i am a mother
An ocean was born into my daughters, the salt so dense in their hearts I can still taste it. As babies, they were nursed with the sea—my spirit surging from breast to mouth. Today, my husband stands on the curb beside them, as my halmoni and I prepare to ride. She is fifty-seven and a fixture on the diving line. My girls laugh when we kick start our motorcycles, call out as we drive down the busy streets of Jeju Island.
i am a sister
We are a collection. A sorority that spans centuries. We sell our seabed treasures to support the community, divide our profits between us. Our legacy can be found in the beauty of an octopus, the flesh of an abalone, the persistence of our pride. Our devotion to each other is like nothing else I’ve experienced. We are one.
i am a vision
My wetsuit is smooth, my face carved with wrinkles. An oval mask has become an extension of my face, a portal to promise. With this, I see my future. I have fins that propel my aging body fifty feet down—underneath overhanging boulders, and into the rifts of jagged cliffs. When I emerge from the sea, I am spent. I will return tomorrow, and the day after that, because it terrifies me that I will lose this. That I will have nothing.
i am fearless
Free diving is not an art I was trained for; I do it because it’s my calling. I’ve conditioned my lungs to last—thirty seconds, two minutes, four and a half more. My halmoni can submerge for almost ten. I risk pushing my limits too far, my inflamed joints too long. But I will not surrender a catch. It is within me and it is mine. I am powerful below the surface. I am strong.
i am endangered
My daughters will dress in suit jackets and skirts, carry briefcases, and drive compact cars. They will leave our island for an education, for the promise of work away from the sea. But they cannot escape our heritage or the restlessness that calls to them. I hate that we will fail. That we will disappear. I don’t want my daughters to miss out on the history that binds the women of Jeju Island together. I don’t want them to forget.
i am a haenyeo
The shushing of the water calls to me. I am unadorned, slipping into its current. I hear its tune, and I am gone.