“Go Back to Your Country!”: Migrant Women Challenging Migrant Containment in South Korea

By Hae Yeon Choo 

She seemed to come out of nowhere, and walked fast towards us. It was two weeks ago, and we—three Asian and Asian-Canadian women faculty members—had just come out of a meeting. As we were continuing our discussion on the sidewalk on campus, the stranger, a middle-aged white woman, shouted at us: “Do you not speak English?!” She then walked away, mumbling something about “thieves” and “stealing.” An encounter like this happens regularly enough that I have come to expect it. As a sociologist, it is not surprising. However multicultural my city may be—and I do claim Toronto as my city—I live in a place with a long history of treating Asian immigrants as “forever foreigners.” And certainly this is not just a story of the past. Consider the surge of recent impassioned responses from the Asian American community with the hashtag #thisis2016, after the publication of an open letter by Michael Luo (a New York Times editor) to a woman who yelled “Go back to China” to his family.

That night, I was thinking of Joohyun, a Vietnamese migrant woman who immigrated to South Korea with a spousal visa and changed her name to a Korean-sounding one. One evening, Joohyun recalled, when she was buying vegetables at the open market, a man wearing a beige jacket suddenly grabbed her arms from behind. Startled, she thought she was being robbed or, worse, kidnapped. She cried out for help, but the people in the market just walked by. It turned out that he was an undercover immigration officer, and her “foreign” look made her a target. Although she was freed after the document check, that day left a scar of fear in her. Since then, whenever she could, Joohyun avoided public places unless she was with her husband.

Joohyun was one of many migrants I met during my field research for my book, Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Koreachoo_book-coverIt’s an ethnography of three groups of migrant women in South Korea and their struggles for rights and citizenship: marriage migrants, factory workers, and hostesses in American camptown clubs. Being reminded of denied belonging was a routine challenge in their lives. From a South Korean husband shouting “Go back to your country!” during a heated argument, to a stranger on the bus calling the immigration office to report the sighting of an “illegal,” the list goes on and on.

At the heart of the antagonism lies a global system of temporary labor migration – a legal and institutionalized mechanism of using the bodies and labor of people without offering them full membership. Most migrant women I met in South Korea were deeply embedded in this global system, and had been for a while. Many were “guest-workers” long before they travelled to South Korea, including as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, factory workers in Taiwan, and hostesses in Japan. Although their labor is a desired commodity all across the globe, their presence is allowed only on a short-term basis, contingent on their employment, without the possibility of settlement. Their presence is rendered “illegal” after the contract expires. In contemporary times, such a form of temporary labor migration is expanding on a global scale. It supersedes even the scale of those immigrating with secure legal status, even in many immigrant nations such as Canada and the US.

Under this system, migrants are not excluded wholesale, but instead face a condition of containment, a mode of governing through fear. This confines migrants within certain physical and social boundaries. If the immigration office wanted to deport the vast majority of undocumented migrants, it would certainly be possible, given that it was an open secret that undocumented migrants are concentrated in migrant segregated neighborhoods. Raids frequently targeted the borders of these neighborhoods and those who phenotypically do not look like ethnic Koreans. This includes naturalized citizens like Joohyun, as well as those with darker skin tones from South Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Tellingly, the raids also selectively targeted migrants who transgress socially, such as those who are seen to be questioning their role as “just a worker,” like those who took leadership roles in the Migrant Trade Union. Although the official purpose of the immigration raids was to deport people without legal residency status, its practice on the ground exposes a second dimension: to contain migrants—undocumented or otherwise—in segregated spaces out of public sight, and put them under surveillance and control.

Decentering Citizenship thus follows the struggles of migrants and South Korean advocates as a site of remaking citizenship. From a migrant rights march chanting “Don’t Call Us Illegals,” to direct confrontation with employers about wage theft, migrant groups and advocates contested the conditions of containment. In doing so, migrants deployed claims in markedly gendered ways. For instance, migrant factory workers were able to exercise greater labor and social rights based on claims around the dignity of workers, whereas migrant hostesses working in a feminized labor sector were excluded. In parallel, marriage migrant women utilized their moral status as mothers to demand full membership. Through such political processes of inclusion and exclusion, the border of citizenship is remade. Although the global system of temporary labor migration is unlikely to wither away anytime soon, this is where citizenship’s persisting allure lies: not in the concrete promise of full inclusion, but in its very dynamic and contested nature – namely, the possibilities it opens for transformation.

Hae Yeon Choo is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is the author of Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea (2016, Stanford University Press). She is also on the editorial board for Gender & Society. 

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Straight girls kissing? Not on stage or on the dance floor, but off campus and at home

By Jamie Budnick

There are a lot of words used to describe women who hook up with other women. Even if they do not identify as lesbian or bisexual, the media might label them “straight girls kissing” and social scientists might study their “sexual fluidity.” A generation ago, they might have been called a LUG – that is, “lesbian until graduation.” What do all of these labels have in common? They usually refer to a narrow group of women: white, middle-class, and living on the progressive campuses of selective universities.


Image: Berkeley college campus

The New York Times acknowledged this stereotype of college as “a hive of same-sex experimentation” when it reported a puzzling research finding: in a national survey, women with the lowest levels of educational attainment reported the highest lifetime prevalence of same-gender sex. How could that be? If non-college attending women (or women working on associate’s or vocational degrees) also have a high prevalence of same-gender sexual behavior, then we need new research to understand their lives and sexual identities. Continue reading

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Where do “women of color” fit in movements?

By Zakiya Luna


Artist: Valentin Brown

When you hear the phrase “women of color,” who do you imagine? In my research on a women-of-color reproductive justice coalition I noticed the many ways speakers at events I attended used the phrase “women of color,” assuming that the audience understood what they meant.

There is a small, but robust literature of the ways that racial minority women have engaged with white-dominated feminist movements and male-dominated nationalist movements (Falcon 2016, Roth 2004, Thompson 2002). Thus, I was surprised to find little empirical analysis on the promises and perils of women of color coming together across their differences. At the individual, organizational and movement level, identities, such as “woman of color,” are being negotiated. My research finds this is the case even within spaces specifically designated by and for “women of color” who are seeking a space that provides refuge from other movements.  This is important because these organizations negotiate providing a space for their members to feel comfortable, while also making practical tactical decision that may not fit neatly with longer-term goals of inclusivity. To sum up my findings, becoming “women of color” is a continual process, not a fixed accomplishment that sometime emphasizes commonalities and other times emphasizes difference.

Future research could consider other places seemingly emphasizing intersectionality and how debates about “women of color” inform these processes whether in social movements or the elsewhere. For example, as difficult as social movement actors find integrating intersectional analysis and challenge to power dynamics into their work, attempts to do so in the formal political process are fraught due to pressure to conceptualize minority groups in binary terms  and advocate for relatively advantaged groups. Future research may examine possibilities for mobilization of women of color in formal politics. Other research may consider strategies found in other sites that emphasize “women of color” such as retention programs at educational institutions, social organizations, and even federal health agencies. Continue reading

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“If You’re A Good Guy, You Can’t Possibly Be A Rapist”

By C. Brian Smith


Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

The University of Oregon dominated Florida State in the 2015 Rose Bowl. The Ducks’ converted four consecutive turnovers into 27 unanswered points, leading to a 59–20 rout. Afterward, several Oregon players were filmed singing “No means no!” to the tune of the FSU “War Chant.” An act that was presumably directed at star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who’d recently been accused of raping a female student. Antirape activists heralded the mocking jibe as a victory: Finally, here was a group of normatively masculine men shaming other normatively masculine men for sexually assaulting women.

But two University of Oregon sociology professors, C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander, saw it differently. What if the point of the chant wasn’t to make a statement about sexual assault, but rather to position their opponent as a failed man, thereby humiliating him both on and off the field? This question introduces a paper they published in October 2015 entitled “Good Guys Don’t Rape,” which documents how young men distance themselves from identities as rapists while simultaneously exhibiting dominance over women and other men with behavior that “mobilizes rape.”

It’s yet another form of “toxic masculinity,” they argue, which refers to attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive. Some refer to this as “classic masculinity” — a rite of passage of sorts. Others, like The Donald, chalk it up to “locker room talk.” Whatever you call it, Pascoe notes that many men who exemplify toxic masculinity actively seek to avoid the label. She points to Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman in January 2015 as a perfect example. Continue reading

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Angry White Men and Domestic Violence

By Kristin Anderson

Domestic violence happens to all social groups, but it is more likely to occur among those who have to worry about paying the rent or keeping kids safe from neighborhood violence. Data from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), the most recent large national survey of domestic violence victimization among U.S. adults, show that women who live in households with incomes under $25,000 experience annual victimization at over three times the rate of women in households with incomes of $75,000 or more (here).  Study after study finds that heterosexual women with less access to education and income suffer the highest rates of abuse.

Does this pattern also occur among men?  Are the least educated and poorest men at greatest risk for victimization?  My research with Mick Cunningham shows that the story is more complicated among straight men.  Our analysis of NISVS data finds that both women and men report the highest rate of physical abuse by a partner when they have less than a high school education (11 years, see Figure 1 below).  For women, the risk of abuse falls as their level of education increases.  Among men, the decline is much less steep.  Additionally, the gender gap widens as educational attainment increases: men with college degrees report almost twice the rate of victimization as women with college degrees.  We find the same pattern when we look at earnings: women are less likely to be victims as they earn more income, but men with higher incomes report being abused at similar or even higher levels than men who earn less. Continue reading

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“How You Bully a Girl”

By Sarah A. Miller


Photo: Twentyfour Students

Helen was fourteen when she lost her virginity. Afterwards, she texted a girl friend about the mixed feelings she had about the experience. By the time her suburban high school started the next morning, her friend had already spread a rumor that Helen was a “slut,” forwarding screenshots of their conversation to the freshman class via Facebook. For the next few years, Helen endured a “slutty” reputation, which isolated her from girls, subjected her to harassment from boys, and contributed to her disengagement from school activities. Toni had a different, yet related experience. Long before she came out as a lesbian, Toni had multiple rumors spread by girls about her sexual orientation. By junior year, fed up with girls’ homophobic gossip and harassment, Toni opted to leave her rural high school and pursue a GED instead. Gaby tells me she also was the subject of a sexual rumor, spread by a girl at her urban high school: “That’s how you bully a girl, that’s how you just get her. You get her by spreading a rumor about her…trying to stop bullying is like trying to catch smoke with your bare hands.”

In recent years, we’ve seen far too many tragic reports of girls who have taken their lives in the wake of similar experiences. Yet, we don’t see much coverage of why slut-shaming, homophobic labeling, and sexual rumors spread in the first place, or why young women so frequently take part. Though rumor spreading is the most common form of bullying between girls, scholars empirically know little about the content of girls’ rumors or why they’re invested in sharing them. Continue reading

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How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?

By CJ Pascoe

It seems that toxic masculinity – men’s problematic gender practices entailing violence, sexual aggression, emotional repression and dominance – is everywhere. I recently keynoted a conference at Oregon State University entitled “Moving Upstream: Examining the Sources of Toxic Masculinity to Create Healthier Communities.” Thanks to the internet we know that Wolverine is an example of it. The GOP is full of it. Both (former) Bernie and (current) Trump supporters embody it in their contempt for women. People are debating examples of it on the internet. Books are being written about it.

Men are blogging about freeing themselves from toxic masculinity and its deadly effects. They are simultaneously drowning in it and deeply invested in distancing themselves from it. Even men who arguably exemplify toxic masculinity seek to avoid the label.  Take for example Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman. Even though two eyewitnesses watched him sexually assault the woman, he insists “in no way was I trying to rape anyone.

This is “good guy” syndrome. Good guys aren’t sexist, they aren’t racist, and they think gays are okay and they definitely do not condone sexual assault. Brock Turner’s “good guy” syndrome is not unique. An article I wrote with Jocelyn Hollander, “Good Guys Don’t Rape,” documents how young men distance themselves from identities as rapists even as they describe behaviors that look an awful lot like sexual assault—and, indeed, certainly meets the legal definition. Take Chad, a popular high school football player:

When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the 8th grade…The majority of the girls in 8th and 9th grade were just stupid. We already knew what we were doing. They didn’t know what they were doing you know?… Like say, comin’ over to our house like past 12. What else do you do past 12? Say we had a bottle of alcohol or something. I’m not saying we forced it upon them.  I’m sayin’… Continue reading


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Credit for Poor Women: Debt or Empowerment?

By Smitha Radhakrishnan

You have heard the story. A poor woman in a rural village is trying to support her four kids with the meager income that her drunkard husband deigns to give her. She is then offered a group loan, without collateral, for a small amount of money that allows her to buy a cow. She tends to the cow and sells the milk, and eventually, starts to earn a bit more money. She pays back her loan and then takes another. Before long, she owns a herd of cows, her children are educated, and her husband has given up drinking to become her business partner. This is the motivating story of the $115 billion global microfinance industry, popularized for years by everyone from the Nike Foundation to the Harvard Business Review.

Now, this story may well have been possible in some places in the world at some point in recent history. But today, microfinance has become a profitable industry that provides financial products to the poor that are too expensive for the rich. At interest rates typically ranging from 22%-90% per year, profitable microfinance companies around the world now consider themselves providers of “financial inclusion,” and not women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation, or even enterprise development. This “mission shift” comes as a result of significant criticism from academics, social activists, and even microfinance practitioners around the world, and a significant crisis in India. Critics have noted that microfinance can push vulnerable families into debt spirals, that microfinance has been associated with suicides due to overly aggressive collection practices, and that for-profit microfinance especially caters to the better off working classes rather than the poorest. In contrast, however, recent research in West Bengal, India supports the idea that some forms of microfinance may provide women with the potential for collective social action.


Borrowers engage in entrepreneurial training activity, Coimbatore.

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Why women do their hair and makeup: Attractiveness and income

By Jaclyn Wong

Cross-posted with permission from Work in Progress here.

Is it possible to capitalize on your good looks?  The answer might depend on your gender, and whether you are “naturally” beautiful, or invest resources on your self-presentation.

Beauty is a valued trait in American society, and previous research suggests that physically attractive individuals are advantaged across many areas of social life.  For example, attractive students are considered more intelligent by their teachers, and are more popular among their classmates. Attractive women are more likely to marry husbands with higher socioeconomic status.  Even justice is not blind, as attractive criminal defendants receive less severe punishments than their unattractive counterparts.

Given these patterns, it is no surprise that attractive people also do better in the workplace.  Attractive job candidates are favored over unattractive applicants.  They are also more likely to receive better performance evaluations. As a result, attractive workers have higher earnings than average and unattractive workers.

But, is beauty an asset in the workplace for both men and women?  Beauty is a uniquely important part of the feminine gender role, but attractiveness may be less important for the traditional male role.  Thus, we might expect that attractive women are especially advantaged at work. Continue reading


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“Stalker”, Insider and Outsider

By CHEN lin

I have conducted fieldwork in Beijing three different times; most recently this year from February to May. I acted as a volunteer on a construction site, playing movies and singing songs for workers. My research focuses on intimacy and family relationships of migrant women workers. I share three stories resulting from my experience as a woman student researcher on the construction site.beijing

“Are you a journalist?”

When I visited the kitchen of the construction site for a third time, a woman chef took a look at me and returned to her cooking, seemingly indifferent. Then a group of workers came into the kitchen, with bowls in their hands, and asked who I was. After all, the way I dressed was completely different from them, not like a worker on a construction site. The migrant woman worker said “Look at the girl, carrying a red bag the whole day, coming around here so often! She is going to play a movie here later!” And suddenly, she turned to me again. With a dubious smile, she asked “Are you a journalist? What on earth do you want to know from us?”

That was the most recurring setback I encountered in the fieldwork —— lack of trust from the subjects. My research focuses on workers’ personal narratives of intimacy and family. It is hard for them to tell me about their private life, which I think is not easy for many, and many would be altogether unwilling. I believe that the first step is to build rapport with the workers. I became very thick-skinned as I would visit their dorms so frequently. Consequently, I spent the first two months fostering a relationship and persistently, trying to find out all that happened on the site. I literally became a “stalker” during that period. Continue reading

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