritual bantering. “Then let us discuss where we will dive today.” At home, her voice always seemed so loud. Here, hers was just one of many loud voices, since the ears of all haenyeo are damaged over time by water pressure. One day I too would have a loud voice.
The sea doesn’t belong to anyone, but every collective had assigned diving rights to specific territories: close enough to the shore to walk in, within twenty- to thirty-minutes’ swimming distance from land, or accessible only by boat farther out to sea; a cove here, an underwater plateau not too far offshore, the north side of this or that island, and so on. Mi-ja and I listened as the women considered the possibilities. As baby-divers, we hadn’t earned the right to speak. Even the small-divers kept quiet. Mother struck down most proposals. “That area is overfished,” she told Do-saeng. Another time, she came back with, “Just as on land, our sea fields also follow the seasons. To honor spawning times, conch can’t be picked from the ocean floor from July to September, and abalone can’t be harvested from October through December. It is our duty to be keepers and managers of the sea. If we protect our wet fields, they will continue to provide for us.” Finally, she made her decision. “We’ll row to our underwater canyon not far from here.”
“The baby-divers aren’t ready for that,” one of the grandmother-divers said. “They aren’t strong enough, and they haven’t earned the right either.”
Mother held up a hand. “In that area, lava flowed from Grandmother Seolmundae to form the rocky canyon. Its walls provide something for every ability. The most experienced among us can go as deep as we want, while the baby-divers can pick through those spots close to the surface. The Kang sisters will show Mi-ja what to do. And I’d like Do-saeng’s daughter, Yu-ri, to watch over Young-sook. Yu-ri will soon become a small-diver, so this will be good training for her.”
Once Mother explained, there were no further objections. Mothers are closer to the women in their diving collective than they are to their own children. Today, my mother and I had begun to form that deeper relationship. Observing Do-saeng and Yu-ri together, I could see where my mother and I would be in a few years. But this moment also showed me why Mother had been elected chief. She was a leader, and her judgment was valued.
“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back,” she warned the gathering. “In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.”
These traditional words were often repeated on Jeju, but we all nodded somberly as though hearing them for the first time.
“When we go to the sea, we share the work and the danger,” Mother adde...