Korea has been said to be one of the most racially and culturally homogenous countries in the world. Although many critics claim that this is a 'myth', it is true that the country has not suffered from the racial and religious conflicts that have troubled so many countries. This alleged racial homogeneity may make a different race the primary indicator of 'the stranger' in Korea.
Thus, I was somewhat surprised by the descriptive statistics from a nationally representative survey of the permanent and naturalised immigrants in Korea conducted in 2013. According to the survey, the majority of immigrants who experienced perceived discrimination believed that they were discriminated against because of their national backgrounds, and not race, religion or economic status. From the respondents’ perspective, Koreans seem to be very proud of their nationality. If, as the immigrants claim, Koreans are so proud of being Korean, what is the source of that national pride? Further, could it be the way they justify discrimination against immigrants?
My Identities article, 'Constructing Chineseness as other in the evolution of national identity in South Korea', addresses these questions. Drawing on scholarly publications, newspapers, policy reports, surveys and films, I compared two different Chinese immigrant groups who came to Korea in different eras. I traced the narratives of Chineseness used to construct Chinese immigrants as strangers and examined how these narratives are related to Koreans’ evolving self-perceptions. The country’s national goals and sources of pride – in particular, historical eras – constitute the national subjectivity. As the most immediate strangers, Chinese immigrants have been easy targets for Koreans to demonstrate and confirm the new national identities they desire.
Chinese residents from Shandong province in eastern China, referred to as Hwagyo, were the first immigrant group in Korea’s modern history. Their Chineseness was constructed from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries when Korea was subjected to colonial rule, and struggled to survive economically as one of the poorest countries in the world. Highly motivated by their desire to survive and grow as a nation, Koreans targeted the most immediate others as threats to those goals. The Hwagyo’s dominance in trading and their expanding economic activities were perceived to be a national security risk that was used to justify the legal measures adopted to marginalise them socially and economically.
Later, ethnic Koreans from the People's of Republic of China, referred to as Joseonjok, immigrated to Korea to take low-income jobs, and became more visible strangers and the new representatives of Chineseness. The Chineseness of these immigrants was contrasted to Koreans’ redefined national character, in which Koreans envisioned themselves as the only legitimate citizens of an advanced, capitalist and liberal society. This new national subjectivity is culturally defined by particular behavioural patterns, ethical orientations and lifestyles. Joseonjok’s Korean ethnicity has not been embraced and celebrated sufficiently to compensate for their cultural otherness which is framed conveniently as Chineseness. Further, the media has often portrayed them as lawless, wild and dangerously naïve compared to the image of orderly, restrained and sophisticated Korean citizens.
These two kinds of Chineseness constructed in different historical eras served the same purpose of designating immigrants as others to enhance the vision of Korea’s national character that its citizens desired. Thus the Chineseness of immigrants to Korea has evolved over time from an economic to a cultural threat, through the process of delineating the legitimate boundaries of economic and cultural communities.
The quest for Koreanness has been troubled by the political polarisation between conservatives and progressives who disagreed over various critical issues from whether the birth of South Korea was legitimate or not, to who are the true evil others to Koreans. However, this long-time discursive divide itself is superficial enough not to enunciate the evolving national goals, visions and characters of Koreanness. As Hall suggested, we should think of identity as a production, which is always in process, and always constituted within representation, instead of thinking it as an already accomplished fact. This paper traces the construction of Chineseness of immigrants as the evolving reflections of self through which Koreanness, as the product of historical experiences, was constantly discovered and expressed.
Blog post by Oh-Jung Kwon, Korea Institute of Science and Technology, Republic of Korea
Read the full article: Kwon, Oh-Jung. Constructing Chineseness as other in the evolution of national identity in South Korea. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1757253
'First, I'll need tenure. And a big research grant. Also access to a lab and five graduate students — at least three of them Chinese.'
- Professor Ogden Wernstrom, Physicist
Those are Professor Ogden Wernstrom’s demands when asked to save the Earth from a giant garbage ball approaching through space in the Futurama episode, A Big Piece of Garbage. Portrayed as an obvious antagonist, Wernstrom seems greedy and exclusively concerned with his own career advancement. He also seemingly regards grad students as just another commodity to further his own goals, with Chinese students as particularly valuable or useful assets.
This specific view on Chinese researchers as not much more than pricey pieces of high-tech equipment was provided by a cartoon villain 20 years ago, but it arguably still falls into the questionable category of 'it’s funny because it’s true': it indeed resonates with prejudices that extend beyond the Futurama universe and into real-world academic discourse.
One place where similar views on 'non-western' researchers can be found is the discourse on scientific misconduct. High-profile scandals of scientific fraud and plagiarism regularly make the news headlines, and the frequency, causes and consequences of scientific misconduct are at the centre of much academic and public speculation. Whenever we talk about the presumed causes of deviance, we make deeply normative claims about the allocation of responsibility and blame. Much more than just the goal and result of neutral scientific inquiry, these causal explanations are a powerful mechanism of social exclusion, constructing a fault line between an ‘us’, who value and live by the rules of the community, and a somehow inferior ‘them’, who break the rules.
In the Identities article, 'Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens', I analyse 31 expert interviews with people responsible for handling scientific misconduct cases at universities, journals and other academic organisations and show that violations of research integrity are frequently blamed on so-called foreign scientific cultures that allegedly are more prone to misconduct. Researchers from those 'foreign' cultures are characterised in two different ways in those causal stories: at times they are depicted as backwards, uncivilised and uneducated; and their knowledge production is seen as generally inferior to western science. Such a depiction draws heavily on well-established themes of Eurocentric knowledge.
However, at other times, especially with regard to Chinese researchers, they are characterised as advanced, highly intelligent and productive, yet lacking a moral consciousness. In comparison to the idealised 'western' researcher, they appear almost cyborg-like: highly efficient, technologically advanced and rational, but also immoral, emotionally cold and ultimately interchangeable with one another. Such views are also consistent with established stereotypes of Asians as a hypersuccessful 'model minority' that pose 'implicit threats to the upward mobility of others' (Cardozo & Subramaniam 2013).
Of course, a factor like 'academic culture' will probably have an influence on researchers’ (deviant) behaviour. This example, however, shows that the way this 'culture' is currently constructed and discussed leans heavily on stereotypes and reproduces exclusions already present in the scientific community. As such, it doesn’t speak much about the actual working conditions of Chinese (or Mexican, or Egyptian, or Russian) researchers, but says a lot about the collective imaginary of 'western' academia. Apparently, it still looks a lot like Wernstrom’s ideal scientific life, where the advancement of white (male) researchers counts more than the fate of the rest of the world.
Cardozo, K. & B. Subramaniam. 2013. Assembling Asian/American naturecultures: Orientalism and invited invasions. Journal of Asian American Studies 16: 1–23.
Blog post by Felicitas Hesselmann, German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
Read the full article: Hesselmann, Felicitas. Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1538065
Many Western expatriates are routinely exposed to being labelled laowai (老外 in Mandarin, literally ‘old foreigner’) in mainland China. According to a 2007 report in People’s Daily, Chinese users of the slang term laowai feel it shows their respect and intimacy for Westerners (‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative...' 2007). This Chinese interpretation was empirically verified by a 2015 research article (Mao 2015).
But some people on the receiving end feel that laowai is a stereotype-laden form of ‘othering’, defined as discourses that create a boundary between insiders and outsiders. Why are these interpretations so different? Why do Westerners feel resentful when they are addressed as laowai?
In order to address these questions, we focused on American expatriates living in mainland China, often regarded as prototypical ‘Westerners’ there. We conducted in-depth interviews with 35 American expatriates who ranged in age from 19 to 36 years, varied in sojourn length from six months to ten years, were in different occupations and of diverse racial categories (White/Chinese/Latino/African Americans). By inviting these Americans to reflect upon their intercultural experiences in mainland China, we explored their interpretation of the term laowai.
Our research, as discussed in the Identities article, 'Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China', revealed that it was the ways that Chinese people employed laowai, instead of this label itself, that contributed to the discomfort of American expatriates.
First and foremost, our informants who were generally called laowai were those who did not look Chinese, so Chinese Americans and other Asian expatriates were not generally labelled in this way. Our interviewees who were called laowai felt this term conveyed a variety of negative ideas about Westerners.
For example, some said it assumed they were incapable of speaking Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture; as one interviewee put it, ‘You don’t understand it because you are laowai’. The term implied that Westerners are essentially different from the Chinese: ‘[They say]: “We Chinese people are physically not capable of drinking cold water; our DNA is different”’. Furthermore, interviewees told us Westerners were assumed to be morally corrupt and badly behaved, qualities one informant summed up thus: ‘[They think]: you must have five girlfriends, because laowai are very kaifang [sexually promiscuous]’.
From American expatriates’ perspective, these othering practices reflected Chinese users’ motivations, including constructing Chineseness as an identity based on bloodline descent, justifying their assumptions that the West and Westerners were essentially different from China and the Chinese, and attempting to maintain the superior and positive Chinese self by stigmatising Western others during intergroup encounters. Ultimately, these American expatriates experienced Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai as a way to separate them as permanent outsiders, a form of what some scholars have termed ‘Occidentalism’, involving non-Western individuals’ othering of the West in a reductive and misrepresentative way (Buruma & Margalit 2005).
Our research indicated that othering was deemed unacceptable by those subject to it, even when the specific term employed was seen as positive by users from the dominant group. We did not intend to make a value judgement on Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai, but hoped to arouse the attention of Chinese scholars, educators and institutions to the impact of othering of expatriates on the Chinese mainland, considering the increasing number of these migrants in this region.
Buruma, I. & A. Margalit. 2005. Occidentalism: the West in the eyes of its enemies. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative Term?’ (2007). People's Daily Online, December 21 2007. Available at http://en.people.cn/90001/90780/91345/6325229.html.
Mao, Y. 2015. Who is a laowai? Chinese interpretations of laowai as a referring expression for non-Chinese. International Journal of Communication 9: 2119–2140.
Blog post by Yang Liu, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China; and Charles C. Self, University of Oklahoma, USA
Read the full article: Yang, Liu & Self, Charles C. Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1589158