In 2008, I went to South Korea for part of my honeymoon and to start a birth family search. I was abandoned and adopted from there at age 3. It was a heavy thing to do on such a joyous occasion but my husband encouraged me and I took the plunge.
After visiting the orphanage, we spent 2 ½ weeks exploring the country culminating in a few lovely days on South Korea’s Honeymoon Island, Jeju-do, off the bottom tip of the peninsula.
We’re a go-go-go kinda couple but one day we decided to hang by the resort pool and enjoy our amenities. I dazzled my new husband by swimming underwater across the massive outdoor pool, through an opening into the indoor pool, and halfway back in one breath. He and the other guests were amazed.
Feeling like a super sea woman, we headed out to explore the island by scooter and that’s when I learned about the haenyeo. These fisherwomen have maintained a centuries-old tradition of freediving, while quietly ignoring the patriarchal norms, in the waters around Jeju-do, in search of edible sea creatures and seaweed.
Some haenyeo dive into their 70s and 80s and although they could use oxygen tanks, it’s part of their tradition to free dive so they collect sustainably. They spend up to 5-6 hours diving each day, down 30 meters a time, for over 3 minutes in one breath gathering their catch in nets they haul back up.
Now, it was my turn to be amazed.
We left Korea with this and other juicy bits of history and culture, along with a new set of birth family information and determination to figure out my story.
Spoiler alert: we found my birth sister and mother, living in New York and Connecticut respectively. That’s a longer, 2-year saga I chronicle in a book I’m currently writing… stay tuned!
One of the many incredible and life-altering facts I found out from my birth mother was that my birth father was from Jeju-do.
When I learned this I was floored because my adoption records said he was Japanese. In actuality, he had moved to Japan from South Korea as a young man and changed his identity because, at the time, it was not a good look being Korean in Japan.
Lo and behold, the man was Korean and he was from the island I spent part of my honeymoon visiting.
It wasn’t until years later, as I sat randomly remembering my underwater breath-holding, that I thought about the haenyeo. And then my father. And what if. OMG. What if I was a descendant of these magical sea women of Jeju-do?
I imagined my connection to them – these courageous women who braved the seas for the love of the dive and the catch. These women who support their families and communities in a responsible and legendary way.
Yeah. I’d be pretty stoked if I was related.
I don’t know whether or not I am, but I do know I wouldn’t be the same person without having explored the whole of my story. My life as a Korean. My life when I spoke a different language I once understood. A life that was no longer a total mystery.
I spent so many years thinking this aspect of my life wasn’t worthy enough to investigate. But, to be honest, I knew it would be more than worthwhile. I was so just so afraid of what creatures of loss, shame, and sadness would emerge in the darkness of the deep.
And they did emerge. At times, I choked on dark waves of them panicking for the surface. But, I was prepared. I had a deep well of resources collected over years of self-reflection and healing.
Because of my prior years of soul-searching and healing, I was able to open myself to and be prepared for whatever I found on this epic search of my unknown past.
That all took work. Tenacity and tears. Heartache and heartbreak. More journeying. More tears.
Diving into the sea of who you are means exploring the hidden aspects of yourself to find the buried treasures within your soul. To embrace your story without shame and your being without judgment. To find the you before life happened to you.
You may be thinking, “Why would I choose a life like this? It sounds like a lot of pain and sorrow.”
Well, yes. It can be. I, personally, had a lot of shit to get through. And still do.
Your path will be your own and your reasons very personal.
And yeah it may involve a lot of pain.
But you may also, already, be suffering from that pain. Ignoring it does not make it go away.
Facing your pain, fear, shame, and sadness head-on, with courage and love, is your only way to defeat it. And by defeat, I mean, embrace them and know they are also vital aspects of who you are, just not totally necessary in your daily life.
I choose to accept the harshness of the journey, in the depths of darkness, in order to find my light. To live a joyful and authentic life. To realize my potential and bask in my prosperity. To feel amazing and whole and in love with who I am.
If you want those things… anything… choose courage, forged from self-worth, and love, that flows from self-compassion, to battle the creatures of the deep and rise to the surface of your beautiful life.
And if it helps, hold the vision of the haenyeo close to your heart.
Jeju Island is a beautiful Korean island. I enjoyed my time when I visited it last year. I’m definitely coming back to it this year.
Oh that’s wonderful to hear. Say hi to my ancestors!
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