One Family, Two Stories: Russian-Korean Repatriate Experiences in Their Ethnic Homeland

By | May 11, 2021 | No Comments

Kostya and Anya, stars of The Tea Party. | Image: “Kak Ostat’sya v Koree? Skol’ko i kak Mozhno Zarabatyvat’? Podkast” [How To Stay in Korea? How Much Can One Earn?]. online video clip. You Tube, June 8, 2020. 

The first Korean settlers appeared in the Russian Far East (RFE) in the 1860s, after the Treaty of Peking led to the formation of a border between what are now North Korea and the Russian Federation. Many new starts followed, not least upon the collapse of the USSR, a time when many ethnic Koreans, struggling to coexist with titular ethnic groups in Central Asia, migrated to either Russia or South Korea. The former was especially common in the 1990s and early 2000s, while the repatriation of Russian-Koreans to their ethnic homeland intensified from the mid-2010s onwards.

In a new piece for Sino-NK, Bella Didigova exploits the affordances of self-broadcast technology to analyse “The Tea Party”, a videoblog in which two Russian-Korean siblings talk about their experiences of migration to and life in South Korea. The two acquired Korean citizenship in 2017 on the merits of their great-grandfather’s eminence as an independence fighter. While this is a significant exception to the norm, most of the story feels familiar. The YouTube channel offers interesting insights into the lived experiences of an under-researched migrant group.– Christopher Green, senior editor

One Family, Two Stories: Russian-Korean Repatriates’ Experiences in Their Ethnic Homeland

by Bella Didigova

Kostya and Anya are fourth-generation Russian-Koreans, raised by a Soviet-Korean mother from Uzbekistan and a Soviet-Korean father from Russia. They moved to Korea in 2014; Anya migrated to attend language courses, and three months later Kostya spontaneously decided to follow suit.1)As he confesses, his life in Russia had stagnated; there was no joy in anything he did. It was in these circumstances that he decided to start anew in Korea. Soon after arriving, they started a YouTube channel to share their experiences. 

The siblings come with distinguished ancestry. Their great-great-grandfather moved to the RFE in the 1930s, where he led a partisan group engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese.2)The two became aware of this after being contacted by the Korean authorities, who confirmed the siblings are related to a partisan hero. The background of their great-great-grandfather had been discovered by a Korean historian in 2002. In 2002, he was posthumously awarded a title by the South Korean government, and on the basis of this, the siblings were granted Korean citizenship in 2017. But revolutionary pedigree be damned: the two take more pride in having been born and raised in the Russian capital, and refer to themselves as korenniye moskvichi – Muscovites or Moscow natives.

The siblings do not discuss the legal immigration process in their videos. However, it is well known that Koryo-saram tend mostly to apply for the F4 visa, a preferable category that allows ethnic Koreans to stay in Korea for five years and offers a prospect of gaining citizenship. In 2019, Yonhap reported that the issuance of the F4 visa, especially to Russian-Koreans from Russia and Kazakhstan, had seen a substantial increase. Those who go to Korea as temporary workers apply for the H2 visa. As Russian-Korean expert on migrant employment in South Korea Sergey Choi notes, there is a law which allows Russian-Koreans to go home and apply for another H2 immediately after the expiration of their first one, without having to wait for half a year. “Chinese Koreans do not have this advantage,” he says.

Kostya discussing his South Korean citizenship. | Image: The Tea Party. “Poluchil Grazhdanstvo Korei. Ukhozhu v Armiyu?” [Obtained Korean Citizenship. Now – Enlistment?]. online video clip. YouTube, August 13, 2017.

There is an irony to this hierarchy, since language is a big determinant of how local Koreans perceive ethnic Koreans from abroad, and as Sergei Choi says, South Koreans prefer Koreans from China because they are more likely to be fluent in Korean. According to Choi, from the perspective of South Koreans, no matter where one comes from, as an ethnic Korean the key is to showcase a good grasp of Korean and Korean culture, and Russian-Koreans “still do not get that.”

Anya recalls: “When I just moved to Korea I struggled with Korean, but did my best, and yet I was criticised for my poor Korean because I was an ethnic Korean.” This frustrated her, but also acted as a motivation to become fluent more rapidly. Kostya does not mention criticism of his linguistic capacity directly, but does say that wherever he went in Korea he was expected to speak Korean because he looked like a local. It bothered him: he was indeed Korean and yet was still a foreigner. Upon the completion of an intensive one-year Korean language programme, both Kostya and Anya had made significant progress. But the issue is not a matter of objective advancement.3)Besides, while Kostya felt much more confident and no longer struggled with understanding locals after the year, speaking remained a weak point. Language isn’t the only challenge, either. The siblings dedicate a whole video to concerns the “institution of reputation”, an idea which they say their “Russian mentality is opposed to.” By the “institution of reputation” the siblings mean the primacy of reputation for public figures such as idols, actors and even YouTubers, which they say puts enormous pressure on celebrities and in some cases leads to self-censorship and paranoia.

Two Stories: Lookism and Reaffiliation with Russia | The siblings’ personal stories are an exemplary case of how migrants’ experiences in a new locale lead them to actively re-construct their identities as a way of finding comfort and confidence in a novel environment. Like a great many other Russian-Koreans, the siblings would frequently face discrimination in Russia because of their Asian looks and thus would constantly be reminded about their Korean ethnicity in a way which made them feel inferior. However, with the spread of Korean popular culture, being an ethnic Korean in Russia has become easier, and being friends with a Korean became considered “cool” among youngsters fond of K-Pop.

Hallyu has gained tremendous popularity in Russia since 2012, starting with the release of “Gangnam Style” and the 2013 performance of then top K-pop idol group EXO at the Universiade in Kazan.4)V.S. Stepanova, O.L. Panchenko, “Koreiskaya Pop-Kultural v Rossii: Osnovniye Napravleniya v Razvitii’ [Korean Pop-Culture in Russia: Main Developmental Patterns] Kazanskiy Vestnik Molodykh Uchenykh [Kazan Messenger of Young Scholars], 3, no.3 (2019):64 The meteoric rise of Korean music in Russia was accompanied by a surge in interest in the Korean language and an increase in enrolments in Korean Studies courses in the country. Kostya proudly states: “We had been Koreans before it became a trend,” which sums up how the siblings feel about this new development. At some point both became prouder of their Korean heritage. What changed after they moved to Korea?

Anya’s story in Korea is defined by her encounter with the issue of lookism. In Korea, lookism is widespread and beauty standards are high and harsh, leading to the growth of plastic surgery among other phenomena. After moving to Korea, Anya gradually became uncomfortable with her body because of how openly Koreans criticised her physical shape, telling her to lose weight so as “not to waste her potential.” This affected the way she viewed herself vis-à-vis South Korean society and led her to become an advocate of “Western-style” beauty in Korea and to change her looks, adopting the opposite of established Korean beauty standards. She dyed her hair blonde, changed her makeup technique to create bolder looks and, most importantly, got several tattoos – something that previously would have been unthinkable to her.5)See also here and here.

Anya took a distinctive approach to engaging the importance of appearance in South Korea. | Image: The Tea Party. “Stranniye Istorii o Koreitsakh – Bivshikh Parnyakh Anyi!”[Weird Stories About Koreans – Anya’s Exes]. online video clip. YouTube, May 9, 2020.

It was not only Anya’s appearance that changed, but Anya herself underwent a transformation. Instead of blending in, Anya, both coming from and entering a society where tattoos are still to a large extent stigmatised, decided to stand out by the means of tattooing – an act closely associated with social identity as tattoos are a product of social interactions and a way of negotiating identity and asserting agency.6)Mary Kosut, “Tattoo Narratives: The Intersection of the Body, Self-Identity and Society,” Visual Studies 15, no. 1 (2000): 80. This was a conscious and creative response to the struggles Anya was facing in Korea. To borrow Chapman’s term, Anya found her “third way” as the most comfortable space for her to negotiate her identity.7)David Chapman, “The Third Way and Beyond: Zainichi Korean Identity and the Politics of Belonging,” Japanese Studies 24, no.1 (2004): 30. Today, Anya identifies as an individualistic Russian-Korean who does not conform to existing beauty standards; finding this niche was crucial for her to overcome her struggles and continue living comfortably in Korean society.

Kostya’s story is strikingly different, and less objectively successful. Initially open to a new life in Korea just like Anya, he also encountered several challenges, and these made him feel alienated. But while Anya did not consider a return to Russia, Kostya developed a longing for the country he came to feel was his true home. 

An unfortunate relationship was an important factor: a native-born Korean girlfriend told him her parents would not accept a person from “a different culture” Thus, he was reminded again of unavoidable difference. A second important factor was a trip back to Russia after completing his language course, during which he attended a friend’s wedding and underwent collarbone surgery.8)Kirill Skobelev, “Kostya Pak o Zhizni v Koree” [Kostya Pak on His Life in Korea]. Later he returned to Korea, but the stark contrast between how he was treated in Russia and in Korea became clear, and soon enough overwhelmed him. These circumstances prompted him to return to Russia, where he admits he started feeling much happier. In Russia he was no longer “inferior” but was treated as a fellow Russian citizen, and a moderately well-known YouTuber.

Kostya’s case resembles a common theme discussed in the literature on ethnic Korean repatriates, in which the migrants come to identify more with their natal homeland as opposed to their ethnic homeland where they experience alienation.9)Yihua Hong, Changzoo Song, and Julie Park, “Korean, Chinese or what? Identity transformations of Chosonjok migrant brides in South Korea,” Asian Ethnicity 14, no.1 (2013): 34. It also contrasts with Anya’s experience: in the face of difficulties Kostya started leaning towards Russia and not Korea, whereas Anya started reshaping her identity to feel more comfortable in the new environment. 

Kostya still visits Korea quite often with his Russian girlfriend. It is easier for him now that he is a Korean citizen. But it gives him comfort knowing that he has an emotional “home” back in Russia where he is also a citizen, has greater social capital, feels like a legitimate part of the community and — again — is a proud Muscovite.

Conclusion | The case of the siblings sheds light on the difficulties Koryo-saram encounter in their ethnic homeland. These hardships can have a tremendous impact on their sense of belonging and on the construction of migrant identities. Korean citizenship did not make these siblings feel more South Korean, although in Anya’s case it brought a measure of confidence and stability. For Kostya, it made travelling easier, but otherwise had no impact on his life. Working in a Korean company allowed Anya to understand Korean cultural norms better, and she came to appreciate some unique aspects therein. Kostya, on the other hand, lying to himself about the “not-so-different” Korean culture at first, was in retrospect simply postponing the moment when he would eventually decide to return to his “true” home. And he could not have been more relieved when he did.

References
1 As he confesses, his life in Russia had stagnated; there was no joy in anything he did. It was in these circumstances that he decided to start anew in Korea.
2 The two became aware of this after being contacted by the Korean authorities, who confirmed the siblings are related to a partisan hero. The background of their great-great-grandfather had been discovered by a Korean historian in 2002.
3 Besides, while Kostya felt much more confident and no longer struggled with understanding locals after the year, speaking remained a weak point. Language isn’t the only challenge, either. The siblings dedicate a whole video to concerns the “institution of reputation”, an idea which they say their “Russian mentality is opposed to.” By the “institution of reputation” the siblings mean the primacy of reputation for public figures such as idols, actors and even YouTubers, which they say puts enormous pressure on celebrities and in some cases leads to self-censorship and paranoia.
4 V.S. Stepanova, O.L. Panchenko, “Koreiskaya Pop-Kultural v Rossii: Osnovniye Napravleniya v Razvitii’ [Korean Pop-Culture in Russia: Main Developmental Patterns] Kazanskiy Vestnik Molodykh Uchenykh [Kazan Messenger of Young Scholars], 3, no.3 (2019):64
5 See also here and here.
6 Mary Kosut, “Tattoo Narratives: The Intersection of the Body, Self-Identity and Society,” Visual Studies 15, no. 1 (2000): 80.
7 David Chapman, “The Third Way and Beyond: Zainichi Korean Identity and the Politics of Belonging,” Japanese Studies 24, no.1 (2004): 30.
8 Kirill Skobelev, “Kostya Pak o Zhizni v Koree” [Kostya Pak on His Life in Korea].
9 Yihua Hong, Changzoo Song, and Julie Park, “Korean, Chinese or what? Identity transformations of Chosonjok migrant brides in South Korea,” Asian Ethnicity 14, no.1 (2013): 34.

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