Ethnic Koreans in China: A Story About a Tense Dinner

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Modern migrations from the Korean peninsula to the Manchurian province of China have occurred during three periods, each period of which is marked by a particular geopolitical reason for migration. In the mid-1800’s, the farmers in the northern parts of the Korean peninsula migrated north as a way to escape the droughts afflicting the region. In 1881 the Qing Dynasty lifted their ban on outside immigration as a way to counter the pressures being put on China by Czarist Russia and the Imperial Japanese, roughly tripling the population of the Ethnic Koreans by 1910, when the Japanese Annexed the Korean Peninsula. In response to the economic hardship that the Japanese put on them, many peasant farmers relocated to Manchuria to start again. Shortly following this emigration, the Imperial Japanese forced more Koreans into the region to suit their goals. By the end of WWII, and maintaining a similar population until 2000, more than two million Koreans were living in Manchuria.

The short story I propose would be focused on a household of ethnic Koreans living in the small farming town of Zhong’an. Two generations live in the small brick house, and the grandchildren have come to visit. Most of the details concerning the characterization of the different members of the family will come from Wong-Bae Kim’s “Nostalgia, Anxiety and Hope: Migration and Ethnic Identity of Chosonjok in China” and “Invisible China A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands” by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson.

For example, in Kim’s writing, the oldest living generation of Koreans in Manchuria were likely either born there or brought over as young children and raised in ethnic Korean households. If they were fortunate enough to receive an education, then they were taught Korean and possibly Japanese during the colonial period. This would contrast with the youngest generation of ethnic Koreans who are fluent in Mandarin and Korean, possibly leading to some tension between the oldest and youngest generations, who could hold conversations in front of their relatives without letting the others know what they are saying.

Another source of tension in the story could arise from the primarily patriarchal opinions of the older generations clashing with the youngest generation’s more or less equal educational experience between men and women. Perhaps the very traditional Korean-centric way of life of the grandparents butts against the industrious attitudes present in the parent generation and the wider perspective held by the child generation.

Regardless of secondary and tertiary conflicts, I intend for the main problem within this short story to be centered around a grandchild’s desire to immigrate into South Korea. This will run counter to the parent generation’s beliefs about the Southern half of the Korean peninsula, that the state is infested with American capitalism and that North Korea is ancestral home of the Chosonjok. While the grandchildren can point to booming economic development as a counterpoint, the grandparents will want them to stay in the area, improving the lives of the entire family over the possibility of individual success in a different country that has strayed from the traditions that they so value.

In addition to the situation of wanting to immigrate to South Korea, the issue of expanding the family will be brought up by the parents and grandparents. While the youngest generation is more concerned with pursuing a comfortable life and economic stability by immigrating to South Korea, the older generations will be concerned with continuing the family, harping on the youngest to find spouses and settle down nearby. The parents will also be, as is characteristic of that generation according to Kim, adamant that the child generation marry other ethnic Koreans.

Ultimately, I anticipate this short story taking course over a single night, with the majority of the conflict within the family occurring during and right after dinner. The attitudes of the family members towards the other generations within the family will, with the help of plenty of alcohol, start conservative but become more apparent and worsen over the course of the meal, culminating in an argument after which the youngest members of the family stand up and walk out. The next morning the members of the child generation will return to apologize, the parents will grudgingly accept the apology and say they are welcome back even if they don’t share their opinions of South Korea. The grandparents will act as if nothing went wrong and tease the children about getting some hardworking spouses by the time they come to visit the next time.

The dinner that the family eats, the way the family dresses, and the house in which that the short story takes place will be based on descriptions in “Invisible China”.

-Ian Ladd

7 thoughts on “Ethnic Koreans in China: A Story About a Tense Dinner

  1. Graham Pannier

    This seems fascinating, and I’d love to read it when it’s ready. I wrote a paper on the Manchu people and found almost no mention of their interactions with Koreans. What sort of resistance did the migrants meet when they arrived in Manchuria? Other than learning a new language, what changed about their way of life? How were (or are) Koreans viewed by the people of Manchuria? It would be interesting to see how one minority (Manchus) treats a minority relative to itself (Koreans).

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  2. Jenna Matson

    I think writing a short story about this is really interesting! In Drawing Across Cultures, we talked about how images can have very different meanings depending on who views them. I think the same could be said for written text–different readers might catch very different nuances in the language used. Not to mention, translations could become another issue altogether. I wonder if images would aid that, or would make it more confusing. We tried retelling a short story in our class to wildly variant success, so I wonder how it would go with your end result.

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  3. Christa Bennett

    I find this really fascinating. Do you think that the generational disagreements are like this across the world in all cultures or just a select few?
    How bad was the migration to Manchuria? Can you equate it to anything from American history? Do you think that Immigrants here in America experience what the Korean’s experienced in China?

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  4. Lindsay

    I love the plot of the short story, and find it an interesting way to portray the life of this family. I think the disagreements between these two generations show how their culture has changed over time, and that these two age groups represent this change. I think the migration of the Koreans would be an interesting topic to discuss if the short story was coming from the Manchuria point of view as well. I think the short story was a great way to talk about the migration!

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  5. Bowen Stephens

    What a wonderful topic for a story! I am fascinated by the tensions between the younger and older generations and how the education piece plays into their positions on migration. In one of my core classes I have found that education was a catalyst for the Arab spring. I wonder what other connections can be drawn between societal changes and the education of youth.

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  6. Justin Racine

    Writing your own short story to give insight into the tensions of migrating to a new country is a great idea! I see there was some conflict between the generations of Korean folk, and I particularly liked reading about the reasons why the Koreans left their homeland to move to China. I think this ties in well with what I’ve learned in Jordan’s Cultural Mosaic. We learned of the Circassians, and how they were displaced by the Russians on their conquest of the Caucasus. Both the Koreans and the Circassians were forced from their homelands, and they had a struggle of what their true identity was: either their ethnic and cultural home or their new home.

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  7. Samuel Kimball-Sperberg

    This is a really fascinating concept for a short story, and I’d love to read it if you ever decide to make it a reality. I think the concept of a family of immigrants clashing because of the way different generation have been affected by immigration policy and cultural changes is a really good way to give insight into the complex struggles that immigrants deal with. I did my project on immigration policy in Austria, but my research was mostly aimed at the macro level of things, such as the ways historical events led to the creation of discriminatory laws. Your project is similar in that it deals with immigrants, but it contrasts mine because it is focused almost entirely on the life of immigrants on a personal level with historical background to support it, as opposed to mine which is mostly historical events and policy backed with quotes and firsthand experiences.

    It was interesting to read how differences in education can create a rift between generations, even in a family that shares the same heritage and culture. This is something I can relate to my own project; while I didn’t research education in particular, the way countries treat immigrants can differ greatly between generations, or even fluctuate in a few years’ time based on migration trends. Throughout history I observed a trend in Austria where they created discriminatory laws aimed at the immigrant population not only to keep them down, but to dissuade more foreigners from immigrating. Education is something I can see being a part of this, selectively teaching some subjects and not others to either single immigrants out or force them to assimilate. Could it be that not teaching Korean immigrants Mandarin was a way of effectively keeping them separate from Chinese culture even with them living in China? Hostile attitudes towards immigrants range from wanting them to assimilate to the present culture, to not wanting them to even be a part of the culture at all. The latter attitude would make sense with not teaching Korean immigrants Mandarin, but the prevailing thought nowadays in more geared towards wanting immigrants to “submit” to the culture of the place they go to.

    People with that attitude seem to be okay with immigrants only if they don’t affect the culture at all. To them it’s the price of moving in, “don’t mess up our culture, we like it the way it is.” What these people don’t realize is that culture is inherently tied to people, which makes cultural change a necessary effect of immigration. If you took all the people out of New York City, it would lose its culture- culture cannot exist without people. But if you moved the population of NYC into another country, it would affect the culture of the people living there. People bring culture with them wherever they go. Your idea for a story shows that very well, comparing and contrasting the way different generations of Koreans merged with and affected the culture of China, and how Chinese culture from different generations affected their own personal attitudes and world views.

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