Sea Women of South Korea


Haenyeo getting ready to dive, Jeju Korea
Photo by amanderson2 via Flickr

Liz Waid and Colin Lowther tell about a group of women who practice a traditional way of hunting for shellfish. These women do a dangerous, but important, job.

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Transcript


Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2

And I’m Colin Lowther. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

A woman walks to the beach on Jeju Island, South Korea. She is going to work. The woman wears a black wetsuit that covers her whole body. She has a mask on her face to keep water out of her eyes. She dives deep down into the water. She does not have an oxygen tank. She holds her breath. The woman gathers shellfish from the bottom of the ocean. Then she swims back to the surface with her catch. She will do this up to 100 times this day. And she is 70 years old! This woman is part of the haenyeo. In Korean this means sea women. There are thousands of haenyeo on Jeju Island. Today’s Spotlight is on these strong women of the sea.

Voice 2

Jeju Island is mostly made of black volcanic rock. Before modern farming equipment, people could not grow much food here. So, they dove into the sea for food. Many creatures live in shells deep in the ocean. The people of Jeju ate and sold this shellfish to support their families. But by the 1600’s many men from Jeju left the island. They went to fight or to work on ships. The work of diving for shellfish became a job for women – the haenyeo.

Voice 1 

The money earned from the haenyeo’s shellfish trade is a large part of Jeju’s economy. But being a haenyeo is also a way of life. They have a deep respect for the ocean. They also have a close connection to each other. And the haenyeo hold a special place in Korean society. Here, it is not common for women to do physical work as the main support for their families.

Voice 2

A haenyeo’s work is very physically and mentally challenging. The sea is very cold. It moves with currents and waves. In the past, women dove in light cotton clothing. Today, the haenyeo have diving masks and wetsuits. But these smell very strongly. And the women are often sick from the sea. Working in the ocean is also very dangerous. They dive up to six hours a day. The haenyeo must hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time. Diving can cause injury and even death. The New York Times reports that in the last ten years more than 40 haenyeo have died.

Voice 1 

This danger is one reason why the number of haenyeo is decreasing. Many modern Korean girls do not want to do such dangerous, physical work. The New York Times reports that in the 1960’s, there were 26,000 haenyeo. There are now only about 4,500. And the working haenyeo are growing old. Eighty-four percent of them are over the age of 60.

Voice 2

But people are interested in haenyeo culture, both in South Korea and around the world. Brenda Paik Sunoo lives on Jeju Island. She wrote a book called Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea. She explains to the travel website Roads and Kingdoms:

Voice 3

“Over the past 15 years or so, the respect for the haenyeo has risen. The haenyeo’s gift is not just economic. It is social. It is cultural.”

Voice 1

The haenyeo are an important symbol of traditional culture. They show the values of hard work, independence and community. Some people may look down on the haenyeo because they do physical labour. Other people respect their hard work and position in society. The haenyeo are a special combination of strength and gentleness.

Voice 2

And there are some good things about being a haenyeo. They have a way to make money that gives them financial independence. Haenyeo are also part of an important social community. Ji-ae Chae is a young single mother. She used to work in the capital city, Seoul. But she returned to Jeju to work as a haenyeo. She says that the best part of the work is the support from the other women. Chae tells Roads and Kingdoms:

Voice 4

“They take care of my children. It is very good. My children have grandmothers all around them. The women divers are a big community. When I was in Seoul, I did not like people. When I became a woman diver, I liked people again.”

Voice 1

Chae is one of the few younger haenyeo. But it is possible that in the future there will be no haenyeo left. It takes a long time to train new divers. And not enough women are making the same choice that Chae has. Yang Hi-bum is a government official on Jeju. He told the New York Times:

Voice 5

“Most of the haenyeo will be gone in 20 years unless more women join them.”

Voice 2

The government on Jeju Island is working to save the tradition of the haenyeo. They opened a Haenyeo Museum in 2006. And since 2015, the Jeju government helps the haenyeo pay for equipment and accident and medical insurance. Globally, people also respect and support the haenyeo. In 2016, the divers gained the title of UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognizes the special spirit of the haenyeo. It also awards their good methods. They are always careful of the environment. Sometimes they do not dive for shellfish, even if they could make a lot of money. This way they protect the natural balance of the ocean. Brenda Sunoo talks about how this also protects the haenyeo:

Voice 3

“They have to use faith to know when to stop. To have enough breath to come up slowly. To not take too much time to take that final sea urchin or abalone that is trapped under the rock.”

Voice 1

The haenyeo show the world courage and patience. They also show the importance of balance. They must balance their lives above and below water. They must balance the money they get with environmental health. This wisdom and practice of balance keeps the women of the seas alive. The future will show whether their tradition stays alive as well.

Voice 2

Have you ever heard of these women? Are there similar communities in your area? You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at radio@radioenglish.net. You can also comment on Facebook at Facebook.com/spotlightradio.

Voice 1

The writer of this program was Rena Dam. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Sea Women of South Korea’.

Voice 2

Visit our website to download our free app for Android and Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Are you part of a close community? What makes a community a close one?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
Honneur
said on September 12, 2018

No, I don’t are member of a close community. Today close communities in large cities sound like “ghettos” and “mafias” and I don’t like this types of gathering.

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Honneur
said on September 12, 2018

No, I don’t am member of a close community. Today close communities in large cities sound like “ghettos” and “mafias” and I don’t like this types of gathering.

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luatdq
said on September 14, 2018

I live urban in Hanoi, I am a part of a close community. Our community is civil servants who have an average income and most of them are young people. But we have any special thing beside a quiet life.
I think the important thing to make a community a close is a similarity in culture, work, and people can share and help

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eduhardt
said on September 23, 2018

No, because we are not near the sea in our city and where has the sea, the woman not fish on the sea, this job is make by man, but anyway they are to be congratulated and i hope that this traditional activity follow for centuries;