New school of ‘sea women’
“I want to learn the movements of a haenyeo,” Shin said, adding that Jeju was her grandmother’s birthplace.
Haenyeo refers to Korea’s tradition of female divers, a culture mostly found on the country’s largest island, Jeju. Without any breathing equipment, they scour the bottom of the sea for octopus, clams, abalones and conches, among others.
At a time when the number of these traditional divers is dwindling sharply - from 26,000 in the 1960s to about 4,500 now - efforts are being made nationwide to infuse pride in the culture, and spur popular endorsements for saving it.
One of those endeavors was the establishment in 2007 of the Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School. With 285 graduates so far and 78 freshmen registered this year, the school aims to train haenyeo and preserve the culture surrounding it.
Competition for admission was high this year, with more than three applicants per spot. Eight foreigners even applied. Seven candidates were ultimately accepted, though the school currently has six after one dropped out.
“Most of our students want to be a haenyeo,” said Lee Yong-min, an officer for the local Hallim government on Jeju Island. “The rest are mostly interested in the [culture’s] 2015 application [to Unesco].”
Lee was referring to Korea’s recent move in March to apply to Unesco to add female divers to the organization’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The agency will decide next year whether it is eligible to be included.
Domestically, Jeju’s haenyeo culture was enlisted on the Important Intangible Cultural Properties list in 2012.
Belousova Snezhana, a 37-year-old Russian living with her Korean husband, daughter and two sons, said she applied to the school hoping to learn how to fish so that she can feed her family with her catch.
After moving to Seoul 11 years ago, Snezhana mentioned that she was stunned by Jeju’s beaches when she first arrived on the island for a family vacation a couple of years ago. For someone who had seen the ocean only twice before emigrating, it was a paradise she was tempted to call home.
“Foreigners don’t have much difficulty following the lessons,” Lee said, because other local students are sufficiently fluent in English to translate on the spot. “We consider all those factors when selecting our students.”
The school is occasionally visited by prominent figures, including Kathleen Stephens, the former U.S. ambassador to Korea, who served in Seoul from 2008 to 2011.
“I was deeply impressed by the haenyeos and straw-roofed houses in Jeju when I first visited [Jeju] in 1976,” she said after visiting Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School in June 2011. “It’s too bad that many of the straw-roofed houses got demolished, but I see that the haenyeos’ tenacity hasn’t changed.”
In the school’s four-month program, which runs from May to August annually, students are guided through practical and theoretical lessons that provide fundamental knowledge about becoming a qualified haenyeo. The women learn the history of the country’s fishing culture, why preserving it is critical and how to catch the best fish after making a perfect dive.
Students are not required to pay tuition.
“We’re having more and more applicants [for admission] each year,” said Lee. “Because a large portion of our students fly in from Seoul, I think this program has boosted the local economy, too.”
About 20 of the 285 graduates so far - most of whom were former housekeepers - are currently working as registered haenyeo, according to Lee. He noted that, to a certain extent, the school was successfully counteracting the sharp decline in traditional divers.
There are a number of reasons for the decrease: having to brave the treacherous waters of the Korea Strait and wear rubber swimsuits as thin as 4 millimeters (0.16 inch) to 5 millimeters, even during frigid winters, which have triggered migraines, ear infections, joint pain and cardiovascular disease in some divers. Increasingly warmer weather has also lessened sea resources.
For others, the registration process to become a professional haenyeo is too rigorous. Procedures differ among fishing villages, but on average, an applicant must pay between 1 million ($976) and 2 million won in membership fees, and put down an additional 1 million to 2.3 million won toward the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, a collective that provides support to fishermen and fishing villages. The women must also fish for at least 60 days of the year.
Besides financial complications, Lee suggested that earning a professional title had its difficulties, adding that “it is crucial to get along with the villagers” or the “people you share the ocean with,” in order to become a haenyeo.
And many local fishermen, in particular, often worry they will have to share their catch. In that respect, when asked whether foreigners were at a disadvantage because of the language barrier, Lee replied with a chuckle: “No, they actually have better chances because the villagers adore them.”
BY LEE SUNG-EUN, CHOI CHUNG-IL[email@example.com]