Soo-mi pulled the cumbersome rowboat towards the unlit ocean, the thunder of waves overwhelming the silence before the dawn. She heaved herself onto the boat, grabbed the oars, and started beating against the rough, early morning waters. She would not have had to bring the beaten boat back to life, rendering her already tired, old arms, sore, if the new motorboat had not blown its engine that morning with an embarrassing splutter.
As a Haenyeo, a Korean sea-woman, her day was just beginning, even before the sun rose in the bitter oceanic cold to ready herself to dive for her day’s catch. The Haenyeos were once responsible for Jeju island’s bustling economy. Now, they were becoming obsolete. It was likely that her generation of Haenyeos was the last.
Yet, Soo-mi knew that this draining procedure was only exacerbated by the echoes of last night’s phone call that still reverberated in the back of her mind. But why Mum? Her daughter’s tinny voice had accused, I just can’t understand why you’re still diving when I could support you! People have drowned!
The words stuck to her like barnacles. She squeezed out a dollop of mugwort paste onto her goggles, then rubbed and rubbed as if she could wipe her own memory. How could her own daughter say that to her? Her daughter might have read the articles, but she withstood the dangers of diving herself: the dizziness, chronic migraines, motion sickness, hypothermia, and even death. She knew about these dangers better than anyone.
Placing an orange buoy gently into the vast ocean, she watched it dance on the waves: a floating anchor with its glow piercing through the early morning’s darkness. This sight always made her smile, the buoy her loyal companion throughout these long and lonely dives. It never failed to save her each time from the ocean’s disguise of tranquillity that concealed the watery graveyard.
She knew her daughter was right despite being so far away in the mainland Korea, sent away from Jeju to start a new life outside of the Haenyeo culture. While her daughter would never be able to understand in the way her own mother did, her daughter could see things the Haenyeo women would rather forget: the way that this culture didn’t seem to fit in with the modern world anymore.
Taking a controlled breath, she yielded to the ocean’s embrace, rolling forward into the icy turbulent waters. A sharp yet familiar tingling immediately seized her muscles, the waves enveloping her as she suddenly became surrounded by an underwater city of endless blue: rocks and branches of coral instead of buildings, swaying seaweed instead of trees, and the flicker of darting schools of fish instead of cars. The immediacy and strength of this watery embrace reminded her of the arms of her mother who, all those years ago, held her when she had first entered the ocean and navigated its uncharted territories.
Back then, the salty sting of the foreign ocean had shocked her, the only familiar touch the strong grasp of her mother’s hands around hers. The expanse of the seafloor seemed to turn her blood into concrete until her mother’s gentle arms, which gracefully flowed through the water, pointed out all the things she knew from the markets: the conches, abalones, oysters and sea urchins that suddenly transformed the seascape into a treasure trove. Then, her mother’s hands guided her face up towards the buoy, its vivid colour shining through.
As they returned to the land, huddled by the fire with the other Haenyeo women, her mother reminded her, “You will never get lost with your buoy. It will always lead you home, Soo-mi, just as it has always brought all of us back.”
Looking at all their faces lit up by the fire, Soo-mi realised that, like the burning flame, she was now part of something that had been alive for far longer than she could imagine. A tradition that, on that day, her mother had passed onto her like a torch, just as her own mother’s mother had done for her.
And there it was, the beacon of the Haenyeo, the buoy, floating above her. As she broke the surface, Soo-mi took her first breath and let out a traditional whistle in a cathartic announcement that she was alive. Then suddenly, almost as if in reply, her ears became filled with the distant chorus of other whistles. Looking around her, she could see the surface scattered with other orange dots and the many silhouettes of women like her against the brightening sky. In that moment, no matter what the future held, Soo-mi knew she was not alone. Although her daughter was far away, it was these women alongside her who would keep the Haenyeo alive for now.