'Too Different to Be Chinese, Not Good Enough to Be Korean'
“South Koreans treat us like foreigners. Worse, they treat us like dogs!” shouted Li Zhangyan, a retired 67-year old Joseonjok. Together with other ethnic Korean men, Li had drunk a few too many shots of soybean-paste liquor—a local specialty. It made him welcoming to strangers like me, but also easily riled up.
“There isn’t one of us,” he pointed at himself and his two friends, also retired, “who hasn’t bought a couple of houses here in Yanbian. We made all this money but South Koreans still look down on us!”
We were sitting inside a restaurant in Yanji, the capital of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture next to the North Korean border. Yanbian has the highest concentration of China’s Joseonjok (Chaoxianzu in Mandarin), whose numbers are estimated at more than 2 million nationwide.
For many Joseonjok like Li, the allure of the South Korean economy is irresistible. Li himself spent several years working in different cities around South Korea, thanks to the advantage of speaking fluent Korean. He made higher salaries than in Yanbian. The experience has made him well-off by Yanbian standards, but it has also left him bitter.
Nearly 400,000 Joseonjok were living in South Korea last year, according to the Korean Statistical information Service. That is by far the single largest group of foreign citizens in the country. But unlike many other foreign citizens of Korean descent, Joseonjok cannot obtain the F-4 (People of Korean Heritage) Visa—which allows residency and employment without restriction—simply by proving their ancestry.
And when they come to South Korea through other means (for example, on the H-2 a.k.a. Working Visit Visa), Joseonjok are underpaid for doing the same work South Koreans do, according to numerous accounts.
Negative perceptions of Joseonjok are widespread and common. South Korean films often portray ethnic Koreans from China as criminals. In 2015, six out of 10 South Koreans in their twenties and thirties viewed Joseonjok as poor, badly mannered or “to be on guard against,” according to the Korea Research Center.
“South Koreans think China is a country with millions of starving, poor wretches. That’s basically why we get treated so poorly there,” said Li, whose testimony aligns with stories that other Chinese have shared about experiencing discrimination in South Korea.
This treatment, along with the tendency to lump Joseonjok together with Chinese, gives Joseonjok a complex identity, caught between Korea—the ancestral homeland that offers both economic opportunities and a second-class status—and China, which has become their current home and with which South Koreans identify them.
Jin Xuanjing, a 40-year old Joseonjok woman who runs an Airbnb business in Yanji, spoke only rudimentary Korean, having grown up in southern China where her family had moved in order to take advantage of the faster developing economy there.
But eager to show me the bilingual abilities of young ethnic Koreans, she called over her 15-year-old nephew Jin Chunlai, who explained to me that he and his friends often use Korean and Chinese together in their daily speech.
They would use the Chinese word for taxi—chuzuche—and mix it with the Korean “we” (uri) and “let’s ride” (taja), integrating them all within Korean syntax to create expressions such as “Uri chuzuche taja” —a uniquely Yanbian phrase for “let’s get on a taxi.”
That linguistic amalgam itself is a testimony to the relatively cooperative relationship between the Han-dominated Chinese Communist party and Joseonjok, unlike what has happened in Xinjiang and Tibet over the years.
History plays an important role: During the 1920s and 30s, thousands of ethnic Koreans joined the CCP’s anti-Japanese forces, and even more fought on the communist side during the War of Liberation (1946-1949).
The Korean migrants’ cooperation with the CCP earned them generous allotment during the land redistribution process the party began implementing in 1946. Joseonjok also gained official recognition in 1949 as one of the People’s Republic’s first officially recognized ten ethnic minorities. (Today, there are 55 officially recognized groups, in addition to the Han majority.)
During the Korean War from 1950 to 53, bilingual Joseonjok soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army served as messengers and translators, whilst those who stayed home in Yanji organized a donation campaign known as the “Yanji Jet Campaign,” amassing enough funds for six fighter jets.
Given this historical legacy there has seldom been concern about Korean irredentism in Beijing. In 1994, the State Council deemed the Yanbian’s ethnic Koreans so well-behaved that it awarded Yanbian the title of “Model Autonomous Prefecture,” which the prefecture would go on to win four more times.
Yanji bears a distinctively bilingual and bicultural appearance that is nothing short of intriguing. My ears pricked up upon hearing the deep, warbling voice of a woman singing in an up-beat tempo; it was a cover of “What About My Age” by South Korean singer Oh Seung-Geun. The music was being blasted out of a loudspeaker installed at WOORIMart, a chain of Korean convenience stores popular in Yanji.
Still, much that I saw and heard in Yanbian supported the idea that China comes first—should come first—both for the prefectural government and Joseonjok. Official historical narratives such as those in the Yanbian History Museum either bury Yanbian’s biculturality under vague concepts such as the “Yanbian Dream”—nothing more than a more provincial version of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream—or memorialize the legacy of the Joseonjok who died fighting for China as soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Perhaps the most controversial of the Chinese government’s attempt to claim Yanbian as a part of China—culturally and historically—has been at the birthplace of Yanbian-born Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (1917-1945), known to South Koreans for having written deeply introspective poems during the dark period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea.
When news arrived to South Korea in 2012 that the Yanbian prefectural government had set up a permanent exhibition at Yun’s birthplace, thousands of South Korean tourists made the trip to Myeongdong village, 50km from Yanji, only to see the entrance plaque of the exhibition label Yun as “China’s patriotic Chaoxianzu poet.” The ensuing outrage—in South Korea, anyway—prompted South Korean broadcasters such as MBC to run angry news segments.
When asked, the Joseonjok curator (who declined to be named) of the Yun Dong-ju exhibition downplayed the controversy. Firmly declaring Yun to be “Chinese,” he went on to criticize a group of South Korean tourists who unfurled a South Korean flag next to the monument to Yun Dong-Ju a few years ago.
Joseonjok’s seeming lack of loyalty to South Korea doesn’t mean they are completely satisfied with their lives in Yanbian. It’s just that there is no free press to air such sentiment in China. During the five days I spent in Yanbian interviewing as many Joseonjok as I could find, it was obvious that many actively avoided criticizing the government. Many, but not all.
“It’s not that South Korean TV is particularly entertaining, but it’s better than all this propaganda on Chinese TV,” said 51 year-old Piao Zhenghuan, who often watches South Korean reality TV show Running Man in his shop when business is slow.
Piao was by far the most talkative and open of the Joseonjok I had interviewed, his indifference to being quoted in an article tied to the fact he plans to leave China in a few years when he retires. He has never lived in South Korea, and does not regret it.
“Whenever South Korean media talk about us, it’s always the Great Republic of Korea first, us overseas Koreans second, which is ridiculous. Such a small country always talking about how ‘great’ they are, it’s pathetic really,” said Piao. (The official name of South Korea is actually Daehan Minguk—literally, the Great Republic of Korea.)
Clear was his disdain toward what he regards as South Korea’s condescending rhetoric towards ethnic Koreans overseas, who the South Korean government assumes all yearn to return to the motherland.
“Joseonjok who have spent a lot of time in South Korea come back different, more selfish and competitive. They seem to always be bragging about their wealth but they’re the last ones to offer a helping hand when it’s needed,” claimed Piao, who noted a decline in communal spirit between Yanji’s Joseonjok over the past two decades.
But he also attributed this change to the failures of the Chinese government to provide funding for Joseonjok schools. As a result, there has been a steady decline in Korean fluency among Joseonjok. Then again, it isn’t completely the government’s fault; many ethnic Korean families worry that learning Korean will have a negative effect on their children’s chances of doing well on the gaokao, China’s university entrance examination.
Piao points out that while most ethnic minorities in China receive bonus points to compensate for the lack of educational resources they have to succeed in the gaokao, some ethnicities receive more bonus points than others. Because Joseonjok’s average economic status is higher than those of most other ethnicities (barring the Han majority), they receive the lowest number of bonus points, ranging between five to fifteen, in contrast to, for example, the Uyghur who can get up to one hundred bonus points. (I couldn’t independently verify Piao’s claim.)
“And you know what the saddest thing is? The decision of the parents, as damaging as it is to the kid’s Korean, often pays off. I’ve met a few of the young Yanji Koreans who got into universities like Tsinghua and Peking University [the top two universities in China]. … Their efforts no doubt deserve praise but when talking to to them, all I could think about was one thing: Why is your Korean so bad?”
Despite the description of contemporary Joseonjok identity as “China first, Korea second” both in official rhetoric and some foreign commentary, the situation on the ground is much more complex than that. Intermarriage between Joseonjok and Han Chinese remains a rarity, and there are profound feelings of cultural displacement within the ethnic Korean community of Yanji.
Piao lamented, “We’re landless Koreans, too different to become fully part of China but not good enough to fit in in South Korea.”
Cover image: Korean shops in Yanji (credit: Eddie Park)