With his toes just touching the water, Jin let the waves lap at his feet. Warmed by the heat of the midday sun that hung hard and blinding, the ocean heaved and yawed under the unbroken light. But the water was no longer the colour of lapis lazuli as it had been during his childhood; appearing even more brilliant against the black volcanic headland that hissed when the foam broke against the porous rock. Jin closed his eyes and tried to remember a time when the ocean was unpolluted, unhurried, and unfolded like a turquoise quilt, an unbroken ocean passageway to Japan.
Jin was the only son of a haenyo* family on Jeju Island- off the south coast of the Korean peninsula, and the last descendent in a long line of female free divers. Men only had administrative power on the island; its female inhabitants headed the work and industry. For centuries the island had lived like this. “A boy?” his grandmother had said, as she peered into the bundle her daughter was holding. She could not hide the tinged disappointment in her voice.
“A boy is a fine thing, mamma,” said Jin’s mother in defense of her newborn son. “He’ll learn to do business with the Chinese and the Americans, and bring good fortune in other ways.”
As a child, Jin would stand on the shore and watch his mother and grandmother dive for abalone, his childish self eagerly holding the bucket ready to collect their catch, and his little heart pounding with every minute they were gone beneath the waves. His grandmother would leave first, the older and more experienced diver, testing the water for an invisible undercurrent that could snatch them away. When she didn’t return after one minute, his mother would join her, knowing it was safe. Jin’s grandmother could feel the pull and swell of an undercurrent that was still miles offshore; she could feel the tug of salt water in her blood, and sense the rumbling seabed.
The haenyo women would cast their nets beneath the surface, and the tendrils of green thread cocooned anything that found itself swimming or living within its boundaries. The appearance of the white buoys signaled the long wait. “Ask the goddess for a good yield,” his mother whispered to him, as she padded her way to the shore, the smell of sea salt and driftwood following her. Jin would place his little hands on the stone goddess that protected the island’s haenyo, and whisper a small betrayal. “Solmundae Halmang, look after my mamma and grandmamma.” Sometimes he swore that he could hear the goddess sigh.
No haenyo in his community had yet been lost to the ocean. “The goddess looks after us,” his grandmother cawed when probing tourists with their big black cameras visited their diving site. The tourists laughed and said how “idyllic” and “quaint” their life was, and took pictures of his grandmother in her rubber suit as she came out of the ocean with her net full of abalone. What they didn’t realize was that without the goddess looking over them, the haenyo and their families would have suffered generations of loss and grief the hue of the blackened, silent volcanoes that circled the island. The goddess never took a female human life, and kept each woman safe beneath the brine that offered up abundant catches of sea urchin, octopus, and the much-coveted abalone. Thanks to Solmundae Halmang, the community thrived and multiplied for almost two hundred years.
The island’s men never dived, nor stepped foot in the water, save for an emergency or an accident. Jin’s father did not trust the goddess, and told stories of her vengefulness against the island’s men, many of whom had been lost to the waves when typhoons struck; their broken bodies washing up on the shore weeks later, or lost forever. “She’s a cruel woman, she’ll kill all the men on this island if she could,” tutted Jin’s father one night over a long, late dinner. Jin sat between his parents, nestled in the crook of his mother’s arm, comforted by the presence of them both, safe and together. He loved to sit and listen to their tales of the goddess, as the waves lulled sleep towards him.
“That’s not true!” Said Jin’s mother in the goddesses’ defense. “She only has the power to look after women, imagine how busy she would be if she had to watch over you as well!”
“Well, we’ll keep Jin away from the water,” his father concluded. “Besides, we have big plans for that boy, isn’t that right, son?” But Jin was already sleeping, and having heady, turquoise dreams.
When the full moon came signaling the Chuseok* festival in Jin’s thirteenth year, he decided he wanted to enter the water for the first time. That year had been a particularly high yield in abalone, and his family had doubled their income by selling it to Chinese traders. They had all watched in anticipation as the surly faced businessman in his black suit, sweating underneath the noon sun, weighed each abalone, and nodded in silent approval. His grandmother had stood at the shore, praying to Solmundae Halmang- her arms clasped around her body, swaying from side to side like an underwater plant. One restaurant owner had offered his family a tidy sum for just that day’s catch, enough to repair his father’s boat and buy brand new nets for his mother and grandmother.
That Chuseok night they had celebrated and feasted all day long in honour of the goddess and her generous return. The winds had been calm and the summer had remained free of typhoon. “Thank you Solmundae Halmang!” whooped his grandmother as she raised her glass to the sky, and sank back into the sand. “Thank you for looking after our women and our men!”
“More soju!” Called his father, and got up to fetch another bottle of the potent rice wine. Jin too was drunk on the celebration and excitement the Chinese businessman had bought his family, and hoped that one day it would be him that would negotiate tidy profits for them.
When his parents and grandmother had finally given in to the soporific effects of the day’s feasting, and lay snoring gently on the porch, he walked down to the water’s edge. The water was black and still, two perfect bleached white moons made long silvery shadows on the sand; the reflected moon wimpling slightly. Jin stepped into the water and felt the salt sting, he walked further and let the cool envelope his body until all but his head were submerged. He splashed and broke the reflected, trembling moon, leaning back on the water so he could float blithely on the unmarred ocean, and spoke softly to the goddess, “Solmundae Halmang, make me a diver!”
But Jin had not sensed the current that was gathering beneath the calm exterior, his blood was blind to the pull of the ocean. His limbs did not have the strength to negotiate the swell that wanted to suck him under, and the water began to gurgle in his lungs. Jin looked into a never-ending blackness, the surface, his home and his family suddenly far, far away.
Just before the moment when the light from the moon was completely extinguished, Jin felt a pair of strong arms around his body, and he was pulled to the surface. His grandmother dragged him gasping and shivering to the sand, smacking his back to reawaken his lungs- so hard that the following day he had red welts across it. “You fool! You stupid, stupid boy!” berated his grandmother, as Jin sat sobbing in shock on the porch steps.
“Let him be!” shouted his mother, yet again defending her only son and pulling the blanket tighter across his shoulders. “You could have died, my only child,” she whispered hoarsely into Jin’s ear. “Stay away from the ocean, it’s not for you.”
Jin’s father spat and cursed in anger at the near tragedy.
“You cannot swim, boy! You’re no woman, you should not be in the water.” Jin felt ashamed and weak. He had loved the ocean all his life, but it did not love him back.
That year, Jin was sent to a technical high school on the mainland to learn English and business studies. He was happy to leave the critical gaze of his grandmother, who could not forgive him for almost drowning and casting a shadow across their family’s good fortune. But Jin was not happy to leave his mother, who wept when he boarded the ferry for a city many miles away. “Study hard, my precious one,” she had told him. “And bring us good fortune when you return.”
Jin was introduced to a new world on the mainland. Although his school was next to the sea, it was not like Jeju with open, unspoiled water, and pollution choked the air in the industrial city where Jin now lived. Conglomerate owned ships carried entire car parks of vehicles across to China, and the North Korean navy sailed stealthy close to the nautical border. Each month the air raid siren rang through the school, in preparation for an attack from the North. He learned that his teachers and his family both worshipped the ocean, but in different measure. “The sea is our fortune” Jin’s teachers told him. “We must learn how to profit from the distance it puts between us and the rest of Asia.” Jin learned a new language, English, from his American friends, and of the very real threat that North Korea posed on the South. Before, in Jeju, talk of the North was rare- so far away and alien; an unreal peril the product of American paranoia.
“We will be reunited with our sisters, one day,” his grandmother had said. “They will learn the error of their ways, but until then we should carry on in peace.”
At first, the other students laughed at Jin’s accent, mocking his humble roots. “The women wear the trousers on Jeju!” they taunted. Jin soon learned to feel shame towards his origins, and the awkward, inverted ways of his family. When summer vacation came, he made excuses not to return home, and took extra study classes in business and English. It was during those summers that Jin learned about the American military’s plans to increase their naval presence on the peninsula, plans fully endorsed by his college who received their funding from the USA. Jin learned to be paranoid and cautious about North Korea, and found himself agreeing with the Americans. He passed his exams with a patriotic zeal that would pave the way for his future, and when his military service time came up, he secured a safe, administrative job with the navy. He wrote to his mother and told him he was happy to be near the ocean, and she wrote back full of admiration for her clever, sea-loving son. Solmundae Halmang is keeping us safe; we wait for your return.
And so the time came when the two governments declared the need for a new naval base on Jeju Island, and had chosen Jin’s village as the site for its natural rock formation and calm, eastern waters. In return for the land, the government had offered the families in the community a sum that amounted to a lifetime’s income from diving for abalone, enough to buy cars and houses outright, enough to send more children away to the mainland for college; enough to buy convenience stores and other profit building enterprises on the otherwise unspoiled island. The contract stated the following pretenses: In order to expand defenses in the event of an attack from the KPA*, and store emergency arsenal should mainland stock be bombed, this naval base will be for your security and the protection of the ROK*. All the government needed was an adult, male signatory from the village, a man with administrative powers. Jin didn’t hesitate to sign the papers. With the contract stamped and now in the hands of the government, building had begun right away.
Jin’s mother had written to him of the powerlessness and heartache that had consumed the island. Yesterday, a dying dolphin washed up on our shore in front of our porch, it had choked on the chemicals the Americans spilled. A month later, Jin learned of his grandmother’s death. Her heart just stopped beating, I think it was broken.
Jin watched the silhouettes made by the cranes that marked the spot that used to be his home lifting steel girders the size of skyscrapers. He shivered at the memory of being dragged ashore by his grandmother; he had not been back to the island for eight summers since that bleak, Chuseok night. His parents had learned of his betrayal when he returned, accompanied by men in suits with the contract in his hands. He had mistakenly hoped that they would see that he had brought them the good fortune that had been his familial duty; a convenience store for them to both run, away from the perilous grip of the ocean that would inevitably kill one of them. “The goddess has no power over men with machines.” Said his mother coldly, as she turned her back on him for the last time.
haenyo- literally translates as woman of the sea
Chuseok – Korea’s thanksgiving festival
KPA- Korean People’s Army
ROK- Republic of Korea