For hundreds of years women on Jeju Island in South Korea have supported their families by diving to the ocean floor to collect seaweed and the various edible creatures found there. It is Jae Hyun’s dream to be a haenyo, a mermaid, like her mother and grandmother, but her mother forbids it. The life of a haenyo is a dangerous one. She wants a better life, a safer life, for her daughter. Then tragedy strikes and Jae Hyun’s courage is tested, as is her dream. She must prove to herself and to her mother that she is worthy of the choice she has made.
Excerpt from book:
All day I wait for school to end so I can go down to the sea to watch the mermaids. My mother is a mermaid and every day she dives in the sea with her flock of mermaids. They bring up abalone and seaweed, octopus and sea urchin, and all kinds of shellfish. All day long they dive and dive.
My mother says they are not mermaids. She says they are just haenyo, but I know better. They must be mermaids. How else could they swim underwater for so long? And I know something else. I know they are visiting their father, the Sea King, at the bottom of the sea. The Sea King must love his beautiful, strong daughters very much.
Where the story began:
While working as an English teacher in South Korea I took various trips to different parts of the country. Before setting off to Jeju, a semi-tropical volcanic island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, my Korean friends told me to look for the mermaids. I thought they were joking. During a day trip to Udo, a tiny island next to Jeju, I discovered they were not.
The first thing my friend and I encountered after stepping off the ferry was an incredible wind. It was so powerful it distorted the sounds of the ferry engine and the calls of the gulls hovering in the air above us. It also masked the voices of the women donning wetsuits behind a lava rock wall on the shore. These women, the youngest of whom were in their 50s, were haenyo, ‘women of the sea.’ They were mermaids and they were getting ready to go to work.
The haenyo spoke no English and we spoke very little Korean, but we managed to communicate enough to understand that we had been invited to go to join them. They wanted us to dive! Unfortunately my friend disliked swimming and I was much too large to fit into one of their wetsuits so we agreed to watch instead.
We watched for hours as dozens of haenyo dove and returned to the surface. Their white floatation devices dotted the sea. The high-pitched whistling of their breathing (called sumbi-sori) was caught by the fierce wind and echoed by the calling of the gulls. We were entranced. The morning flew by as these women worked at their traditional occupation, which has been passed from mother to daughter for many generations. By the time we left we were tired just from the buffeting of the wind and the passing of a morning. None of them had even stopped to rest. Not one had left the frigid waters the whole time we were there.
When I left Jeju-do I took with me a great admiration for these women. Their kindness and confidence and strength inspired me and, many years later, it inspired this story about a girl who wants to be a mermaid, like the women she loves.
The haenyo are a dying breed. Their ways are of the old world, and that may not be a bad thing. Their work is difficult and dangerous. But it is also valuable. It benefits these women in ways that other occupations may not.
The haenyo work together, supporting each other, always testing their skills. They know the sea intimately and they live in harmony with it, never taking more than the ecosystem can bear. Though many of the women I met that day were in their 60s and 70s there were no slouched backs or tired faces among them. The work they were doing should have worn them out. Instead it appeared to be keeping their spirits young.
One day the haenyo of South Korea will pass into history, but I hope this story will keep alive the memory of the strong, confident women a little girl admires and wishes to emulate. But the qualities of the haenyo do not just belong only to the old world. Girls (and boys!) can be as strong and confident as haenyo without ever even touching the sea.