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  • Between Foreign and Family: Return Migration and Identity Construction among Korean Americans and Korean Chinese by Helene K. Lee
  • Caren Freeman (bio)
Helene K. Lee. Between Foreign and Family: Return Migration and Identity Construction among Korean Americans and Korean Chinese. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018. viii, 180 pp. Paperback $26.95, ISBN 978-0-8135-8613-7.

Delving into the iconic clash between geography and genealogy that characterizes diaspora-homeland relations, Between Foreign and Family makes an original contribution to our understanding of the return migrant's predicament of ethnonational belonging. Due to the vicissitudes of history, colonialism, war, and geopolitics, large numbers of ethnic Koreans have decamped from the Korean peninsula over the past century and a half and settled in China and the United States. Though the two diasporic populations left the peninsula at different historic junctures and trace their ancestry to different halves of the divided nation-state, many Korean Chinese and Korean Americans now are finding their way "back" to South Korea as long-term residents. The two sets of returnees rarely, if ever, cross paths in South Korea, but Helene K. Lee brings them together in the pages of her book. Based primarily on interviews conducted with over thirty individuals from each group over the course of sixteen months in the mid-2000s, this concise sociological study compares and contrasts the sometimes intersecting, other times diverging, transnational logics that shape their expectations for inclusion and the counterlogics that inoculate them from the realities of exclusion.

While social scientific studies of ethnic minorities, return migrants, and the challenges they pose to nation-bounded concepts and institutions proliferate, Lee's study is unique in its comparison of two diasporic populations that "return" to a singular homeland. The juxtaposition allows Lee to highlight the ways in which categories of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and nation operate as shifting and cross-cutting palimpsests of transnational logics, negotiated in discursive fields that connect not just one, but multiple home countries to homeland. The return migrants in Lee's study strategically mold these logics in adaptive, compensatory, and contradictory ways, shaped by experiences in their countries of origin and reshaped in the context of South Korea. Ultimately, the hierarchy of nationality is shown to supersede the horizontal discourse of Koreanness, giving Korean Americans significantly more benefits than their Chinese counterparts, though the full package of emotional, economic, and legal belonging in South Korea remains out of reach for both.

The book opens with a vignette that helps the reader apprehend from the outset the degree to which Korean Chinese and Korean Americans are spatially and socially segregated in Seoul within what Lee calls "geo-ethnic bubbles." As a denizen of the Korean American bubble, Lee breaks loose of its confines to [End Page 390] interview, teach English to, attend rallies with, and on occasion socialize with the Korean Chinese labor migrants and graduate students she meets through one particular "Korean Chinese church," an institution about which few details are provided. Korean American participants, with whom she found easy camaraderie on the basis of shared identity, were contacted through two elite universities and two churches that hosted English language programs and services.

Owing to these sampling methods, there is considerable homogeneity within each set of migrants. The Korean Americans are predominantly twenty-something, upwardly mobile singles who possesses spotty Korean language skills, land high-paying professional jobs in Seoul that make good on their native English ability, and enjoy near-citizenship benefits based on their visa categorization as dongpo, a term which might be translated as "consanguineal compatriot." The Korean Chinese respondents, by contrast, are mostly semi- and unskilled laborers who support dependent family members in China with their remittances. They possess more Korean cultural capital than their American counterparts, the majority having come of age in the Chaoxianzu Autonomous Prefecture and maintained contact with relatives in North Korea. Perhaps the most crucial difference—a fact that Korean Americans are blissfully unaware of—stems from the absence of the label dongpo on their visa documents. As "foreign" visitors restricted from the benefits of long-time residence, most Korean Chinese respondents in Lee's sample overstay their short-term work...


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pp. 390-394
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