Grandma Kwon Young-hee, age 90, The Oldest Haenyeo in Jongdal-ri
What does “Haenyeo” mean to you?
I was born in Gujwa, Jeju Island, and lived here for 90 years. I learned how to dive at the age of 10, started making money at age 15, and continued to work even until last year. I’ve lived as a Haenyeo for 80 years and retired this year. Even now, I have a lot of desire to catch a conch and dive into the water. The sea is such a good place for me.
Were there any difficulties living as a Haenyeo?
There was nothing difficult about being a Haenyeo. I’ve been diving since I was 10, and my body has grown accustomed to it, so I enjoy doing the work very much. While working as a Haenyeo, there wasn't a single day when I didn't want to go out to sea. You make money by going out to sea. I stayed home on the days when waves were strong, and I couldn’t wait for the weather to get better so I could go back into the sea. Diving helped me to earn a living to raise 6 children, and send them to college, so I am very grateful for the sea. It gets a little hard in the cold winter, but in Jeju, we have what’s called a bulteok, and it's a place where Haenyeo can go to warm themselves in winter. In January, I can't stay in the water for more than 30 minutes because it's too cold. When I was younger, even in the middle of winter, if the weather was good, I would go into the sea.
Do you have any memorable experiences while working as a Haenyeo?
When I was about 25 years old, I went out into the sea for a dive. I heard a sound from the sea and saw a shoal of dolphins passing by. In the Jeju dialect, dolphins are called “gomsik”. Whenever this happens, all the Haenyeo gather together and shout “bae allo” (pass under the boat). Then the dolphins pass under the water and swim away from the Haenyeo. Grandmothers of the past would say it's okay if dolphins come in groups, but to be careful when a lone dolphin approaches. The lone dolphin they were referring to is a shark. Sharks are scary for Haenyeo, but I've never seen a shark in Jeju. I've seen a turtle before, but when I met them in the sea, the turtle and I were both surprised.
If you were given a second life, would you become a Haenyeo again?
People born now cannot become a Haenyeo. Young people don't choose to become a Haenyeo. Everyone goes to the city, and they don’t stay in a village like this to become a Haenyeo. It’s a sad and regretful thing. The youngest Haenyeo in our village is 55 years old. I used to say in the past, “I am Kwon Young-hee, Jongdal-ri’s oldest Haenyeo,” but now that I am retired, I can’t introduce myself like that anymore.