Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Difference Between Migrants and Expats (MAMF 2013)

MAMF 2013 in Yongji Cultural Park, Changwon
After church today, some friends and I visited the Migrants' Arirang Multicultural Festival being held in Yongji Cultural Park, conveniently just across the street from Hanbit Presbyterian Church. I had heard of this unique cultural festival last year, but I didn't attend. This year, it appeared to be a much bigger event, and since it was so close and also because there was the promise of food, I went to check it out.

My first and most enduring impression was that there were a lot of people there, and the diversity was stunning. Now, I know that Changwon is home to thousands of non-Koreans. Ever since South Korea's rise to economic success, people from many other countries in Asia have arrived to seek their fortunes here. But I never realized just... how many there were. I have literally never seen more non-East Asians assembled in one place until today. And I emphasize non-East Asians because Western countries were hardly represented here. More on that later.
Mongolian representatives enter the wrestling ring.
The festival had been running all weekend, but the crowds were still bustling and events were going on all the time even on its final day. In one corner of the park, a large group of Vietnamese were holding a talent show. They were decked out in traditional clothes or t-shirts with their national flag on them. In another area, what looked like a beauty contest was taking place for the Cambodian community. Right next to them, a Nepalese man decked out in hip-hop attire was giving a rap performance to an attentive crowd. Pakistani university exchange students were blasting music and dancing together, too, to the amusement of the many Koreans wandering by the park. One of the most interesting events I witnessed was a demonstration of Mongolian wrestling, or Bökh (Бөх). The athletes braved the cold in their very bare uniforms (see photo above) and also did some interesting balletic salutes to their flag and to the crowd before commencing their bouts of grappling and throwing each other to the ground.

In addition to the events, there were numerous stalls promoting each country's unique culture and food, as well as stalls for kids to experience the "multi" aspect of the culture by creating buttons or decorating flags. My favorite part, of course, was browsing the food stalls for delicious things to eat. Vietnam had pho, Japan had takoyaki, Indonesia had sate ayam, and Russia had a barbecue grill that was billowing enormous clouds of smoke in every direction. For lunch, I got menudo, a kind of meat stew, and turon, which are like fried banana egg rolls, both from the Philippines. I also sneaked bites of my friends' pad thai (Thailand), tandoori chicken (India), and fried calamari (Indonesia). This lunch reminded me a lot of Multicultural Week at my high school, where student clubs would raise money by selling foods from all around the world, and because my high school was in Fremont, well, the diversity of authentic ethnic foods you could find at our little high school fair was superb.
Food stalls! So many good smells emanating from this area of the festival...
So here's the odd part. The first thing I looked for when I realized that it was a multicultural festival was the stall for Taiwan. I didn't find one. China had a food stall, where they were selling dumplings and milk tea (unfortunately, when I asked for one, they had temporarily run out of water... at least I got to practice my Mandarin!). But Taiwan was nowhere to be found. I also noticed that there were food stalls for over a dozen Asian countries, including countries that I must admit I never think about (like Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. I always forget about Bangladesh on Sporcle quizzes...), but the only European country represented was Germany, whose popular wurst stall was being run by a Korean.

It didn't take me long, however, to realize that it being the "Migrants' Arirang" festival, the only countries represented would be those of... migrant workers. I then looked around and realized that all these South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Central Asians that I had never noticed before were probably from communities of migrant workers or immigrants in Korea, and I had a really big "OH" moment.

I think that up until now, my astoundingly narrow-minded idea of the "foreigner" (외국인) in Korea was of the Western Anglophone: an independent twenty-something  from Canada, South Africa, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or the US, most likely white, here in Korea for one to four years on a short teaching stint before moving home or on to the next Asian country. Of course, living in Changwon expanded that idea a bit to include young couples on a short teaching stint, old couples on a very long teaching stint, missionaries, foreign exchange students, and lots and lots of engineers from all over the world.

Most of these kinds of foreigners I can also categorize as "expats". The dictionary definition of "expatriate" is someone who is banished from or purposely withdraws from their native country to live somewhere else, but it has less of a negative or political connotation in expat circles today, especially when it comes to communities of expat English teachers. I've noticed that the word "expat" now refers primarily to Western foreigners, a more exclusive circle than 외국인.

And now I can see clearly how there is a huge group of people categorically left out of the discourse: immigrants (이민자). I never see them because they are mostly employed in industry, like in one of Changwon's hundreds of factories, in a completely different part of town. Migrant workers (이주 노동자) are supposed to be temporary, making enough money to move back home or onto something else in just a few years. However, I learned that in some immigrant communities in Changwon, families have lived here for ten or more years. Their children have grown up here. They are, in fact, exactly like the permanent immigrant communities in California that I'm so accustomed to (that I'm a part of, actually), only their adopted country is Korea, not the United States.

I find it somewhat awkward that this had never really occurred to me before -- it was a curious case of culture shock. That there are huge communities of minorities threaded into the seemingly solid-color fabric of Korean society shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. But it took my seeing all of them "out in the open" to realize how sizable the demographic really is.

Perhaps the other awkward part was realizing then why I couldn't find Taiwan today: there are relatively few migrant workers in Korea who are from my motherland, because Taiwan is developed enough economically for its people not to have to go abroad to find work. (Plus, Koreans don't crave stinky tofu the way they crave jajangmyeon.)

And that then made me think about how strange it would be if I did run into a poor Taiwanese enclave somewhere in the world and found myself staring straight into the face of my American privilege. Taiwanese-Americans and ABCs of my generation have generally done very well for themselves in the US. What if this wasn't the case somewhere else, and I met a community of Taiwanese emigrants who were living virtually unrecognized in a society that only acknowledged them once a year with a festival that celebrated but also completely Otherized them? I don't know what I would do. I would probably also have trouble communicating with them, beyond asking for a 布丁奶茶 and explaining that I'm actually from California.

Perhaps I'm over-thinking this now. Readers, what do you think about migrant workers and immigrant communities in the place where you live? Do you think about them at all?

In any case, I did enjoy spending time at the Migrants' Arirang Multicultural Festival today, and above all else I'm happy that Changwon hosts a festival like this, in the midst of Korea's festival-overload season. (Also happening this weekend were the Andong Maskdance Festival, the Busan International Film Festival, the Jinju Lantern Festival, and the Korea Drama Festival, and those are just the ones in the Gyeongsang provinces alone!)

P.S. Here are two articles about MAMF 2013 that I will get around to reading (and maybe translating -- they're in Korean) if I have the time: Nocut News and International News.

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