Saturday, July 25, 2015

What is "Our Country" for the Ethnic Koreans in China?

The Chinese-North Korean border is an interesting place, and not particularly because of sighting what happens across the river in the eerily quiet North Korean border towns.  Tens of thousands of both Chinese and foreign tourists come to the Tumen and Yalu Rivers that make up the border to point fingers at the few North Korean passers-by on the other side, but few bothers to observe the border towns on the Chinese side, where Han Chinese ethnic Koreans, and many refugees of North Korean nationality live side-by-side among the influx of tourists.

The fact that so many Koreans reside here means that Tumen City, a small border town of some 130,000 people (of which 57% are Korean), feels quite different from other Chinese cities of similar size.  Never mind the fact that all street and shop signs are almost always written in both Chinese characters and Hangul, and spoken languages overhead on the streets are just as likely to be Korean as Mandarin.  Some aspects of modern Korean culture borrowed from South Korea are clearly on display.  The huge numbers of karaoke parlors and trendy coffee shops give the place nightlife options often unavailable in smaller Chinese cities.

Combine this with the unsurprisingly common presence of traditional Korean restaurants and tea houses, and the Korean feel of the place is too obvious.  Yet, at the same time, the fact that it is China also makes the place feel that the "foreignness" is manufactured instead of organic.  After all, unless the Koreans spoke Korean, it is extremely difficult to tell who is ethnic Korean and who is Han Chinese but, well, people all look and dress the same.  And often, since the ethnic Koreans all speak fluent Dongbei Mandarin with not even a tinge of Korean accent, the task becomes even more difficult.

To go a step deeper, the author had the honor of dining in one of these Korean restaurants, which, like most others, is run by a local ethnic Korean family.  Of course, one would not have known by just entering the restaurant.  The owner, with his fluent Chinese, introduced the menu and explain the dishes when they arrived.  Only when he and his family sat down for dinner afterwards did the confirmation of their Korean ethnicity possible.  As they chatted away in Korean, the little that the author was able to pickup did help deconstruct the ethnic Korean identity in China.

The four-person family is typical of the modern-day Chinese family in a remote town.  The owner, his fifties or sixties, along with his wife, his daughter or daughter-in-law in her twenties, and a two- or three-year-old grandchild.  From their conversation, it seems that the young husband is away at, unsurprisingly, South Korea for work as a migrant laborer.  As they dined, the conversation naturally turned to the husband's life in South Korea and comparison with life here in Tumen.  While not confident on the details of the conversation, the author did note frequent use of "한국에서" (in South Korea) and "여기에서" (over here).

Such word usage in itself is rather new.  In South Korea, the contemporary general public's nationalist perception of their country and culture is often most succinctly and directly expressed in the frequent use of the term "우리나라" (our country) to refer to Korea.  Out here in Tumen, this term is never heard to refer to either Korea or China.  Instead, the countries are always either referred to directly by their respective names or the directional terms "here" and "there."  In a few words, it attests to the sort of "in the limbo" feel that ethnic Koreans in China may feel.

And that "in the limbo" feel is well-reflected in the fission within the Tumen community.  Walking around at night, the popular outdoor BBQ stands where people chug down beers while chewing on grilled meat are crowded with both Han Chinese and Korean patrons.  But half the tables are speaking exclusively in Korean and others exclusively in Mandarin.  Combined with stories of how Han-Korean intermarriage remains low, it says much about how Koreans, unlike many other races like Manchus and Mongols, have managed to keep their ethnic identity intact after centuries of residing as a minority.

Perhaps this almost Malaysia-like existence of parallel societies explains why the author was treated to fully functional but not so warm reception in the Korean restaurant.  Han Chinese have their own restaurants to go to and the ethnic Koreans the same.  The owner was likely perplexed why this Han Chinese violated the unwritten rule and entered a socially speaking a "Korean only" place.  While, thankfully, the physical divisions of the community along ethnic lines has not led to obvious bouts of conflict, but if the guys across the river would have a say, the peace may not be so stable after all.

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