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.