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July 29, 2006

The most amazing 84-year-old woman on the planet


Her name is Na Wal-sook and she is pictured above, heading for work.

What does she do for a living, you ask?

She is a South Korean sea diver, the oldest active such individual according to Norimitsu Onishi's July 17 New York Times story.

But why does that make her so amazing?

Because her job entails putting on a wet suit and mask and free diving — without any breathing devices, instead holding her breath for minutes — into the icy ocean off the tiny islet of Marado, her home, to comb the bottom for shellfish which she then sells to local restaurant owners.

Here's the fascinating article.

    A Tourist Boat Nudges Women Out of the Driver’s Seat

    Besides being the Korean Peninsula’s southernmost point, this windswept, treeless islet was long famous, in these parts at least, for its strong women and docile men.

    The women, after all, held a grip on economic power. They were the ones who earned the family living, diving into the sea for abalone and lucrative shellfish, which they sold on the main island, Cheju.

    The men did not dive, fished little because of the rough seas, and could not farm because the waves crashing against the bluffs sprayed seawater on the flat, sea-cucumber-shaped islet. The men stayed home and took care of the children, or fell into bouts of gambling, drinking and idleness.

    But change, ineluctably, reached even this lost corner which, on a recent visit during the rainy season, was shrouded in mist so thick that it seemed suspended on the world's edge. Change came 14 years ago when a regular ferry linked Marado to Cheju for the first time, bringing with it tourists, settlers, Chinese restaurants and jobs for the formerly jobless men.

    Before the ferry, Marado had mostly dirt roads, intermittent electricity and no link to the outside except the islanders' own small boats.

    As the population grew, from 63 to more than 100, so, too, did the confidence of the men of Marado.

    "Before the ferry, the women had maybe 60 percent of the power and we had 40 percent," said Chi Han-bong, 49 , who now charges $3 to tourists for a ride around the islet on his 12-seat motorized cart. "Now, I'll say we have 70 percent of the power and they have 30 percent."

    People may quibble over the percentage, and whether it has actually tipped in men’s favor, but they agree that the ferry has altered the balance.

    "They really are more confident now," said Kim Choon-geum, 51, who is married to Mr. Chi and serves as the president of the Marado Sea Women’s Association.

    "Now that my husband is making money, I feel I should be deferential to him, a little bit," she said, adding with a smile that she still earned more than he did.

    Like their sisters throughout coastal areas in East Asia, the sea women here spend their days diving into the sea with no breathing devices, simply holding their breath for minutes as they comb the sea bottom for shellfish.

    Women, whose bodies are thought more able to spend long hours in the cold water, experts in the subject say, have had a monopoly on this business, so that the sea women have long enjoyed an uncommonly powerful position in otherwise male-dominated societies.

    "In Marado, women make a lot more money than men," Byun Soon-ock, 75, said in a whisper. "So, of course, we had a bigger voice. My voice was literally bigger than my late husband's. The women were making all the money, so we made the decisions at home. I was the one who allowed my late husband to buy a boat."

    Mrs. Byun and her sister, Byun Choon-ock, 79, both widows, have given up diving and now run a seafood restaurant.

    "All the husbands looked after the kids while we were in the water," the older sister said. "But often they'd get bored out of their minds because they had little to do. So they'd drink and gamble. Not big gambling — just for cigarette money."

    Na Wal-sook, who still dives at the age of 84 and is the oldest active sea woman, dropped by in a glistening wetsuit and mask over her head. She sold the sisters her catch — three octopuses, assorted shells — for $35.

    Her husband, now deceased, Mrs. Na said later, was a drunkard and womanizer, forcing her to rear 10 children on her own. "We had no other way to survive," she said. "We had no choice but to be strong."

    Still, Byun Soon-ock, the younger sister, said she had loved her husband.

    "Even though he was a man, he was more like a woman," she said. "He was so nice and tender. He was very feminine. I couldn’t tell the difference whether he was male or female. So I never begrudged having to feed him."

    Indeed, the men of Marado were highly esteemed for their sincerity compared with their counterparts on the slightly bigger islet just north of here, Kapado, population 314. Since Kapado is suitable for farming, and has long had a dock, its men have been considered wealthier but also more slick.

    Outside the home, even though the job of Marado town leader has always been held by a man, there have been doubts about the reach of his power.

    Choi Sun-ja, 68, who moved here with her husband a decade ago, once got into an argument with some sea women and approached the town leader for help in resolving the dispute.

    "But he told me, 'You know, they don’t listen to me anyway,'"she recalled, saying she realized then that relations between men and women were just different from what they were back on the peninsula. "I revere my husband. It's the only way to make life calm and positive. I don’t see that attitude here."

    The ferry, though, brought development, paved roads, a huge solar energy panel that meets most of the islanders' needs, new restaurants and inns. Tourists now flock here during the summer months. Even an idiosyncratic cocker spaniel named Gomgom, owned by a man who wears a red No. 12 soccer jersey, has developed the habit of befriending strangers and guiding them throughout the islet.

    "Men are busy now doing lots of things in tourism," said Kim Ock-min, a 38-year-old man who manages one of Marado's two Chinese restaurants. "Before they had their little boats but really didn’t do much."

    The new balance has brought stability to at least one couple.

    "We'd fight like crazy before," said Mrs. Kim, the president of the sea women’s association.

    Mr. Chi, her husband, said, "I think we’ve become more intimate."

    "Simply put," he added, as tourists stepped into his cart, "when the women alone were working and seeing us stay at home, being idle, they used to get angry. Before, the men had nothing to do but get drunk and gamble. Now that both of us are working, they see less of that idleness and don’t get angry anymore."

July 29, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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