BY ELEANOR PARK
“I am Korean, American, and Chinese, and I like Japanese food.”
Those were the exact words that I used to introduce myself to my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jackson, and she later told my mom that I had really confused her. To be honest, at five, my identity confused me as well. From my perspective, it always seemed easier for my peers who looked like me to introduce themselves. People would ask those typical ignorant questions like, “What kind of Asian are you?” or “Where are you from?”, as well as the follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”. My other Asian-American friends would simply answer, “I’m Korean,” “I’m Chinese,” “I’m Japanese,” and so on.
I never knew how to answer this question. I still don’t. Growing up, I would switch between, “Yeah, I’m Chinese” and “Yeah, I’m Korean,” usually just going with what people assumed about me. Now, I try to explain accurately, but it’s still tough. The best quick answer I’ve come up with is, “I’m Korean but my parents grew up in China, so I speak Chinese.”
“Oh, so you’re half Korean and half Chinese?”
Not exactly. My true ethnicity is called Korean-Chinese, referring to the Korean minority group, mostly residing in Northeast China. Most people think “just Korean” or “just Chinese,” and are unaware of this ethnic group. So, of course, if I introduce myself as “Korean-Chinese,” people incorrectly assume one of my parents is Korean and the other is Chinese. A clarifying example would be saying “Chinese-American.” Just as “Chinese-American” is an ethnicity found in the United States, “Korean-Chinese” is an ethnicity found in China.
Even besides the dual ethnicity, my Korean heritage by itself is often confusing to others. Both my parents are third-generation Korean immigrants to China, who grew up immersed in both Chinese and Korean culture.
“Wait, are you from North Korea or South Korea?”
When my family first moved out of Korea, they weren’t “North Korean immigrants” or “South Korean immigrants.” The Korea my family migrated out of was a unified nation. As many people know, Korea wasn’t always split into North and South Korea. This division occurred as a result of the Korean Civil War from 1950 to 1953.
To this day, North Korea is ruled by the infamous Kim family dynasty. To many uninformed people, the brutal Kim family has unfortunately given a bad rap to all North Koreans. In second grade, when asked the North/South Korea question, I did not yet understand my family history and said “South Korea,” thinking it wasn’t possible for me to be from North Korea. The questioner's immediate response was “OK, good,” two discriminatory words that have never left my mind.
“So if they’re Korean, why did your family move to China?”
Before the North and South Korean conflict, Korea was occupied for over 30 years by the Japanese, which is the timeline in which my family’s migration story took place. My father’s great-grandparents migrated to China across the Tumen River in 1912. His grandfather, or my great-grandfather, was three at the time. My great uncle, the only living expert on my family’s history, is not sure exactly why they moved, though it was likely because of the Japanese invasion. He mentioned that my family’s life in Korea was not too bad, but northeast China was alluring for its fertile land and low population. In fact, my family started migrating from the southern part of Korea, and did not even have China in mind as an end goal. They only knew they wanted to move north. After a brief period of living in the northern part of Korea, they ended up in China.
My mother’s family has a very different story. Her great-aunt, from northern Korea, married a man who wanted to move to China for a better life. Her grandfather, thinking his sister would be lonely in China, took their whole family there, including, at the age of two, my mother’s aunt (my great aunt).
“So where did your parents grow up?”
My father was born and grew up in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an ethnically Korean autonomous region in Jilin Province in Northeast China. This region, though in China, is sometimes referred to as “The Third Korea” because of how prevalent Korean culture is in the area. My mom is also from Jilin province, in another area that still has a significant ethnic Korean population.
Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture houses a Korean minority group that is very little-known. The region was established as recognition to the Korean militias that sided with the Chinese Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War. They were given permission to use Korean as their official language and establish Korean schools, which prevented assimilation and allowed the people to retain their rich culture.
Because Yanbian is adjacent to North Korea, he actually had encounters with North Korean children when he was young. In the winter, he would go ice skating on the frozen Tumen River, the China-North Korea border, where North Korean children skated as well. They interacted with each other and even traded small items like toys. Because border security is much tighter today, of course, encounters like these are unthinkable.
My parents both grew up in distinctly Korean households. In fact, my father, grandfather, and great-uncle spoke Korean at home, only learning Chinese after attending Chinese schools. They also practiced Korean traditions, one of which was preparing mountains of kimchi (pickled cabbage) in the fall, which they would then store in their cold cellar, and eat throughout the winter. Having kimchi was only possible during the winter months, since the cold provided natural refrigeration. When my father moved to South Korea, and lived in a home with a refrigerator for the first time, he was delighted that he could eat kimchi even in summer.
My mother’s family also prepared kimchi for the winter. Additionally, they practiced the Korean tradition of hanging doenjang (a type of soybean paste), on the wall to ferment. Both my mother and father’s families also held on to their hanbok (Korean traditional clothing). They, in turn, have passed these traditions on to my brother and me.
“Oh, that’s cool! Have you ever visited Korea or China?”
Unless you count a trip I barely remember from when I was six, or a brief layover at Seoul’s Incheon Airport last year, I haven’t spent much time in Korea. I have, however, visited China multiple times. In fact, that layover in Seoul was on the return trip from China, a trip in which Yanji (in Yanbian) was one of our many stops.
Last year, when I visited my grandmother in Yanji, I experienced the distinct Korean-Chinese culture from the moment I stepped off the plane. Signs were all written in Korean and Chinese, doubling the amount of words I couldn’t recognize, and my grandmother immediately greeted me in Yanbian’s Korean dialect, of which I could not understand a word. We then waved over one of the many small, economical, green taxis that many use as their main transportation method. The next morning, we perused the food market, an integral part of locals’ everyday lives. Consisting of various stands filled with Korean rice cakes, Chinese pastries, soy drinks, and more, the market provided fresh, inexpensive food for all visitors.
Experiencing the culture in which your parents and grandparents grew up is always eye-opening, and now that I have further learned from my family members about the context behind it, I am able to appreciate Yanji and its textured culture even more. Never have I been prouder to be Korean-Chinese-American.