Library takes you far from Hotel California

It seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel any time soon. New infection rates for the dreaded coronavirus are swelling, especially in my state. Come on, wear your mask, wash your hands, resist the urge to party-hardy at the local bar. In other words, our stay at Hotel California continues.

One bright light for me is the reopening of our public library system. I had read my backlog on New Yorker magazines and was actually turning to my personal library of professional books.

Souvenirs of Korea, Oma and Opa, and more among the books

I have a long list of “to read” books accumulated from a number of varied sources. The first choice was a wash; I was disappointed and did not to enjoy it. The second choice got me thinking about the time when travel was easy. It brought back many good memories and also gave me pause to think about history which many of us are not the least bit aware of. The book – The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See.

I’ve already written that I’ve had many opportunities to visit Korea. First in 2004 was a huge international museum conference. Then starting in 2008, I get an annual week of wintry weather for a working meeting coupled with a few days of “study tour” (see 23 February post).

The Island of the Sea Women is about the haenyeo or women divers of Jeju Island off of Korea. Jeju is a rock island known for fresh seafood and citrus fruits, museums, and a horrible history. I’ve been privileged to visit three times; first as the destination of the 2010 “study tour”; next for three-days at the end of six weeks of teaching museum studies in Korea in 2014; finally, two years later, I participated in an anthropology conference.

On the first trip in search of intangible heritage we were introduced to the amazing haenyeo at windswept cove alongside the ocean. Now dressed in wetsuits, these irrepressible and strong women continue to ply their “wet fields,” as See writes, to harvest a variety of sea creatures. We also visited the informative Haenyeo Museum where we again met the women divers and observed a demonstration shaman ritual. To learn more about the haenyeo see:

Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910-1945. The Japanese were cruel colonizers. Among the many wrongs they perpetrated, they forced the Japanese language on the Koreans. They also outlawed shamanism, an ancient belief system strongly held there. See writes frequently of the role of the local shaman in the lives of the diving women.

During my six-week teaching stay in Korea I had the opportunity to meet a group of young foreign scholars. I learned from them of the Japanese occupation of Jeju Island and the little-known post-WWII history there, including the wholesale massacres of civilian populations of the island. They strongly encouraged me to visit the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park on my upcoming visit to the island ( April 3, 1948, is the date of the inconceivable massacre of men, women, and children during the Korean struggle for independence. This entire so-called insurgency was thoroughly swept under the carpet and downplayed for many, many years and only recently has been included in Korean history texts as well as known world-wide.

Aside – During out visit to this moving memorial I was struck by similarities in Korean history and the Greek Civil War. In both instances citizens believed for many years that “files” of their participation remained hidden in government archives to be used against them or their families. In both instances, the very raw history, which affected almost the entire population, was not part of the literature or taught until the end of the twentieth century.

Our guide for the day, the curator at the Folklore and Natural History Museum in Jeju City was shocked that I wanted to visit the 4.3 Memorial. Our visit was one of the most moving experiences I have had. The protagonist in The Island of Sea Women was a witness to the years of repression on Jeju and also present at the massacre. The Haenyeo Museum was in it full itinerary of museum visits over the next three days, it is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited.

My most recent, all-too-short visit to Jeju included a third trip to the Haenyeo Museum. Some of the exhibits had been changed and updated, but it remains a favorite museum. We also ate during this trip, something always enjoyed by me in Korea. One lunch was at a restaurant run by diving women.

little crabs, Diving Women restaurant
Abalone Porridge, Diving Women restaurant

One dinner was in a small restaurant reached after walking down numerous winding streets in Jeju City. It is run by the first man who joined the women diving. In both places the meals were superb.

abalone, Diving Man restaurant
the biggest oysters I’ve ever seen, Diving Man restaurant

our host

It seems it may be quite some time before we can physically travel again. I highly recommend The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See as a way to vicariously journey into the life of Jeju Island and a way to learn a part of world history of which Americans have been part.

Diving Women Museum, 2016

Thanks to my colleagues and friends Chang In Kyung, Bae Kidong, Yu Chul In, and Cedarbough Saeji for making these memorable experiences possible.

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