When I say that I’m a mermaid, I am in no way suggesting that I’m akin to the archetype depicted by Daryl Hannah in Splash. Yet, I will say that I liked how the film turned the Little Mermaid story on its axis — the boy giving up land for the girl’s waterworld.
Nor can I claim any remote resemblance to the classic Weeki Wachee mermaids, who perform in a Florida Spring. But I will say that I was one of their biggest local fans while I was growing up! I think my mom took me to the show at least a dozen times.
I certainly can’t hold a candle to Esther
Williams, the Million Dollar version, though she and I were both competitive swimmers — a shared history we actually discussed while sharing an afternoon together. I was starstruck as we sat by her swimming pool in her Hollywood Hills’ home.
What I can to say is that I’m more like the Haenyeo, deep-sea seafood-diving grandmas of Cheju Island, South Korea. We share a turbulent history with rough waters, as any real mermaid does. There’s no lounging on beaches with well placed hair. There’s no 22-inch waist. There’s no golden tan. And I really hate to say this, but there’s no tail fin either.
Instead, there are feet that fail us on dry land. Metatarsals that perform better in
the sea for unknown reasons, but we found ways to capitalize on these resources. Mine propelled me into the lead of 50-yard freestyle races — at a speed that merited a college swimming scholarship and eventually led to a National Championship.
I swam so much in the first 20 years of my life that there’s was hardly time for anything else. In my dreams, I traveled from point A to point B by swimming through the air. In real life, I often tripped and fell on the pavement. I still do. The water worked for me, and I for it. Not an easy road by any means. And all that swimming didn’t make me beautiful. Rather, it bent my back, shoulders and neck out of proportion.
The “sea women” of Cheju use their feet to dive for octopus and abalone and sea urchin while their husbands are at home minding the children. The haenyeo may have been the first working women of the world — participating in a tradition that dates back more than 1000 years. And by all accounts, it’s difficult (even deadly) work. The waters are frigid, and unpredictable. They descend without oxygen — using only their lung capacity to reach the ocean floor.
I went to see them when I lived in South Korea, and they re a motley crew. Wild hair. Strong shoulders. Bad ass as can be. Nothing like Disney’s Ariel.
For those of us who wrestle with the water for long long periods of time, we emerge from its depths with a kind of sorrow that is difficult to explain. When my swimming career was over, my really identity did dry up. “Fin” imagery became a metaphor for that loss — as in the “The Little Mermaid,” by Hans Christian Andersen, who was a forlorn creature who gave up her tail to walk among mortals but wound up as foam.
The haenyeo, who simply couldn’t fathom any other life for themselves, have seen their calling evapoate. There are easier ways for young women to make a living nowadays. Why risk life and limb to bring beasts up from the bottom? Every time a haenyeo surfaces, her world is one step closer to being washed away.
I think of the manatee as the original mermaid. A graceful and powerful swimmer who looks nothing like a siren of the sea. Manatee are split between their need for air and their need for underwater speed. Simultaneously falling into glider and sprinter categories, ambling manatees are capable of bursts up to 15 kilometers an hour. Ever since man came on the scene, the existence of these gentle (and seemingly melancholy) beasts has been threatened.
The word “mermaid,” to me, has more to do with water-related suffering than physical appearance. It evokes great sacrifice for fleeting gain. It implies an impending tragedy, even after great triumph.
I think being a mermaid means you’re trying to hold onto the fleeting nature of your own existence. But it slips through your hands, like water.