At Home in the Ocean

September 3, 2020 § 3 Comments

My son’s favorite sport is swimming, but it wasn’t always this way. For five years after he was born, he refused to put his head under water. He was delighted to be held in water, or to float with a floatie, but none of us—not me, not his dad, not his grandfather, not his aunt—could convince him to submerge his face.

Eventually, I got the name of a private swim instructor who was supposed to have a magic touch. I phoned her but she was fully booked. A few weeks later, she phoned back. She had a cancellation on an upcoming Thursday at 7pm. JP’s bedtime was 7pm, so this seemed like poor parenting at best, but I was a mother on a mission, with a zeal often reserved for firstborns. I told her we’d see her Thursday.

What happened next is a story our family loves to tell. While I watched from deck, the instructor, clad in a black wet suit, took JP’s hand and led him down the ramp of the zero-entry pool. When the water hit JP’s waist, she stopped. “So, JP,” she said, “do you go under water?”

“No,” my son replied.

“Would you like to try?” she asked.

Barely a pause. “OK,” he said. And then, right before my eyes, this child with a stubbornness to match mine, threw himself face down into the water.

He threw himself face down into the water. Part of me was overjoyed. And part of me had to keep from screaming, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

My husbands like to joke that this was when we realized that our son has no interest in learning from his family. Our teaching is inherently suspect, probably flawed, because what do we know? This instructor—who went on to teach him very fine strokes for the next five years—was an expert in his eyes, and so he instantly trusted her. (We consider it a major triumph that we did not have to hire a professional to teach him to ride a bicycle.)

Still, I don’t think the swim teacher’s trust was won just because JP regarded her as an expert (whereas we were just flailing novices). Truth be told, she exuded calm. You had only to spend ten seconds with her to understand that she was more at home in the water than out of it. She loved the water, she trusted herself in the water, and when she directed her full attention onto my son, he felt like he’d come home, too.

“The ocean is calling me today,” says the grandmother at the beginning of Tina Cho’s new picture book, The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Ages 4-8), one of the most fascinating and exquisite examples of a symbiotic relationship with water that I have ever seen. Set on the shores of Jeju Island in South Korea and luminously illustrated in jewel tones by Jess X. Snow, the story is about the relationship between a girl, struggling with her fear of the ocean, and her grandmother, a haenyeo mermaid, who holds her breath for two minutes at a time and dives up to thirty meters to bring back armfuls of shellfish for eating and selling. Here’s the coolest thing: the haenyeo tradition is real! It goes back centuries among indigenous Pacific islanders, remains alive today, and plays a vital role in ocean ecology.

The story spans a single day, beginning with sunrise and ending with sunset, the arc of a haenyeo’s work. Readers will marvel at the richness of the art’s shifting hues, conjured as much to signal the passage of time as the emotional journey of our young heroine. Dayeon wants to be a “treasure-hunting mermaid” like Grandma, but she remembers the first time she jumped into the ocean, the salt water burning her eyes and stinging her skin, the knowledge that she was sharing the home of “sharks and other scary creatures.”

Though today’s haenyeo are predominantly elderly women, the haenyeo tradition has always been intended to pass down through generations, and many of these women began learning this trade in their early teens. The Ocean Calls pays homage to this history in the character of Dayeon, who practices breathing exercises with Grandma over breakfast, before donning matching diving suits. Grandma fits Dayeon with a snorkel and herself with a scuba mask and a leaded belt for diving.

As the two make their way to the ocean’s edge, where other haenyeo and their grandchildren gather, their shadows stretch behind them like mermaids’ tails. (Holy gorgeousness.)

But as Grandma begins to dive, popping up every so often to release her held breath in a whistling sound unique to the haenyeo, Dayeon stays on shore, wiggling her toes in the water and “feeling like a beached urchin.”

Eventually, Dayeon catches sight of a sea anemone shell, gleaming at the bottom of the shallow water near the rock where she sits, and she remembers her Grandma’s reassuring words. “She said not to be afraid. The ocean is your home. Know the sea and find its gifts.” As she dips below the surface of the water, the waves rush around her ears, but she directs all her attention on the softness of the anemone. She starts to wonder: maybe, just maybe, she could try a dive like Grandma.

When Grandma invites Dayeon to join her, the latter gives voice to her fears: “What if I can’t breathe? What if a shark comes? What if I can’t escape?” Grandma answers in song, the mantra of the haenyeo: “Can’t you hear what the waves are saying? They’re calling us to come home.” Side by side they walk into the sea, leaving behind the shallow water. Grandma gives her a final piece of advice: “Take a deep breath, calm your mind, and then we’ll dive.”

As readers, we now get a firsthand view of the haenyeo experience, diving deep while harnessed to an orange net which stays buoyed on the water’s surface. It takes Dayeon a few tries to hold her breath long enough, but with Grandma’s help she eventually reaches a “garden of sparkling treasures” on the ocean’s floor. Here, time seems almost to suspend, as Grandma and the other haenyeo gather urchins, cucumbers, octopuses, snails and abalone (Dayeon’s favorite), which they will use to feed their families and sell at market. The book’s Afterward goes into greater detail about the haenyeo fishing practices, including their intimate knowledge of the lunar calendar, weather patterns, spawning seasons, and marine life behavior. The haenyeo are dedicated conservationists, never taking more than what they need.

Because of her special relationship with the sea, Grandma knows instantly when they need to abort; in this case, a ring of dolphins signals potential shark activity. Along with the other divers, the two make their way to the surface, letting out their breath in a whistle, and are pulled into the safety of a waiting boat. The danger is real, but like everything else in the ocean, it is illustrated here with awe-inspiring beauty.

While Dayeon is disappointed not to have personally caught anything on her first dive, Grandma presses into her hand, a “sparkling turban shell.” As Dayeon traces the curves of the shell’s spiral, “[f]or the first time, she felt at home in the sea.”

I talk a lot on this blog about the riches children’s books give us, many which extend well beyond literacy. Here, alongside our children, we have a chance to dive into a corner of the world most of us know little about and behold a fascinating, generations-old tradition. A tradition which centers women. The book’s Afterward notes that, while the haenyeo have at times faced criticism for their dangerous and physically demanding work, they have also been praised as “indigenous businesswomen and indigenous marine biologists.” The Ocean Calls showcases the power of their practice, as much for these real mermaids’ own livelihood, as for the way they inspire a new generation to seek out a delicate, intimate relationship with our most wondrous natural resource.

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Published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own. affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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