An Invisible Community: Korean Chinese in the U.S.

An Invisible Community: Korean Chinese in the U.S.

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Ed. Note: The following is part of a larger series by the South Korean daily Hankyoreh focusing on the plight of ethnic Koreans from China and commemorates a century since their initial flight from the peninsula following its takeover by Japan in 1910. Today they make up one of China's officially recognized minorities, and are increasingly visible as unskilled workers in South Korea, and more recently in Korean communities in the U.S.

NEW YORK -- Yeon-hee Kim (not her real name) arrived in the United States in 2003, quickly assimilating into the local Korean community in Flushing, New York. Her arrival marked the end of a long and arduous journey that began not in South Korea, but in her native China.

Kim is one of thousands of undocumented ethnic Koreans from China living in the United States. Though exact figures are unavailable, estimates show that from the late 1990s until the mid 2000s, some 70,000 arrived here illegally, many crossing through Mexico.

While some apply for asylum, a majority remain in the shadows, burdened by debts to brokers hired to ferry them into the country and by the need to send money to family back home in China.

Settling in areas with established Korean communities, like New York or Los Angeles, most take up work in nail salons or other industries typically occupied by first generation Korean Americans but increasingly rejected by their American-born children.

Chinese Origins

There are some 1 million ethnic Koreans, or Chosunjeok, living in China. The name derives from Korea’s last dynasty, the Chosun, which fell to the Japanese in 1910, sending large numbers fleeing across the border into what is today Manchuria. Today they comprise one of China’s officially recognized minorities and are concentrated mainly in the northeast province of Yanbian, near the border with North Korea.

In 1992, thousands migrated to South Korea in search of economic opportunity after Seoul established diplomatic ties with Beijing. They were the first wave of migrants to South Korea, which sought to attract ethnic Koreans from abroad to fill a growing demand for unskilled labor. Most were given temporary two-year work permits, which quickly lapsed, leaving a large undocumented population unwilling to return home.

Their status as illegal overstayers working in jobs deplored by most South Koreans, combined with their Chinese origins and rustic accents, led to the perception of Chosunjeok as second-class members of society, necessary but unwanted.

A crackdown on illegal migrant workers by authorities in Seoul beginning in the late 1990s led many Chosunjeok to turn their eyes westward.

Passage North

A broker hops on a tour bus as it approaches the U.S.-Mexico border, handing out South Korean passports to each of the 18 passengers on board, all of them originally from China. Ms. Kim, 50, stares down at the face on the front cover, wondering at the vague resemblance. After three months and numerous borders, she knows this is her last chance.

In 1998, Kim first made the decision to leave China for the more prosperous South Korea, looking to earn money to support her young son, and an ailing and out of work husband. Like many of her fellow Chinese Koreans, she found work in the back of a local Seoul restaurant, one of several “3D industries” regarded by more affluent South Koreans as “dirty, dangerous and demeaning.”

But after five years, as arrests and deportations of undocumented workers began to rise, Kim decided to make one last trip. Pooling the money she saved in Korea, and borrowing more from relatives in China, she hired a broker and began taking steps toward a new life in the U.S.

Kim’s voyage took her from South Korea to Indonesia, Thailand, Cuba and finally Mexico, where she and a group of fellow Chosunjeok hunkered down for several days in a dimly lit room before making their final passage to the United States. The price tag for the one-way trip: $35,000.

“When you talk to the immigration officer, be sure to watch what you say,” warned the broker. Fearful that their northern Chinese accents would betray their identities, the group largely kept silent as a stout border guard moved down the aisle scanning their fake South Korean passports. Ms. Kim handed her's over.

That was seven years ago. Life since then is much as it was back in Korea, with Kim employed as a waitress in a local Korean restaurant in Flushing and earning $3000 a month, two-thirds of which she sends back to family in China. As in Korea, she has once again found herself at the bottom rung of the community here.

Sacrificing for the Family

Like Kim, Jenifer Seoh (not her real name) came to the United States seeking to support family back home. A native of Yanbian, Seoh arrived in 2001 and began working at a Korean-owned nail salon in New York. Fluent in both Korean and Chinese, she says Korean employers prefer to hire ethnic Koreans from China as they are multi-lingual and are often willing to take jobs most other Koreans reject.

According to the Korean Nail Salon Association in New York, there are about 3,500 nail salons in and around the city, employing roughly 30,000 people. Yet while the industry served as a gateway to economic stability for many early Korean immigrants, their children are increasingly turning toward better-paying and more highly skilled professions, creating a ready-made niche that Korean migrants from China are now filling.

“I’ve been through all sorts of hardships,” admits Seoh, whose eldest daughter goes to college in Canada and recently married a Chinese man. Her second daughter studied in Japan and is now enrolled in university in Beijing. “All that would have been impossible had I not come to this country.”

Migrants like Kim and Seoh say that returning home isn’t an option, citing substantial debts and the lack of well-paid jobs in their native province, a largely agricultural region in China’s remote northwest. At the same time, the legal fees involved with applying for asylum here are too high, they say, in addition to the fear that their families back home may be persecuted should they take that route.

There is a saying in the community, one that speaks to the lived experiences of women like Kim and Seoh. “Moving to South Korea is an investment, but moving the United States is a gamble.” After nearly 12 years working abroad on her own, Kim says the time has flown by, adding that her own son, a boy of eight when she last saw him, is now in his twenties.

“My son is doing well now,” she says somewhat ruefully. “So the gamble paid off, I guess.”