Jeju-do (Korea diaries #4)


I am a mixed-race Asian-American, the daughter of a white American soldier and a Korean immigrant. This summer, I am working in Korea for two months, realizing a dream that I have held for over two years. The Korea Diaries is a blog series that documents my experiences here. For more background, you can view my introductory post.

Growing up as a military child instilled me with a fluid understanding of the concept of home. Relocating every few years to meet the demands of my dad’s army orders meant that I could not attach my idea of home to a specific place. Early on, I knew to assume that my residences would be temporary. By the time I started high school, the first level of school that I attended outside of a military base, I had lived in eight houses, mostly on the East Coast of the United States.

Transitioning to new communities never came easily for me; sometimes, I envied my peers’ connections to family members in the area or longtime childhood friends. Lacking strong blood ties and a sense of inherent belonging to the places I lived, I learned to define my homes with feelings and experiences. Sometimes, home represented the culmination of happy interactions I had with people around me. Other times, it was the warmth of favorite memories, like jumping rope barefoot on a hot road or playing the piano in a church I didn’t attend. In a few instances, home was the comfort of random, recognizable objects: I remember little about Kansas, for example, but for some reason I recall a purple sled and plastic hot dogs from my time there. In all cases, for better or for worse, I was cognizant of the fact that my home had an expiration date. I always seem to become most attached to a place when I can sense that date drawing nearer.

제주도(Jeju-do/Jeju Island) was different. I flew to the island, located south of mainland Korea, from 서울 (Seoul) in the middle of July to stay with my uncle and aunt and meet my 할머니 (grandmother). Seeing the place where my mother was born and living with her family for a week evoked in me a distinct fondness for a place that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
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In South Korea, Jeju is known as a natural paradise. People call it “Korea’s Hawaii” and even the “Island of the Gods”. On sunny days, the water is so clear that it is almost glassy. Palm trees and other native plants line the narrow roads leading to several beaches on the island. Look up and you’ll see 오름 (oreum), extinct volcanoes now covered in vibrant greens, stretching their high peaks into blue skies and cotton-ball clouds. At night, the moonlight gleams on gentle but ceaseless waves. Jeju is, simply put, beautiful. The world has seen it too: UNESCO has designated three of the island’s landforms as World Natural Heritage Sites.

On the island, my uncle and aunt live in a two-bedroom apartment in the central city. To the right of their home lies the ocean; to the left, the mountains can be viewed in the distance. About forty minutes away by car, my 할머니 tends to her farm in a more rural area. Jeju has it all, and its variety of landscapes can sometimes make it feel like a separate country. The language can exacerbate that feeling. Island locals, including my family members, speak 제줏말 (Jejut-mal), a dialect of Korean that the mainlanders do not understand. My aunt has translated interviews with older islanders in dialect into mainland Korean for news broadcasts. My younger cousins, who learn mainland Korean in school, cannot always completely understand my grandmother when she speaks in the dialect.

The residents of the island that I met shared a palpable sense of community. In my grandmother’s neighborhood, passersby recognized each other’s faces and called each other by name on the street. People took the time to ask me what village I was from. Almost every morning, an elderly woman biked to visit my grandmother at her home. Sometimes, the connections are so tight it is startling. Once, my uncle took me to a cafe owned by a running friend followed by a lunch restaurant owned by another running friend. “와,” I told him “친구 많이 있어요” (“Wow, you have a lot of friends”).

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The water in Jeju greeted me just as kindly as it had in Siheung. Since the beach was just a couple minutes away by car from my family’s home, I went a few times, but my favorite visit fell on my second night in Jeju.

My family and I packed into my uncle’s car for the short trip. None of us wore seat belts. Old Eminem hits, Jack Harlow, and K-drama ballads – my uncle’s song selection – blared from the radio. All of the windows were open, and I felt like a happy dog as I stuck my head out into the air.

Wading into the ocean with my jeans rolled up to my knees, watching my cousins splash each other in the water, I was struck by the power of ordinary moments to be the most meaningful ones. The pace of my life slowed considerably on the island, but in one week, these small activities with my family made me feel like I belonged with them.

Family dinners followed by gatherings in front of the TV to watch an episode of the K-drama 이상한 변호사 우영우 (Extraordinary Attorney Woo Young Woo) became one of my favorite parts of the day. My younger cousins would usually leave the table early to play video games, but I would linger to try and talk to my uncle and aunt. With body language and the help of Google Translate, our conversations began to delve into deeper subjects– capitalism in Korea, post-graduate plans, organized religion– that elicited our life stories and drew us closer together.

Our routines were simple, but I loved them because we did them together. Whether conscious or not, my family’s casual ways of including me represented choices to be kind. I know that they could have chosen otherwise, but they didn’t, and that mattered to me. They made me feel at home.

I dream that one day I can return to Jeju and tell my family in Korean how much they mean to me.

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Spending time with family also forced me to interrogate Jeju’s idyllic image. In recent years, Jeju hasbecome a brand. Go to any cafe in Seoul, and you can find at least one latte, frappuccino, or smoothie (usually green tea or orange-flavored), with Jeju in its name. Skincare creams advertise the “Jeju volcanic lava” or the “Jeju aloe vera” in their products. When I tell people on the mainland that my family hails from Jeju, I am usually met with comments like “You are so lucky to be from there,” or “Wow, my favorite vacation spot.”

But the increased attention to the island is not without consequences for the local residents. My uncle said that the path to my grandmother’s house is more crowded than before, and locals are divided over whether the road should be expanded to accommodate the growing traffic. A tall hotel and shopping center, constructed by a Chinese company, now obstructs my aunt’s favorite view of the mountain. The price of land is skyrocketing. A Michelin reservation-only restaurant now sits across the street from my grandmother’s one-story house. The ocean still roars, but its sound is not loud enough to conceal the whirs of the planes flying overhead, bringing tourists to the island. At my uncle and aunt’s apartment, I could hear them passing over us every ten minutes.

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My aunt told me that women from Jeju possess a special reputation for their strength. There are several sources of this idea. Among them, the island’s history is intertwined with a rich mythology of powerful goddesses of nature who govern life and death. Folk legends attribute the creation of Jeju’s mountains and the islands surrounding Jeju to the work of the giant goddess 설문대할망 (Grandmother Seoulmundae).
Jeju’s reputation draws from the characters of human women, too, which I find even more inspiring. 해녀 (haenyo, “sea women”) are a pride of Jeju. The “Mothers of the Sea” are widely regarded as symbolic of the history of Jeju’s semi-matriarchal tradition, which prized the role of mothers and grandmothers in working in the sea and uniting the family. These female divers, some 70 and 80 years old, make their living gathering shellfish, seaweed, and other seafood from the ocean that they retrieve by free diving with a knife. Amazingly, they dive without any breathing equipment: haenyo hold their breath for minutes at a time at depths around 30 feet. You can sometimes spot their signature black wetsuits and thick fishing nets at beaches around the island.

Their existence is, in itself, an act of resistance. In a country where societal expectations for beauty and appearance can be particularly harsh on women, the independence and determination of the haenyo make waves.
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I found out in high school that my sister and I were unintentionally born as dual citizens. We were both born and raised in the United States and were American through and through. My mother renounced her Korean citizenship when she became an American citizen. Having a limited grasp of the language, a family located far away, and no concept of what living in Korea was actually like, when I found out, I could not even conceptualize what it meant to be a Korean citizen.

I now only possess American citizenship, but I cannot forget that I was once technically, legitimately Korean. Being biracial can sometimes feel isolating. My lack of fluency in Korean and my appearance can exacerbate the guilt I feel about never being enough for either of the communities that my identity holds. In America, I have met racism from people who think I look Asian. In Korea, I have sometimes heard people refer to me as 혼혈, mixed-blood. There’s a part of me that fears that, even if I become fluent in the Korean language, I will never truly be accepted anywhere.

Jeju assuaged my doubts. I can’t explain why, but I felt like the island spoke to something inside of me– maybe because the place felt like home. Whenever I stood in the island waters, I felt powerful. I thought of the Mothers of the Sea and my own Jeju mothers, without whom I would not be here.

I thought of my grandmother, a woman in her seventies who rises every morning to work on her farm and take care of her family. When I met her, she enveloped me in a hug and couldn’t stop exclaiming “아이고!” (“Aigo!”/kind of like “Oh my God!”), and I knew that I belonged in her arms. In the warmth of her embrace, I felt reassured in my decision to come to Korea.

I thought of my 엄마 (“omma”/mother), who immigrated to the United States on her own, leaving her family behind in Jeju. She raised my sister and I while my dad was deployed to combat zones overseas. She taught me English and gave me the gift of my language. Because of her, I do not just speak English, but I love it. I love to read and write. I know that when I am with my 엄마, whether in America or in Korea, I belong with her.

My background may make me different, but I have a stake to claim. I am allowed to claim it, and I deserve to claim it, because it is who I am. I am Korean-American. I am a Daughter of the Sea, and two worlds are in my veins. My blood runs thick with the resilience of my mother and my grandmother, Jeju women who embody strength in their existence.


  1. What a fascinating place. I lived in Korea for a year, but sadly I never went to jeju-do. I love your photos and the story of the Island and your family. Thanks for sharing

  2. What a special place Jeju Island is! I can definitely see it come alive with your post, Claire. I can actually connect it to my father's experiences growing up on the island of Sicily, that also has its own dialect that mainlanders cannot understand. I think there is something really special about language and I hope that these dialects stay alive.

  3. Isn't it funny how we can have such different conceptions of what home means, based on our experiences? Jeju sounds fascinating. I've only recently become aware of it through walking tour videos and whatnot, so it was a delight to see this and your thoughts as someone who has actual family there.

    It is a shame though to see that, as it is dcovered, some of the magic of there is diminished. That seems to happen in so many beautiful places. Hopefully that can be managed effectively and with respect for the land and inhabitants.

    You have two wonderful heritage traditions to embrace, sounds like, and thanks for sharing such a heartfelt thought.

  4. Another fascinating tale, with pics/gifs to boot! It's a pity that Jeju-do is being turned into a brand, with all the consequences you already have witnessed and probably more to come...I hope the magic can be preserved.

    "These female divers, some 70 and 80 years old, make their living gathering shellfish, seaweed, and other seafood from the ocean that they retrieve by free diving with a knife. Amazingly, they dive without any breathing equipment...Their existence is, in itself, an act of resistance. In a country where societal expectations for beauty and appearance can be particularly harsh on women, the independence and determination of the haenyo make waves"
    They are fierce!

    !I am Korean-American. I am a Daughter of the Sea, and two worlds are in my veins. My blood runs thick with the resilience of my mother and my grandmother, Jeju women who embody strength in their existence."
    This is beautiful, and I have no doubt about it.

  5. Absolutely beautiful, Claire. I'm sorry you've felt like you don't belong anywhere. I can't relate racially but I can relate a little. I'm the youngest in my family and I'm almost 10 years younger than my sister closest to me. My parents were in their 40s when I was born. Some of my siblings are old enough to be my parents. I often felt in between and like I didn't quite belong. I'm so glad you found home and family in Jeju. I'm so glad you felt welcome and like you belong. So much love to you in your journey of finding yourself. <3

  6. This is a really lovely post, Claire! I don't know why, but that part when your grandmother hugs you got me teary-eyed. I'm glad you visited and connected with your family!