Migrant Workers, Kosians, and the People of Wongok-dong: The Making Of A “Borderless” Story
Text and photos by Bak Chaeran, Drawings by Han Sungwon
First publication: 11/20/2004; 208 pages; 8,500 KRW
ISBN 89-7483-231-3 03810
Road to the Borderless Village
Kyunggi-do, Ansan-si, Wongok-bondong, “Borderless Village”. Located behind the Wongok Bondong Office across from Ansan Station, the “Borderless Village” is not that different from any other residential street in a small town. But what is a little different are the foreign children one sees everywhere and the foreign signs hanging on the storefronts for the nearly 20,000 foreigners who live here.
Located right in the middle of this village is the Ansan Foreign Workers Center, where mi-grant workers often come to seek help. Here, Kosian children, volunteers, workers injured in indus-trial accidents, and unemployed Koreans are living in and creating an alternative, borderless village.
“Borderless Village” is both their story and our story. Like us, they are sometimes discouraged by life’s difficulties, and sometimes they succeed at finding new hope... but they are known by a different name: “foreign workers”. We use this term to describe migrant workers from countries that are economically weaker than ours, other than countries like Korea or Japan. The Borderless Village is one of the places where they have formed a community.
First story: Dian, the six-year-old daughter of a Korean mother and an Indonesian father, always wonders: “Why do my father and uncles speak Indonesian, but I only speak Korean? Why do other people get to eat pork, but I can’t?”
Second story: I teach at a private institute. I believe it is my calling to teach children. One day, I saw a television show about a Bangladeshi boy who was only allowed to attend school as an auditing student. On top of that, he was even ostracized by the other kids. The next day, I came to the Ansan Foreign Worker’s Center.
Third story: My name is Nurikki, and I am a carpenter from Uzbekistan. My closest friend, Chori, works in a factory operating a press. He injured his hand in the press.
Fourth story: Jaeho used to farm in the country before coming up to Seoul and drifting from one city to the next. For seven years he has been living with foreign workers as the shelter caretaker for the Ansan Foreign Worker’s Center. Having lived the life of an urban migrant, he al-ways treats the shelter’s foreign migrants like family.
Fifth story: I started high school at a late age. I first came to Korea with my mother. I was the first foreign migrant in Ansan to graduate from middle school, and now I am the first foreign high school student in Ansan.
Sixth story: We are Korean-Chinese. We came to Korea to work because we speak the language. But we were not even here for a full year before both my husband and I were in accidents at the construction site.
Seventh story: Jackie is a young man who dreams of becoming a movie director someday. He is so full of passion, he even took a plane to Jeju-do to cheer during the 2002 World Cup games. As a Muslim, he sometimes visits a mosque. He always says, “God has already given me everything. I am so thankful for that.”
People of the Borderless Village
Through television and newspapers, we have become familiar with cases of discrimination against foreign workers, and we are beginning to hear stories of discrimination against their children.
Kim Juyeon, one of the voices in this book, says she decided to become a teacher for the children of migrant workers after feeling outraged by the story of an ostracized Bangladeshi child who was just barely allowed to attend school as an auditing student. “For the children of foreign workers, not being able to attend school or walk around freely and being confined to their homes all day to avoid the police is an everyday occurrence. On top of that, they’re discriminated against by Korean children.”
That was the moment she witnessed the painful truth that Korean children naturally adopt the discriminatory attitudes of adults. That said, migrant workers should not simply be looked at vaguely as “kind, vulnerable people who need help”.
“Borderless Village”. Jaeho, an older gentleman who also appears in this book, says, “They are people just like us. There are those who obey the rules, and those who would rather die than listen. And there are those who show up and help out without even being asked... If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working here for seven years, it’s that good people are good and bad people are bad, regardless of whether they’re Korean or foreign!”
Migrant workers and their children are our neighbors. For this reason, we must change the discriminatory attitudes we carry within us. We can begin by taking a step closer to them and greeting them with a simple hello. By doing so, like the author, we will be able to learn each of their nationalities, remember each of their names, and hear each of their stories. Then we will find our-selves with neighbors with unique cultures of their own. The hope is that this book will serve as an-other road to their village, the “Borderless Village”.
Coming out of the Borderless Village
Over fifteen years have passed since migrant workers first came to Korea. But how much do we really know about them? Are we accepting them as our neighbors? Of course, the main reason they came to Korea was to earn money through short-term employment. And though not fully prepared to accept them, Korea brought in migrant workers as “cheap labor” merely to strengthen industrial competitiveness. However, before they were “cheap labor”, they were people who came to Korea to make a living in this world with us. Now, they live in groups in specific areas, and they are forming communities.
When the book was published, the author noted, “This is not a story about human rights. Nor is this about discussing a system for human rights policy. I just wanted to tell a story about people who are no different from us--people who are nice, lazy people who like to take it easy, peo-ple who are genuine, people who are coarse, people with lots of dreams--in other words, people who are only different in nationality. I hope that those we call migrant workers will instead be called by each of their names, and that they will be accepted as our neighbors who live with us and stand by us.”
Perhaps within the author’s words a solution that is at once easy and difficult can be found to today’s migrant worker issue.
From “Six-year-old Dian and her Father”
When my father and uncles were talking, I kept interrupting to talk to my father. I did this because they were speaking Indonesian, and I can’t understand a single word of it.
“Daddy, why do you all speak Indonesian instead of Korean?”
“Because your uncles and I are Indonesian.”
“Then what am I?
“You’re Indonesian, too, of course.”
“But why don’t I speak Indonesian?”
“Because you live in Korea.”
“Ah, that’s right.”
I think I understand, but then again, I really don’t.
It’s true that I am Indonesian. My father is Indonesian, and I don’t eat pork. Therefore, I am Indonesian. But I don’t speak Indonesian. I speak Korean. He says that if we go to Indonesia, I will have to speak Indonesian. But, can’t I just speak Korean?
From “Kim Juyeon’s Kosian House”
With a wondering look, he picks it up then sits back down again.
It is his midterm exam. Not all of the subjects are included. Korean language, social studies and other subjects that require strong Korean skills are left out. The very first page of the test is math.
78 points. For ordinary Korean students who attend several private institutes even after school lets out, a 78 might not be a very good score. However, for Jinsu, who is still unfamiliar with school and the Korean language, a 78 is enough for him to feel proud. When other children his age were attending school, Jinsu had to stay at home. But this year, he was just allowed to join the third grade to study with children younger than him. Seeing the test paper he turned in was very moving for me.
From “Jaeho: Shelter Caretaker for the Ansan Migrant Worker’s Center for Seven Years”
Even when we can’t communicate, it is still our nature to want to help those who show us good will. Jaeho doesn’t speak English or Chinese, and not all of the people who come here speak Korean. However, they have almost no communication problems. This is because they communicate by saying “okay” and using a mixture of Korean and body language.
If he wants to know if someone is hungry, he mimics eating and asks, “Okay?” If his arm hurts, all he has to do is knead it and say “ouch” with a pained expression. Even when they answer in their own language, Jaeho understands almost all of what they are saying.
“What do people need? Something to eat, a place to sleep, something to wear? For that, hand gestures and even foot gestures are enough to communicate. Even when they’re speaking their own languages, you can tell right away whether they’re cursing or praising you.”
With a half-pleased and half-worried expression, Taejo watches a Moroccan man hammer some nails. As the wind blows stronger, the tapping sound of the hammer spreads through the air.
Writing and photography: Bak Chaeran
Bak Chaeran was born in Seoul and studied Korean Literature at Soongsil University. She has worked as a guest reporter for “Walking Together”, published by the Research Institute of the Differently Abled Persons’ Rights in Korea (RIDRIK). As she enjoys reading books, writing, and meeting new people, she is currently working as a freelance writer specializing in interviews. “Borderless Village” is her first book.
Pictures: Han Seong-weon
Han Seong-weon studied painting in college and currently works as an illustrator in vari-ous mediums. He is currently producing illustrations for “Chagun Chaek”, a publication for work-ing people.