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Friday, May 16, 2014

Russian Koreans

I am awake in the wee hours again because of ongoing belly pain.  I know it's not appendicitis because "been there, done that" and I have a three-inch scar on my right side as a memento.  Sigh.

In the meantime, I've foregone my usual obsession with YouTube cat videos to watch ones about Korea, and I discovered a really interesting series in Russian called "I am a citizen of the Russian Federation" (Я-гражданин Российской Федерации) with an episode about Russian Koreans.  Most Americans don't realize how multiethnic Russia has been for centuries, even hundreds of years prior to the advent of the Soviet state.  And yes, many people came to Russia from other countries in search of a better life (the reason for most voluntary migration, truthfully).  Beginning in the  nineteenth century, Korean peasants, mostly from what is now North Korea, immigrated to Siberia when famine and unemployment plagued their homeland.  The TV program quoted a South Korean official saying that there were about 200,000 ethnic Korean Russians (the US has about five times that number).

Like many other transplanted ethnicities , Koreans in Russia tended to marry within their group, to maintain some separate aspects of their traditional culture.  This has led to some peculiarities in the 21st century, as when a Scandinavian official visiting the American upper Midwest observed that there were native songs and dances preserved among the US descendants of emigrants from his country that had long been forgotten back home.  So also there is a "time capsule" of older Korean vocabulary and behavior among Russian Koreans, who can find it shocking to visit South Korea, where the technological revolution of the last fifty years has wrought considerable social and linguistic change.  And, of course, no matter how distinct a minority population attempts to keep itself from a mainstream culture, there are always subtle influences--the  TV show was, of course, designed to show how this particular community was in fact, Russian (not русский, but российской)  in citizenship and identity, and the lovely standard Russian that the local Paks, Lees and Kims were speaking in the interviews testified to this.  Many families had historically become Orthodox Christians, thus further distancing themselves today from South Koreans, where those not adhering to Buddhism or Confucian philosophy tend to espouse Roman Catholicism or  Calvinist Protestantism.  They still eat rice daily, though, not the bread that Russians favor.

What was neat to me was that the TV program focused first on the Koreans' general character as "hard and honest workers", a role and depiction similar to that of the Volga Germans of the imperial era, thrifty and diligent farmers invited to settle by Catherine the Great while preserving their own traditions (150 years later, their descendants were considered suspect when the Nazis invaded the USSR--not unlike the Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII.  Like there not being a single case of American Japanese collaboration with Hirohito's empire, I would be surprised to learn if there were in fact Russian Germans who favored the Nazis, but then Stalin was paranoid about everyone, and given his equal opportunity victimization of people of all races, he had reason to be).  Stalin had many Russian Koreans deported to Central Asia during the 1930s in the unfounded fear that were the USSR and the Japanese empire to go to war, the Koreans would favor the Japanese.  Not bloody likely.

The Korean immigrants built traditional tiled-roof houses in Siberia, complete with ingenious floor-heating systems that made most furniture superfluous, the narrator intoned--I'd never considered that perspective.  I sit on the floor most of the time, but I'm always on rugs and so am insulated from what might be a chilly surface. Plus, being from the South, I've never really had to think of furniture as protection from the elements.

After a period under the Soviets wherein Korean language schools and publications were outlawed, even ethnic Russians in the far east are enrolling their children in Korean-teaching schools, since they have such a "logical, planned" alphabet, rather than the "hieroglyphs" favored by other Asian nations.

With the collapse of the Soviet state, descendants of deported Russian Koreans found themselves in the newly-independent "stans" of South East Asia, caught in conflicts between the Russians left there and the resurgent local ethnicities (Uzbeks, Kazakhs, etc.).   One physician they interviewed had eventually relocated from Tashkent to Moscow.  Thousands of others found themselves displaced again, without work, shelter and money, like many others.  This, the TV program interprets as a point where Russia also was recognized as family, as home and origin.  The episode ends with two adorable little Korean kids singing the RF national anthem, and various avowals by adults that though they are of a minority ethnicity, first and foremost they are Russian citizens, dedicated to the strength of that "best country in the world" from whom they "have received everything", not foreigners simply sojourning there.  Very patriotic, the sort of conclusion that makes everyone feel like waving flags and smiling.

Another idea that is often hard for Americans to grasp is that other countries' citizens may be as "proud to be ___" as we are to be "born in the USA".  And positive propaganda of this day and age is relatively the same: We work hard, this land has given us so much opportunity, we are excited to call it home. That's the publicized ideal, but how this notion of superethnic inclusivity manifests in everyday life is the question.

6 comments:

Barbara said...

I found this all very fascinating. Did not know anything about Korean Russians!

I'm sorry to hear you haven't been feeling/sleeping well. I don't like to point out errors in writing, but all of the text of your post is repeated (ie it's there twice) (with the exception of the very last paragraph). Also, there are two typos in the 4th paragraph - "learned" and "Asian". I'm sure you'll catch them if you reread the paragraph. Not to be critical!!

KYP said...

Fixed! Thanks! Sometimes blogging from an iPhone can be a bear. It wouldn't let me scroll down to see everything at once.

Barbara said...

Blogging from an iPhone - that IS an accomplishment!

gnutron said...

Very educational stuff, although I doubt it will help me on the board exam that I'm currently not studying for. Also, isn't "Tashkent" a place in Narnia?

KYP said...

Tashbaan is the capital of Calormen, south of Narnia. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan.

Ann Marie said...

The story of Korean Russians was fascinating. I never knew that, but it makes sense. I keep thinking about that story, not so much because of the people whose situation you described, although that too, but because it shows how different worlds are open to you because of knowing Russian. As you note, we are not the only nation in the world. I wonder what it is like to have that window open?
I wonder how my world would be enriched if I spoke Russian? Or – hard to even imagine what I’d learn—Chinese. Or Arabic. The Lord knows them all, and knows us all . How much we lost at Babel.