Where the Korean Wind Blows: Chinese Koreans and Transnational Migration

By | July 26, 2016 | No Comments

Yanbian University's central building. The unversity which was originally built to educated China's ethnic Korean population is now attended mainly by Han Chinese. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The central building of Yanbian University. The university, which is in Yanji (the seat of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Jilin Province), was built to educate China’s ethnic Korean population. Much of the student body today is Han Chinese. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

In November 2011, a Hankyoreh reporter told the story of Lim-hyang, a Chinese Korean native of Jilin Province, PRC. Lim-hyang’s parents both left Jilin for work in South Korea when she was very young, reflecting a trend that has been sweeping through China’s northeastern provinces for more than twenty years: ethnic Koreans leaving China for better-paying jobs abroad, especially in nearby South Korea.

This phenomenon is called the “Korean Wind” (한국 바람). According to cultural anthropologist June Hee Kwon, the concept describes “the shifting demography and emerging socio-economic landscape formed by massive Korean Chinese migration to South Korea beginning in the early 1990s, in the wake of China’s economic reforms.” Chinese Koreans’ shared language and ethnic connection with South Korea “gave them access to the Korean labor market, with its need for cheap labor in the fields of restaurant work, child care, nursing, and construction.” It is fundamentally different from the “Korean Wave,” she adds, “which refers to the contemporary popularity of Korean culture throughout and beyond Asia.”

Despite evidence uncovered by Steven Denney and Christopher Green that suggests today’s Chinese Korean youth are not strongly drawn to the Korean peninsula, particularly but not exclusively North Korea, and see themselves as resolutely Chinese, the economic opportunities outside of Jilin Province (in which most Chinese Koreans reside, and of which Yanbian is one part) remain attractive enough that many adults opt to depart for work in the South, leaving behind relatives and sometimes children — like Lim-hyang.

When the story was published back in 2011, Lim-hyang was a senior school student. She lived alone in Yooha, an administrative district of the city of Tonghua in western Jilin, while her parents, divorced and remarried with additional children, were both living in South Korea. Isolation, as the reporter points out, is a challenge that Lim-hyang faces in her youth. Her story, however, is by no means unique, and so she does not face the challenge alone. As more and more ethnic Koreans disappear from the streets and schools of Jilin, a growing number of the younger generation are finding themselves in similar situations.

Ahn Soo-cha, “Are Our Ethnic Koreans Disappearing from Jilin Province?” [우리 길림성 조선족은 이제 없어지나요?], The Hankyoreh, November 3, 2011.1)This article translation is put forward as part of the ongoing project “Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula.” This project has a strong emphasis on the Sino-North Korean borderlands.

Kim Lim-hyang was born prematurely at 7 months. “My mother said that I was as small as a cat. It was because she’d only carried me for 7 months.” When the small, feeble child turned four, her father went to South Korea. When the child turned seven, her mother left for Korea, too. When the child was eight, her parents divorced.

That night, Lim-hyang couldn’t sleep. Using the money he’d earned in Korea, her father had bought an apartment in Yooha-hyeon, Jilin Province. For a month, Lim-hyang, her mother and her father all lived there together. Her mother and father fought the whole time. “They must have thought I was asleep.” Her mother said something that night as she lay beside Lim-hyang. “Let’s separate.” Her father didn’t reply.

Again, both mother and father left. They went to South Korea. It wasn’t worth finding a new apartment. Her mother and father cut off contact with one another in South Korea. Lim-hyang was in elementary school by then, and spent all her time in her dormitory. Her mother re-married to a Korean man and had two sons. Her father married a Han-Chinese woman in August last year. Her stepmother lives in China, but her father is still in Korea.

“I’m on my father’s side.” Lim-hyang says as she purses her lips. Her father comes to China every three months to see her. “I was too young then, so I don’t have any memories of my mother. I don’t miss her.” Her mother does not come to China.

“Once your parents are separated, that’s it; there’s no point thinking about it anymore” [이혼했으면 했지 신경쓸 필요 없어],  a friend of Lim-hyang’s age on the top bunk says to her. Out of the four girls using the room, two have divorced parents. The girls have pictures of Korean actors stuck up on their walls.

“Because all of my friends have suffered the same thing and I talk with the teachers about it, I can understand. I am grown up now, too.” Lim-hyang, with puppy fat still in her cheeks, hesitates for a moment. “It’s not that I understand their reason for separating… but I don’t get angry about it anymore. Not to anyone.”

Lim-hyang’s case is not unique. At Yooha Korean Middle School, the majority of students live away from their parents. And among their parents, a sizeable portion are separated or divorced.

Twenty years ago, there were 26 Korean Middle Schools in Yooha-hyeon. Since 1990, the number of students has decreased rapidly, and many Korean schools have merged or closed. Only Yooha Middle School, which Lim-hyang now attends, remains. Buffeted by the “Korean Wind”, only Han-Chinese are left on the streets of Yooha. [‘한국 바람’이 불어닥친 유하의 거리에는 온통 한족만 남았다.]

When the wind blows through Lim-hyang’s soft, bobbed hair, it trembles just like her youthful mind. [바람이 불면 림향의 부드러운 단발머리가 그의 사춘기처럼 흔들린다.] “How beautiful.” The male Chinese students on the street do not pass Lim-hyang by. “Please give me your phone number.” Lim-hyang understands everything in Chinese. “I don’t have a boyfriend. All this lot, they are nothing but troublemakers.” Lim-hyang’s face has turned red “Anyhow, I won’t date a Chinese boy.”

Last July, Lim-hyang disassembled each and every character in her end-of-semester Chosun language exam. She got an 87, near the top of her class. Lim-hyang likes beansprouts. She does not like meat. Destined for life as an ethnic Korean, Lim-hyang does not really understand why her parents separated, nor does she know why her friendship group is slowly dwindling. That these are the results of 100 years of large-scale ethnic Korean migration, 15-year-old Lim-hyang cannot yet understand.

Source: Ahn Soo-cha, “Are Ethnic Koreans Disappearing from Jilin Province?” [우리 길림성 조선족은 이제 없어지나요?], The Hankyoreh, November 3, 2011. Translation by Shaquille James.

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1. This article translation is put forward as part of the ongoing project “Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula.” This project has a strong emphasis on the Sino-North Korean borderlands.

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