Creating Chineseness, Becoming Korean: The Importance of Symbolic Empowerment for an Inclusive Society

Se Hyun Kim, McGill University

This paper explores how the characteristics of the existing symbolic boundaries affect the marginalized groups’ ability to challenge their marginalization through the experiences of Chaoxianzu (???, Joseonjok). Chaoxianzus are ethnic-Korean Chinese who are marginalized in the Republic of Korea (ROK), as “criminal” immigrants, and in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as ethnic minorities, despite their cultural dexterity and indistinguishable phenotype. However, while they acquiesce to the stigmatized identity in the ROK, they publicly challenge their marginalization in the PRC. What factors constrain Chaoxianzus to acquiesce to their marginalization in a politically open society but enable them to challenge their marginalization under an authoritarian system? Through machine learning text analysis (Latent Dirichlet Allocation topic modeling and sentiment analysis on major newspapers from the ROK and the PRC) and semi-structured interviews, I argue that the Chaoxianzus’ sense of belonging constructed through their appropriation of a broader understanding of Chineseness enable Chaoxianzus to challenge the symbolic boundaries of “China” and to reinterpret “Chineseness” in a more inclusive term that is in line with their self-understanding. In short, Chaoxianzus’ symbolic power to participate in the boundary-making of “Chinese” enables them to challenge the symbolic boundary of Chineseness. This paper moves beyond the assimilation literature which focuses on cultural fit – the knowledge of and the ability to perform cultural practices of the host society. Cultural fit does not liberate the marginalized from the need to seek approval through constant behavioral conformity. This paper explicates the crucial role of symbolic empowerment in the marginalized groups’ ability to challenge oppression by expanding the boundaries of “us” and “them.”

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 Presented in Session 171. Racism Across Asian and Asian American Communities