Korean writers imagine the immigrant experience

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Korean writers imagine the immigrant experience


A scene from the movie “Wandeugi,” which describes the obstacles faced by one multiethinic family in Korea. It is based on the book of the same name by Kim Ryeo-ryeong. Provided by CJ Entertainment

As Korea moves from being a homogenous nation to one that is more diverse, the literary world has responded with novels, poems and short stories by Korean writers imagining the immigrant experience.

The spring edition of the quarterly Daesan Munha magazine is devoted to Korean literature in the era of multiculturalism.


It includes writing on literature’s role in supporting the immigrant community and features stories and poems by such writers as novelist Son Hong-gyu and experts such as Ko Myeong-cheol, a professor of Korean literature at Kwangwoon University, Lee Kyung-jae, a professor of Korean literature at Soongsil University, and Cho Jae-ryong, a professor of French literature at Korea University.

One of the poems is by a migrant worker who is living in Korea.

Titled “What are foreigners?” the poem depicts the mistreatment and discrimination that migrant workers have experienced in trying to make a life here. It reads: “For not being able to speak, for having skin that’s a different color, why can’t foreigners be migrant workers? What are foreigners? Are they slaves or workers?”

The poem was edited by Professor Ko from Kwangwoon University, who said: “As migrant workers began to settle in Korea, Korean literature became more introspective [about these issues] and writers started looking back on our mistakes.”

The number of multiethnic households has risen to 387,000, or 2.2 percent of all households in the country.

The number of children from multiethnic families in Korea reached 151,154 this year, which is a threefold increase in five years.

One of the first works of literature to deal with the immigrant experience was the novel “Wandeugi” (2008) by Kim Ryeo-ryeong, which describes the obstacles faced by a multiethnic family in Korea. The book sold more than 600,000 copies and was later made into a film starring Korean actor Yu A-in and Filipino actor Jasmine Lee.

It is a coming-of-age tale about a teenage boy from a multiethnic family who struggles to find his way in the world. His life starts to change when his homeroom teacher reaches out to him and encourages him to learn more about his Filipino immigrant mother.

Meanwhile, other writers are using their work to critique Koreans’ perception of immigrants.

The work of poet Ha Jong-oh examines the exclusion of migrant workers by Koreans and criticizes Koreans’ belief in the value of bloodlines.

His poem “Postnatal Care on Earth” describes the feelings of sorrow marriage migrant women experience. Ha said that in the poem he is asking Korean people to think about how these women, all of whom experience birth in the same way, are treated and concludes that they and their children should all be treated as neighbors.

“Right now, a Korean mother who just gave birth to a baby in Korea is eating hot soup cooked by her mother to recover from childbirth.

Right now, a Vietnamese mother who just gave birth to a baby in Korea, a Filipino mother who just gave birth to a baby in Korea, a Thai mother who just gave birth to a baby in Korea, a Cambodian mother who just gave birth to a baby in Korea, they are all eating soup cooked by their mothers-in-law to recover from childbirth. But don’t you see, all of the babies cry alike.”

A short story that deals with multiculturalism is “Elephant” by Kim Jae-young. Professor Lee from Soongsil University said it is the most widely known short story on multiculturalism among academics, though it is not widely known among the general public.

Lee said the story boldly depicts the reality experienced by multiethnic families here. He said that the protagonist is a boy with a Nepalese father and an ethically Korean mother from China, and in the story, he is treated more like an animal than a human being.

“As Korea has begun to emerge as a multicultural country, more forms of literature have begun to include stories about migrant workers and marriage migrant women,” Lee said. “In these literary works, we learn about the immigrant experience, which is often described as painful, leading us to reflect on the imperialism within us.”

By Chung Kang-hyun, Yim Seung-hye [sharon@joongang.co.kr]
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