Hair designer to haenyeo: The life of a young female diver

해녀채지애 사진1 Richard Seungmin Lee

The idea of leaving Seoul to move to Jeju seems like a very romantic one. However, what if you changed the last part of that sentence into “..move to Jeju to become a Haenyeo.” If that was your goal, most people would likely ask the same question, “Why?”

Being a Haenyeo is a difficult job which is fast losing popularity among young people on the island. The long hours worked and difficult conditions mean that haenyeo would seem to live a life far removed from that of most people who move to Jeju.

Today’s interviewee, Chae Ji-ae used to be a hair designer in Seoul but she made choice to become one of Jeju’s female divers. As someone in her 30s she is one of the youngest on the island. Here is her story.

First of all, why did you make such a decision?

Well, the reason that comes to mind is that I wanted to spend more time with my children and leave the stresses of my job.

But, being a Haenyeo sounds like unexpected option.

My decision to become a haenyeo didn’t arrive completely out of blue. I was born and raised in Jeju, in a village near to Seongsan. It wasn’t until I finished my education that I moved to Seoul to work. Most importantly, my mother is a haenyeo diver. Perhaps my background helped me make this decision.

It must not be easy to make that decision if your mother is haenyeo.

Of course she was actually initially against my plans to become a haenyeo. She has first hand knowledge of the danger of spending long hours out at sea. My mom recently suffered problems while out on a dive. She even has no memory of that dive after a certain point.”

As far as I know, the average age of haenyeo divers is quite old.

I am one of only 10 haenyeo divers in their 30s and I am working in a profession where the majority of my coworkers are aged 50 and over.

How is the process of becoming a haenyeo?

The most difficult part for new people wanting to become a haenyeo is that there is usually a long process that they have to go through. This can involve living in the village and knowing the haenyeo who work there for between three to five years before you can actually start work.

It must also be very difficult from a physical perspective?

Yes, when I first started I concluded that if it was something that people in their 60s, 70s and 80s could do, then surely someone like me in their 30s would have no problem. However, the older divers have a lot of experience to draw from and a know-how of the job that someone just starting, no matter their youth and fitness level, will ever have. Despite some of the difficulties my older coworkers have when on land, as soon as they enter the water these problems vanish.

What is the most impressive thing that you have seen while working as a Haenyeo?

There is an amazing sense of community felt amongst the haenyeo. Working only in groups, they always look after each other. There was one time that I had to leave early. Worried that I would miss out on a day’s earnings, the other haenyeo grouped together to give me some of their catch so I wouldn’t leave empty handed.

Finally, what was most memorable moment as a haenyeo?

My proudest moment was when I was first called a haenyeo by the other divers.