The Diving Women

Mark L. Keats

We were in Jeju-do, an island south of Korea. The island is a honeymoon destination for many due to its generally beautiful weather. Today’s weather, however, did not suggest that. From where Jung Eun and I stood we could see the haenyo walking in a straight line, though that suggests some sense of order, a link perhaps — a clear front and back. But even in that semblance of a uniform line, some of the women walked to the left of the others, some so far left they were nearly in the middle of the single lane road, which looked like it had been paved only a few years previous. They were quite the sight: all black, rubber suits — a kind of mobile slickness with what appeared to be goggles on their heads. To the right of them was a stonewall; the upper part a sort of puzzle like cobbling of large, dark slate colored stones, the bottom a familiar mix of highway median concrete. It was clear this side of the island was modernizing. I tried to imagine what the women would look like from a bird’s eye view, snaking its way confidently to the beach.

“This is pretty cool,” I said. “I wasn’t sure we’d actually see them.”

“Wow,” she said. “Lots of them.”

From our distance, they all looked to be carrying a drum attached to a hula-hoop but what was actually a flotation device and ringed net. As they got closer and began passing us, it was clear that the women all wore a red and round diving mask on their heads. Some wore it straight up like a hat while others wore it angled upward as if projecting. They all wore white gloves. And they all wore different colored rubber shoes as if this was the one singular item of individuality. Most of the women looked middle-aged and had short, cropped hair, a hint of a belly. Their faces were heavily tanned and wrinkled by the sun. The one woman at the back, however, was younger. Her hair seemed a little longer, too, and I immediately thought she was very beautiful. Then I wondered how many haenyo actually existed. Today, I counted eight.


The profession of the diving women, as I had been told, was certainly declining. Despite being born on the island, young girls did not necessarily aspire to follow in their mothers or grandmother’s footsteps. If anything, they sought a more modern and comfortable lifestyle, sometimes on the mainland. Originally, diving had been reserved for men, but by the seventeenth century, women were also diving. There are theories as to how this came to be: government taxing on the harvests by men and the death of men through war or accidents. But, one reason has always made sense: fat. Women naturally have a higher percentage of body fat which helps to insulate the divers in the extreme temperatures of the water. Of course, I also thought there was another reason why women dove and men did not anymore.

Despite the culture being male driven through the heavy influence of Confucianism, I’ve always thought Korean women were strong because of what they’ve suffered. Though it’s mostly speculative, what little I know of my birthmother has always made me think this: how else could a single unwed mother have attempted to raise her child in Korea in the 1980s after supposedly giving birth in a women’s prison? So, it made sense that haenyo were tough. These were women who dove down roughly forty meters into the cold waters and could hold their breath for as long as three minutes, women who had to deal with not only jellyfish but sharks. What was most mesmerizing about them, though, was their demeanor. They were all wide smiles, white teeth, and loud talking. Though I couldn’t understand what they said, it was clear that this group of women was a sort of club, one forged from the harshness of their job: diving for any number of things in the sea such as abalone, oysters, sagassum, to name a few. Regardless of the past and the current theories, the haenyo now dove out of necessity and tradition. As one friend had pointed out, this was one of the few examples where the Confucian hierarchy didn’t necessarily exist in the Korean family structure. It was an example, too, of economic equality, something that did not always exist on the mainland. But on this tiny resort-like island, the haenyo oftentimes earned the living. That is, they brought home the sea bacon.


As they continued to walk past us, they spoke loudly and laughed easily. Oftentimes, one would slap another on the back, only for the recipient to yell back a familiar, “Ya!” or “Hey!” None of them were really silent or passive. It seemed like they were a team, and weren’t they? It seemed as if they were pumping each other up, getting themselves ready for the harshness to come, the sea their perpetual opponent. I thought I might see them pretend punch each other in the chests or shout out in unison at the sea. I imagined they might exchange words like, Is that what the news said, sharks? That we shouldn’t dive? Don’t they know whom I’m married to? Ha, I’ll take my chances in the sea!

We stood in the same spot when one of them waved to us. I suppose it was not shocking to them for people to stare, to take photos, to intrude. If anything, Jung Eun and I might have simply represented a newly married couple or brother and sister or Japanese tourists. The woman who waved then said something I couldn’t catch, though I could feel the weight of it being thrown. Jung Eun spoke Korean, which to me sounded even quicker than when we had been in Seoul only a few days before and I clutched to her like a scared child. And even then, despite her speaking extra slowly and consciously enunciating each sound, I couldn’t quite understand her accent, though she had assured me that it was the standard Seoul accent. Of course, I couldn’t be sure; I could only focus on the other aspects of communication, the physical ones. And I could only make assumptions about how the main language of a country might shift slightly as you moved throughout its spaces. I thought of the many dialects of Chinese, how I was told people from the northern region cannot communicate with people from the southern region. I thought, too, of my uncle who, with his rich New England accent, loved to make fun of how my family pronounced “water” as “wooder,” how one’s accent could inadvertently reveal so much more than demographics, how it was often times intertwined with economics.

“What did she say?” I asked.

Jung Eun smiled, then said something again in Korean to the woman. The woman laughed, then turned to another woman and spoke. Compared to Jung Eun, it sounded thicker as if she had a mouthful of food. I couldn’t catch any of it. The ones paying attention to us laughed.

“Well?” I asked.


I’d been in South Korea for about a week already and though I’d had a personal Korean language tutor back in Maryland, though I had practiced enough to at least believe I was beginning to react to the language instead of always processing it, I had already become inured to the fact that I would not be fluent. That fluency could only be had in so many ways. That fluency meant a kind of natural reaction to another speaker, not a constant and internal philosophical anxiety. Despite being in Korea for only a week so far, I had already grown used to the delay between someone speaking, translating, and then finally relaying the information to me in carefully selected and what I suspected was limited English, never knowing fully how much I’d be able to or if I’d be able to grasp the baton of comprehension.

“They want to know if you want a picture.”

“Oh,” I said. “Of course. Yes. Please.”


One of the diving women spoke quickly and again always with a laugh or smile. It was as if nothing could upset this woman. She looked at me and spoke. There was a pause. Then she smiled. I thought she might touch me on the shoulder or hit me in a sisterly way. I smiled back. It seemed natural when you couldn’t actually communicate, when it was a kind of wrestling match in the spaces where words were normally exchanged, accepted, returned. When I didn’t say anything, the diving woman looked at Jung Eun. She spoke Korean, which to me was again thick as if the expectant sharpness of the angles on the words I’d spent so much time listening and internalizing to be able to then recognize through a sort of feeling in the dark tumbled out like smooth stones. The haenyo’s words were thick and smooth so much that I could never quite grasp any part of them even if I believed I’d touched a word or two. It was as if my comprehension of Korean was a sifter, with the many granules of Korean falling hopelessly away.

Jung Eun didn’t quite smile; instead she looked at me a moment and looked as if she might say something, ask me a question even. But then she turned to the diving woman and spoke, a lot. In that rapid and natural exchange, I thought I’d caught the sound of one new Korean word I learned for being adopted: ibyang. But, of course, I wasn’t sure. The diving woman nodded, then looked at me, nodded some more. Then she smiled, laughed. The diving woman looked at me again, then her friend. She said something. They seemed to nod in unison. Another woman had already worked her way to the shoreline.

“What is it?” I asked.

“She tried to make a joke,” Jung Eun said.

“What was it?”

“She was trying to joke with you. But then you didn’t respond. You just — smiled at her.”

“What did she say?”

“She said she has a good looking and strong son — that she could introduce him to me if I wanted. That he wasn’t married yet.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Mark,” Jung Eun said, and smiled. “She thought you’d say something like, ‘This is my girlfriend.’ When you only smiled, she said, ‘What is this guy, Japanese?’”

“Why would she ask that?”

“Because you can’t understand her,” she said.

“Did you tell her I’m —”

“American? Yeah, I said you’re Korean American.”

“I mean, did you mention why I don’t speak Korean?”

Jung Eun looked at me, then said. “Sort of. I mean, Korean American means you’re not Korean. I mean, that you’re not familiar with this Korea.”

“What did she say?”

“She said she understood why you didn’t protect my honor. She said that you look like a nice guy.”

“A nice guy,” I said. “A nice Japanese guy.”


As most of the eight women set their gear down and seemed to be warming up with calisthenics, Jung Eun and one of the diving women conversed some more. They both laughed loudly as if they’d been long lost friends suddenly reunited. I stood with my hands in my pockets, not exactly sure how to stand, only thinking I’d never quite experience what these two women were experiencing in the Korean tongue.

I’d experienced this same uncertainty as someone only on the periphery a few days before when we visited the orphanage I’d spent a few months in before I’d been adopted to America in 1983. Though I also hadn’t understood what the social workers said then because I was only three and my Korean limited, I’d at least knew where to put my hands, how my body language might convey something to them. My adoptive mother has told me all I wanted when I first came over to America was to be held. When we were in my supposed hometown, Suwon, which is roughly thirty kilometers south of the capital, Seoul, I’d used my hands to rub the dirt between my fingers, to touch the rusting playground jungle outside, to pick up some of the orphans who occupied Kyung Won Dong Orphanage. Their weight, I thought, made them real. It was cold that morning and every exhalation resulted in a clear and momentary fog. There were mountains in the background. And I tried hard to remember if I had any memory related to this place. But nothing honestly came.


“They want to know if you want a picture.”

“Yes,” I said. “Please.”

I leaned on a large, slick rock. One of the diving women sat on top of the rock, another came and stood next to it. Behind us was the sea. With my camera in hand, Jung Eun took a step back, then another. All the while, the two haenyo talked as if this was merely part of the job before diving.

“Ready?” Jung Eun asked, then she yelled, “Kimchi!” though I swore I only heard the familiar “cheese,” and was momentarily surprised. As she took another photo, the diving women changed their word of choice. Perhaps to impress me or make me feel at ease in such a foreign landscape, perhaps in a moment of complete spontaneity, they yelled, “Hamburger” in that unmistakable island dialect.

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