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  • 이영숙 Kristin R. Pak

Living as a Returned Migrant in Korea (Part 2 of 2)

Reposted from

As Koreans from the diaspora who have returned to the motherland we are acknowledged by the government as part of the minjok, but that identity is disputed by many. First, those of us who were adopted sometimes find it difficult to identify as Koreans. Then, because we usually arrive with very bad or totally absent Korean language skills, and often with bare understanding of Korean culture, people who lived the majority of their lives on the peninsula see us only as foreigners. Even those Koreans who are 1.5+ generation diasporic Koreans see us as similarly kyopo, or totally whitewashed. 

My experiences are atypical, though. Since I was so active in the Korean-American community and lived among other immigrants, I transitioned to Korea quite easily. I had close friends from NYURI waiting for me when I got off the plane in Incheon. We quickly and effortlessly resumed our friendship from New York. I also knew a lot of people who had also been adopted and who had returned to live in Korea. Daejeon, however, took more getting used to.

For the first time in 15 years, I was mostly socializing and working among white people again. Most of the native English teachers (NETs) and English language department administration were North American white men married to Korean women. Their behavior and attitudes belied their privilege, and their plainly evident white supremacist ideology was something I had to get used to again. My bubble in New York had been thick and had lowered my defenses against being in the stark minority. What a paradox to be in the minority as a Korean in Korea! I heard co-workers repeat Fox News pundits’ claims and read ex-pat [sic] uninformed netizen chatter like: Korea was better because it was more socially conservative; taxes were rightfully lower than in North America; the government stayed out of peoples’ private affairs. I nearly fell off my chair when a co-worker from North Dakota claimed that Korea could not possibly be sexist because the president was a woman.

The term “expat” became insufferable. I realized it was used to separate migrants from rich countries from those who are from the Global South, although both populations are seeking economic opportunities they do not have in their native countries. And what about returned migrants? In the U.S., I was clearly an immigrant. In the ROK I needed a visa to live and work in the country, but I had been born in Incheon (probably?), so I wasn’t a foreigner, and I certainly was not an expatriate since I wasn’t “outside my country.” I believe I have a right to live in the country where I was born without being labeled as a foreigner by either the government or its citizens.

While in Daejeon, I tried to get an F4 visa, but the ROK immigration office requires U.S. citizens to show their naturalization certificate. I never needed the certificate in the U.S. after I got a passport, but ROK rules that U.S. passports are not acceptable proof of U.S. citizenship because Samoa (whose population is less than 56,000) are U.S. nationals holding U.S. passports, but not U.S. citizens. I worked for a year on a professor visa, essentially as property of my university, because I did not have my U.S. naturalization certificate to prove my U.S. immigration status. I had applied to replace it, but I was running into red tape with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS). It took two years, intervention from my Congressional Representative, and about USD 500 to get a replacement certificate. I was caught between the immigration services of both countries, and classified as an immigrant in both. 

Around the time I was wrestling with USCIS, adoptees without citizenship in their adoptive countries, mainly the U.S., were in the news again. The U.S. was deporting adoptees back to Korea and other countries that had sent children overseas to be adopted. It was a part of the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, (IIRIRA) that made misdemeanors deportable offenses that adopted people were getting caught up in. Sometimes this was fatal. In Brazil Joao Hubert was killed after being forcibly removed from the U.S. by the USCIS. In Korea adoptees compelled to live in the ROK for various reasons stemming from problems with U.S. immigration were treated as Koreans legally, but as foreigners socially. 

Korea has been known as the Hermit Kingdom, hostile to foreigners for centuries. I understand the reasons. Foreign invaders and colonizers were historically bad news for Korea. The state of the ROK was built on the dubious claims of pure blood and race by Syngman Rhee (who was married to a non-Korean white woman). That is the often-repeated story of why intercountry adoption began after the 6.25 war—mixed-race Koreans and their mothers were marginalized so severely that adoption agency workers “rescued” them by sending them overseas to be adopted. Another myth promoted by the adoption industry is that Koreans don’t adopt, but even Rhee adopted three children, one of whom legally ended the adoption.

The antiquated view of 우리 나라  needs to expand the idea of “Korean” and reboot the definition of “foreigner.” Mixed-race Koreans, diasporic Koreans, Koreans from both Korean states are all Korean. And what about Korean-born people whose parents have no Korean blood? Who are culturally integrated but not biologically? Furthermore, why is there a hierarchy of people not “typically” Korean? Why are mixed Koreans who have a white parent treated so differently than Koreans who have a Black parent? Or “multicultural” children who are not mixed race, but who have one Korean parent and a parent from Southeast Asia? Why does society use “International Family” to mean that the non-Korean parent is from a rich developed country and “Multicultural Family” to mean that one parent is from a country that the ROK society deems less developed? 

While I lived in Daejeon, there was a Korean language course taught on our campus for multicultural families. Most of the students were either from the Philippines or China. A few were Vietnamese or NETs. There was one white Norwegian woman who had met her Korean husband in China. (I used my marriage to my now ex-husband to enroll in the class.) The classes reminded me a lot of the classes I had taught in New York, although more chauvinist—we learned words to honor husbands’ parents and vocabulary deemed especially useful for housewives like cleaning and shopping for groceries. The students were mostly very young and quick to learn Korean. I felt quite comfortable with my Filipina classmates, even if they learned more quickly than I did and were half my age. They spoke English better than almost any of my Korean students, and we became quite friendly despite our very different lives. I really felt a part of the migrant community. Sometimes, just like in New York, we had “Know Your Rights” presentations from the local police department. An officer told us how to get help in cases of domestic violence, and we got advice about practical matters about daily life in Korea. Although I am not a foreigner and certainly would never call myself an expat, I strongly identified as a migrant and being the recipient of migrant services. English-language Internet communities constantly ask for advice about what our rights are as tenants, workers, and non-citizens. I see discrimination against "foreigners" myself from my landlord and neighbors who claim I have noisy parties every day. The condescending and misguided attempts to “help” people whose Korean is not native-level is offensive and patronizing. Even the public rental bicycles assume that if one is using the English-language service, he or she must be 1) a tourist 2) a visitor. English-language websites for KoRail and bank services are similarly truncated compared to the Korean language services rather than the mirror images like I saw in the English and Spanish language sites in the U.S. Even so, I realize I am fortunate and privileged to be an native English speaker (even if jobs do not consider me a native speaker because I look Korean, or many other Asians to be native speakers even if they are very fluent from South Asia or the Philippines). If my native language were Bangla or Vietnamese, I know I would have even far fewer options.

After two years in Chungcheongnam-do, I gambled and moved to Seoul even though I had no job. My friends and community were in Seoul, and although Daejonites are exceptionally friendly and generous, I felt isolated. I relocated and eventually co-founded an organization that does advocacy and activism around intercountry adoption issues and works in solidarity with other groups like migrant workers, unwed mothers, and queer activists as part of the larger social justice movement in Korea.

South Korea has been called a very xenophobic and racist society, simultaneously granting unearned privileges to white people while still discriminating against them, which is is socially acceptable. Westerners who aren’t white are mimicked and their pop culture contributions have been appropriated by the hallyu touts, but still must contend with extremely ignorant and offensive stereotypes. Although Black Americans have told me that is preferable to being pulled over for DWB (driving while Black) like in the U.S., or being physically assaulted in ways that initiated the Black Lives Matter movement, it is still unacceptably common for Koreans to believe racist ideas about Black or Brown westerners. Migrant workers from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia must fight for more basic rights such as the right to change jobs. Western and non-western workers, blue collar and “professionals,” all face wage theft and illegal workplace practices perpetrated by Koreans who take advantage of our lack of legal rights, racism, xenophobia, and native-Korean language skills. Even with my coveted job as a university employee, my prospects of promotion are nil because I’m a “foreign” professor. This kind of discrimination is illegal in most western countries and actively (although not always effectively) discouraged in many developing countries where quotas attempt to correct for social discrimination through legislation. 

We 재외동포 are given the F4 visa, as mentioned above. The visa restricts the types of jobs we can do, however. We are not allowed to do the 3D jobs, those that are dangerous, dirty, or degrading. Some adoptees from non-English speaking countries struggle to exercise our birthright to live in Korea due to these restrictions. Americans, Canadians, and Australians can earn sufficient salaries teaching English, but because of the ROK’s nonsensical belief that fluent, but non-native language teachers are not qualified to teach a language, plus the reasonable (but inadequate) requirement  of a university degree, adoptees from Scandinavia, French, Dutch, German, and Italian speaking countries must find alternative employment. Without a degree, some adoptees find themselves forced to do unauthorized work in kitchens, factories, farms, and or other menial jobs. Many people whose lives were spoiled by adoption to circumstances that did not give them the privilege and opportunity to get a degree. The rationale is that these low-skilled jobs should go to Korean citizens rather than “foreigners” who were supposedly privileged by living overseas. But Koreans migrated and sent remittances back or their bodies and labor were sold to create the miracle on the Han. I think at the very least we should have full employment privileges across the labor spectrum. 

Now as the ROK is facing the prospect of becoming an asylum for Yemenis, in addition to accepting refugees from DPRK. Who is labeled a refugee is always political, but some South Koreans’ reactions to this development just feels like xenophobia and racism. As the U.S. separates migrant children from their families (and perhaps sends them into the adoption industry system) it seems like an extension of the Trump agenda reaching Korea. I live near Seoul Station and see and hear rallies of right-wing Korean groups. They wave American flags and display photos of Park Chung Hee and Donald Trump weekly. Hundreds of thousands have signed Internet petitions in reaction to 500 people seeking relief from a war, despite so many Koreans having experience as refugees themselves during our war, the resulting poverty, or from dictatorial persecution. Only one person from South Korea has been granted political asylum by the U.S. 

Who is labeled a refugee is always political. When accepting refugees or asylum-seekers a government is labeling the situation that the person is fleeing from as unacceptably brutal or dire. It’s labeling another state as the perpetrator or unable to control abuse in that country. I assert it’s not really about being able to serve or support the 500 refugees themselves. Korea has a labor shortage and birth rate deficit. Koreans are taking irregular jobs in retail and factories, but the agricultural industries are struggling to find workers because Koreans won’t take these jobs. Even urban labor jobs are shunned by extremely schooled but poorly educated graduates who call Korea "Hell Choseon." Some even want to deny immigrants and migrants access to these jobs and scapegoat foreigners for their lack of prestigious or acceptably professional positions. Even with an F4 my fellow adoptees are legally disallowed from taking labor jobs. Some of my comrades were adopted into situations like mine where we couldn’t earn a degree. Although I eventually obtained a graduate degree, I had to postpone my return until my late 30s until I had finished my bachelors. All my work experience would be considered relevant, and in this land of excessive credentials and certifications, I only had a high school diploma.

Documentation is a fact of life regardless of where one lives. Immigration documents, citizenship papers, and diplomas,  dictate our rights and define our qualifications around the world. Despite constant corruption scandals, the ROK tries to combat corruption with more and more paperwork. When we are legally made orphans, as required by law to be sent overseas for adoption, we are issued a family register, an orphan hojuk. This makes adoption agencies our guardians and our next of kin. When we return to Korea, even after finding actual family, since most of us are not truly orphans, we still have this relationship with the adoption agency. If we die here, they become responsible for our remains. Finally in death, Korea fully claims us. I hope to live in Korea for the rest of my life, assuming that the discrimination vitriol against foreigners here does not proceed to levels it has reached in the U.S. I believe South Korea can legislate better protections and the government has the power to turn public will around. I will continue to try my best to keep working on these issues as a migrant in Korea as a Korean.



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