“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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