( The Newbie, by Oliver Bucheron(?). Source )
Last week my sister passed on this article in the New Zealand Herald on the first ever conference to be held on Korean-New Zealander (“Kowi”) identity issues, and I was surprised to find (brief) mention of it at The Marmot’s Hole the next day. In my first comment to that post I unintentionally sounded quite dismissive of the conference, but it’s actually the article itself which annoyed me. Some highlights from it:
“Facing expectations of parents wanting us to retain our culture and the pressures of society to integrate leaves many of us in a confused state to our identities,” she said.
South Korean parents are most anxious to ensure their children are well-schooled, spending around $6 billion a year to send them to study abroad in countries like New Zealand – but they still disapprove when their offspring adopt Western ways.
Social worker Gus Lim, who came to Auckland in 2001, said South Koreans had a “major problem” with integration because they came from a monocultural society and were “often not used to living with people of other cultures”.
“The country was also historically influenced by Confucianism and holds a military set of ideologies, which may not be applicable in a Western society like New Zealand,” said Mr Lim, a former Catholic priest.
For example, Chinese philosopher Confucius teaches that men are superior to women, and until the late eighties women in South Korea had very few rights, he said. “In a divorce, a Korean woman does not have equal property rights even if her husband had wronged her in the marriage.
“So it can be shocking when Korean men find out how many rights and [how much] power the women have in New Zealand.”
( Source: macxoom )
Although all of those issues are undoubtedly important to Kowis when they arise, and I don’t mean to trivialize them, I do think that their mention in the article reflects New Zealanders’ stereotypes about Koreans more than anything else. In reality, the vast majority of Korean immigrants to New Zealand have been middle-class professionals simply in search of a better life for their children, and as such they’d presumably be more frustrated with Korean society, more liberal, and more prepared to integrate into their host society than the way they’re depicted above. That many haven’t is in no small part precisely because of those stereotypes, and so it’s a pity that an article about the conference is so bland and void of any meaningful content about actual Kowis, especially as they are in many ways unique amongst all overseas Korean populations.
Looking at them in more detail gives some surprising insights into Koreans as a whole, especially the practice of sending wives and families overseas for years while fathers remain in Korea to work, the fathers termed ”lonely wild goose” (외기러기) in Korea while the families as a whole are known as “astronauts” in New Zealand (and hence the cool opening picture to this post). That turns out to be less some inherent Neo-Confucian social tradition as it is forced by archaic and discriminatory rules on overseas qualifications in host countries, but as that phenomenon is strongly linked to that of “weekend couples” (주말부부) here in Korea then I’d like to discuss that in a separate, more Korea-focused post next week (update: and here it is!). In this post, I want to point out just what makes Kowis so unique, and the uncanny parallels between their lives and that of my own and probably most other Korea-based expats too.
The Unique Features of Korean Immigration to New Zealand
Because of various restrictions on emigration from Korea and immigration of Asians to New Zealand, in 1990 there were fewer than 100 Koreans in Auckland, easily the biggest city in New Zealand and where the vast majority of East Asian migrants settle (to get an idea of scale, in 2006 it had a population of 1.3 million out of New Zealand’s total of 4.2). But in the late 1980s the combination of democratization in Korea and the shift from an immigration policy that favored skills (and wealth) rather than certain nationalities meant that Koreans came in droves (Taiwanese too, but that would be too much for this post!). Emigrating to New Zealand after Korea’s economic miracle then, they tended to be young professionals seeking a better quality of life rather than for economic opportunities, although I admit it is easy to overemphasize the former given the problems with the latter (as I’ll explain in that later post). This distinguishes them from, say, Korean-Americans, who largely arrived in the US in the 1970s and 1980s, when Korea was still a rather unpleasant place to live in economically, let alone having military regimes also.
To get a sense in a glance of just how young the vast majority of Kowis are in New Zealand today, take this graph comparing the total Kowi population of 21,351 in Auckland in 2006 to Aucklanders as whole:
That was from page 11 of the Asia-New Zealand Foundation’s April 2008 Report Diverse Auckland: The Face of New Zealand in the 21st Century by Wardlow Freisan, which is downloadable here and very short and readable. As noted on page 9 of it, Koreans are the most different and youngest of all groups of Asian migrants…and what does one associate with youth and Korea? That’s right! Cyworld.
( Kiwi, by Rex Homan. Image by Spirit Wrestler Gallery )
I’ve just read head of the Wellington-based Asia Studies Institute, former resident of Korea and fellow F2-Visa holder Stephen Epstein’s chapter in Asia in the making of New Zealand (2006) entitled “Imaging the Community: Newspapers, Cyberspace and the [Non-]Construction of Korean-New Zealand Identity”, and although it’s already a little dated – as pointed out by Stephen himself – he found then that young Kowi’s internet savvy, combined with the new physical ease and relative cheapness of travel to and from Korea, has meant that new Kowi arrivals in the 1990s and 2000s take much longer than previous waves of immigrants (of any nationality) to move past the phase where much if not most of their social interaction is with friends and family back home. If indeed, they ever move past that phase at all. For instance, with the exception of the conference organizer’s site, there was no English-language website for Kowis until recently, partially both a reflection and cause of young Kowis overwhelmingly talking or internet-chatting to each other in Korean rather than English, even if they have good English skills (in turn partially a reflection of the association of the use of English with status and arrogance in Korea). In both respects this situation is quite unlike that for, say, Korean-Americans.
As Stephen points out, second generation, primarily English-speaking Koreans are only very recently coming of age and so this situation will change, but in the meantime I’d say that they are merely the most extreme case of a phenomenon that is increasingly affecting migrant’s identities worldwide. Granted, that may be a rather obvious point, albeit with more of an impact than people realize, but I think this last point (slightly edited) I made at the Marmot’s Hole is less obvious:
“Although many Kowis may disagree, in both senses I do see surprising parallels in the above with the long-term (Western) expat community in Korea, especially those married to Koreans. We also have feet in both Korea and our home countries, and a lot of assumptions are made about us by Koreans based on our different appearances, usually ones that stress rather than try to overcome differences between us. I could go on about the incredulity, disdain and mocking I’ve regularly encountered while I was learning Korean too, which was extremely demotivating, but my point is that this too is surmountable with effort. But given our circumstances and our usually bilingual partners, then it is all too easy to simply hang out with other Westerners, watch English-language TV, and chat away to relatives on the internet. Many days, Koreans seem to almost encourage this, which is I’m sure how many Asians feel of Pakeha, Maori and Pacific-Islanders in New Zealand too.”
Like I said, I don’t want to make light of Kowis’ identity issues, and as someone who’s lived in four countries, with almost a decade each spent in three of them, then I can personally vouch for the pervasive ways in which those impact one’s life, and overwhelmingly in a negative sense too. But just like the unique problems of learning Korean in Korea, say, are bizarre, frustrating, and very tiring, they are not insurmountable with effort, and ultimately the onus on dealing with identity problems is very much on the person themselves. So while having the conference at all is of course a very positive step, I do hope that the conference organizers acknowledge this tendency and so concentrate on coming up with ways of facilitating precisely that positive, self-reliant mindset, rather than a victim mentality. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with.
P.S. For a related thread on Dave’s ESL Cafe, see here.