Image Credit: Lee Seung Ho
The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.
Mama is a jomnyeo. Her breath is her livelihood. She swims to the bottom of the ocean and harvests it for shellfish to sell. When she brings up a spiny, snarled horned turban after three minutes, she places it in my palms and says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” She smiles. “Each one is my breath. That’s why it resembles a flower.” The seawater drips off her nose and chin onto my sleeves. Her hand wrapped around mine is toughened and wrinkled like overripe persimmon, and her back bends with the weight of the horned turban in her nets.
Winter, spring, fall and summer, she enters the saltwater with the diving collective while I wait on the black rocky shore or on the boat, often with the other children. Later I overhear a fisherman say that she swims with a coffin upon her back. And she simply says to me, We all do.
See, Mother rubs a fistful of mugwort
On her glass keunnoon
And slips underwater: a pregnant
Girl diving beneath the waves who
Regards the current, the shimmer of
A fin, and the stumbling shell
Scuttling round the reef; see
Her belly brushing the moony sand.
She kicks her slick duck feet,
Shepherds octopus, abalone and sora
Skyward with her dull glinting spear
Lips puckered at the brine-stung glut
Of littered plastic and cigarettes
Sometimes beneath the steel waters she’ll find
White coral like bones bleached
And brittle scepters for the Yongwong
Who reigns over the bluest waters.
Image Credit: Dried Squid, courtesy of kyu
These days I think back to Jeju Island and my childhood summers there. I loved the seaweed stench of the sea and shared hearty stews and growing tan. It’s where my leftist Uncle planted a small church in 1989, and we flew over to stay with his family of five, plus my grandmother in 1998.
During the night, electric fans whirred near my head as I tried to fall asleep in a heap of blankets and sweaty, thick darkness. During the morning, we ate bap at a crowded table with my four cousins. Then we drove on dirt roads in the church minivan, waving to toothless grandmas, who slowly shuffled along by foot. The sea greeted us. I smiled next to the squid hung up like laundry lines for the camera. Jeju was the ocean beneath blue burning skies. After the granite and concrete of New York, I spent my summers there in wonder; Jeju was holy ground.
I learned later too that Jeju Island is the tangled nexus of where my paternal grandfather lived as a teenager, escaping the carpet bombings during the civil war, and my maternal grandmother lived, happily gardening and raising her grandchildren free of her husband.
They are people of faith. A Christian faith, which sustained and hounded me for so long.
These days the idea that we live in darkness now and will go out back into the light seems cold comfort. So many religions and spiritualities claim a life everlasting. If the afterlife is so enticing, then why fear dying? Can dying be made less lonely with the promise of an afterlife?
My mother’s side of the family converted to Christianity in their early 20s, spurning their Buddhist-Confucian upbringing, so I grew up in the Presbyterian churches of New York. To this day, I can still recite the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the books of the Bible in order from memory. This faith, though I no longer espouse it, has shaped my being. When you grow up in the church, you are surrounded as a child with the hymns, paintings, and biblical stories that remind you memento mori. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our time on earth is fleeting. Spun differently, Rejoice for the kingdom of heaven is near!
And when you grow up Korean Christian, that memento mori, which has traveled down family systems into your nervous system, sometimes startles you with the deafening silence of the bombs that once fell upon your family’s neighborhood in Seoul and the shanty towns of Jeju. Only you don’t know this yet. You’re seven years old and swimming at the beach, so it sounds like the glug of waves, the pulse of blood, and the peace of holding your breath underwater.
My preoccupation with the afterlife started in childhood. In Brooklyn, my mother sang me to sleep with a lullaby about the jomnyeo, as they call themselves in the pure Jeju language, or haenyeo, as we call them in the standard Korean. My mother carried me on her back while she paced the apartment floors and sang about the sea, the seagulls, the baby alone, the mother. My crying was accompanied by the wailing police sirens of New York.
Recently I read an article where a writer says, “…at the heart of seaweed politics is the fact that water can’t be owned, but must be shared”. Unlike land, which we drill into, erect into walls and monuments, water is fluid and forceful. It is a leveling force. I continue to try and write Jeju, but it is like trying to pin down water. Yes, it’s where I spent my summers as a Korean-American child, finding joy and savoring the heat, the sliding doors. Summers there meant sleeping in humidity, slapping mosquitos, and playing with my cousins. We had no air conditioning. There was a wild garden, two mangy dogs, and hundreds of little birds. But spinning Jeju into a linear narrative is impossible.
엄마가 섬그늘에- 굴- 따러 가면
아기가 혼자 남아- 집을 보다가-
바다가 불러주는- 자장 노래에-
팔베고 스르르르- 잠이 듭니다-
아기는 잠을 곤히 자고 있지만
갈매기 울음소리 맘이 설레여
다 못찬 굴바구니 머리에 이고
엄마는 모랫길을 달려-옵니다
On the island when Mama’s gone – to pick oysters,
Baby’s left all alone – To stay in the home –
Ocean sings la-la-lullaby-eh –
Baby rests on pillowy arm – drifting off to sleep
Baby sleeps deeply – but Mama’s heart breaks
At the seagulls cries – and she bounds
With half-full oyster basket upon her head
Mama runs home along the sand
My mother sang this lullaby to me when she was in her late 20s and had me. She sang this without end throughout my childhood. I can still hear her voice in the night and hands warmly massaging my legs — full of pins and needles — while I fell asleep.
Sleep and salt move through this lullaby like currents, which soothed me countless times. I even sang it to myself on the hardest nights abroad. In the lullaby, the ocean is a comfort, rather than treacherous as it so often can be fisherman, divers, and all who enter it daily. The sea lulls the child left alone at home into deep sleep.
Written by famed lyricist Lee Hyung Reoul (이흥렬 작곡), its origins are traced to the 1940s, the brief moment of liberation from Imperial Japan.
Despite the baby’s being home alone (abandoned? Where is the father? Or the relatives who usually populate a Korean household?), the comfort lies in knowing that the haenyeo/jomnyeo mother will leap out of the water at the first sign of danger and drop her day’s work to sprint home. Mother is anxious for the child, so anxious that even the cries of seagulls will prompt her to run over sandy dunes with her oyster basket on top of her head. Mother will be here always. She promises safety and security. The baby has no idea that its mother – a diver – does such tough work daily to make a living.
But mothers are human, and to be human means to be mortal. Reverse little mermaids, the sea mothers lose their hearing and shout loudly with rough, powerful voices. They are no longer the young teenagers who began this work alongside their mothers. They are in their 60s, 80s, even 90s, and they continue to free dive to depths of 60 feet armed with small spears to bring their catch to market and sell them along the sidewalks and along the beach. It pays well. They have been able to send their children to receive university education, but it also is hazardous, bone-aching work.
I’ve researched the haenyeo/jomnyeo for a while now. But so few books capture what the texture of the island breeze feels like. So many books romanticize them as mermaids.
As the Beckett quote goes, “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
When you leave the warmth of the sea and leap across the burning sand, hop onto the dark volcanic stones and study the minnows inside the tide pools, what do you see?
The sea mothers. My uncle’s church members. Inside the little church my uncle built by hand, I see my grandmother sits next to these jomnyeo, who she sang about to her infant, my mother. The women who kept her going when she couldn’t go on I can’t go on I will go on
Esther Kim is a writer and translator based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The White Review, and Brooklyn Magazine. She works at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.