At the end of my previous post I promised to tell you why The Iron Butterfly’s subtitle is "The True Story of a Mermaid's Daughter." Obviously, her mother was a "mermaid," which in the South Korean island where Choon-Ok was born was another name for "sea woman." Choon-Ok's mother was called a "mermaid" because she was free-diver who, like many other women living in the island, spent between 4-6 hours every day diving, searching for and collecting octopus, abalone, seaweed, sea urchin and other foods to sell and for their families to eat. Sea women supported their families in this way, and quite often they were the breadwinners. Sea women---haenyo in Korean---have existed for about 1,500 years.
Being a haenyo is a dangerous profession, so they dive in groups to watch for each other. Being a haenyo defines these amazing women's lifestyle, who their friends are, and sometimes their fate. There is a strong bond among the women in the group. They know that staying alive in the water depends on them supporting each other.
Choon-Ok's mother, as many other Korean haenyo, began her training as a young girl. Her mother taught her as her grandmother had taught her mother. Mothers have taught their daughters for many generations of Korean women hoping to pass on a useful trade that would allow these strong women to have economic independence and support their families. This is unconventional, to say the least, in a society in which men are traditionally the breadwinners and a woman's role is to stay home and care for the family. But in Korea and Japan, haenyo are a symbol of the islands and a living representation of the strong body and character of these women.
For all of you interested in what happens to your body when you dive daily for hours in very cold water holding your breath for minutes at a time, here is what I have found out. In the beginning, before diving suits were invented, haenyo dove wearing cotton shirts and trunks. Choon-Ok's mother dove year long wearing cotton clothes. Yes, even during the freezing Korean winters. The water is so cold in winter that her hair was covered in icicles when she surfaced. Scientists have been able to study how haenyo's bodies adapted to continuous immersion in almost freezing water. They have found out that their bodies learned to trigger compensatory mechanisms that did not allow their bodies’ core temperature to drop to dangerous levels. When a haenyo began her training, her core temperature dropped significantly after an hour or less in the water. She needed to take a break on land and warm up--usually by a fire on the beach--before going back to another round of diving. But as training continued for weeks and months, their bodies triggered internal mechanisms that did not allow their core temperature to reach dangerous low levels. In this way, they were able to dive longer. Haenyo have lived long years, and have kept on diving even after their sixties. Choon-Ok's mother lived till she was 84 years old, although she had stopped diving many years before.
When diving suits became available, haenyo used them if they could afford them, and their ability to self-sustain a warm core has been reduced in time. Diving suits insulate the body, so the core temperature does not drop as much as when wearing cotton clothes, and the body does not have to compensate as much on its own. Choon-Ok's mother never used a diving suit. They were expensive. An amazing woman on her own, Choon-Ok's mother had many more strengths as you will discover in The Iron Butterfly.
Did the tradition continue in Choon-Ok's family? Is Choon-Ok a haenyo like her mother? I'll keep you in suspense until my next blog. Stay tuned! Check out this link for the Haenyo Museum in Korea. The text is in Korean, but click on "Photo Gallery" to see haenyo photos.
Very few stories are about women who quietly achieve great things. These women believe their story is not important to others than her and maybe her immediate family and friends. They do not believe that they have achieved outstanding goals. They believe their patience and perseverance was simply blessed with luck. Sometimes, these women are ashamed of what they had to go through in life and do not want others to know. But when an outsider learns about what they have done, how they have done it, and the immense dedication and resolution these women must have within to achieve a better life, then outsiders are in awe and wonder, what would I have done if I had been in her shoes? When the outsider is a writer who wants to share with the world the good things its inhabitants have to offer, then the writer must write these women's stories.
Lucky I was one day when I met one of these outstanding women. She is the martial arts instructor of my sons. She did not want her personal story to become public. She did not want anybody to know about the endless obstacles she had to overcome and her most traumatic personal secrets. Finally, she agreed to place her concerns aside and tell me her story and we have written a book together. She told me her story, and I wrote it. On March 2011 we will celebrate the 6th anniversary of the beginning of our project with the release of her book. We are thrilled!
Her name is Choon-Ok Harmon and she was born in a time and place where a woman's destiny was determined by tradition. She did not want that destiny to be hers. Her dramatic childhood experiences had convinced her the hard way that life had to be better than being hungry, extremely cold, and worrying for her personal safety all the time. She did not know how, but she would find a way to live better when she grew up. And she did. But she did it in a way so unusual, so against tradition that it proves that real life stories are many times better than fiction. She is living proof that 'when there is a will, there is a way.' I have been changed by her story; by the experience of knowing her deeply inside. My problems seem tiny compared to hers. I feel inspired to find a solution to the obstacles life presents along my journey. As she says, "Just do what you have to do!" I have invested a lot of me in this project, and now that the book is almost out, I know the journey will continue ahead. I think this is one of those stories that deserves to be heard, even better, it deserves to be listened to. We have set up a website for the book, (http://womanironbutterfly.com ) or you can click on my own website link: http://www.anamariarodriguez.com ) And we have a lovely book cover! Thank you and I hope to receive your feedback! AMR
PS. Yes, she is a 'mermaid's daughter', but I will leave you wondering, what kind of mermaid was her mother? More in my next post!