The Work of Waiting: Love and Money in Korean Chinese Transnational Migration: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “The Work of Waiting: Love and Money in Korean Chinese Transnational Migration,” which was published in the August 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on the perception and making of time and temporalities, including Jocelyn Lim Chua’s “Making Time for the Children: Self-Temporalization and the Cultivation of the Antisuicidal Subject in South India” (2011); Erik Harms’s “Eviction Time in the New Saigon: Temporalities of Displacement in the Rubble of Development” (2013); Danny Kaplan’s “The Songs of the Siren: Engineering National Time on Israeli Radio” (2009); Mike McGovern’s “Turning the Clock Back or Breaking with the Past?: Charismatic Temporality and Elite Politics in Côte d'Ivoire and the United States” (2012); and Anand Pandian’s “The Time of Anthropology: Notes from a Field of Contemporary Experience” (2012).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles examining the affective dimensions of precarity and labor, including Kathleen Millar’s “The Precarious Present: Wageless Labor and Disrupted Life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” (2014); Andrea Muehlebach’s “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy” (2011); and Nancy Ries’s “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” (2009). See also Kathleen Stewart’s “Precarity's Forms” (2012).

The November 2011 issue of Cultural Anthropology included three articles reflecting on love as a political concept: Michael Hardt’s “For Love or Money”; Lauren Berlant’s “A Properly Political Concept of Love: Three Approaches in Ten Pages”; and Lawrence Cohen’s “Love and the Little Line.”

About the Author

June Hee Kwon is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University in 2013. Her research and teaching focus on the anthropology of development, economic anthropology, kinship and ethnicity, affect and compassion, as well as food and science. Her areas of expertise span China, North and South Korea, and Japan, and include postcolonial and post–Cold War East Asian interconnections. Her book manuscript, Rhythms of Migration: Korean Chinese Workers in Transnational Commute, investigates the work of a particular rhythm that emerges from the complex relationship between mobility and immobility, affect and economy, home and work. Kwon’s next research project focuses on the role of agricultural science in forging new connections between North Korea and the rest of the world, amidst a sense of urgency around North Korea’s transition to a market economy.

Interview with June Hee Kwon

Julien Cossette: I have been recently thinking about “aha moments” and paradigm-shifting experiences that transform research projects in the field. How did you become interested in love and money, and especially the work and temporality of waiting, in Korean Chinese transnational migration? Can you think of fieldwork moments that caused you to shift your approach, your understanding of a situation, or your project altogether?

June Hee Kwon: When I began my research in 2004, most Korean Chinese—a majority group of immigrant workers in South Korea—were undocumented, confronting the risk of being deported under visa regulations. Although they were “migrant” workers, their visa status did not allow migration and instead had them stuck, immobile in Korea on several levels. Their work schedules were irregular; their incomes were unpredictable; the stress they had to endure seemed to cause a plethora of other health issues; they could not go to see doctors; and most of all, they did not know when they would be able to return home to China, or how many more years they should stay to work in Korea. Back then, many Chinese migrant workers said to me that they would stay and work until they were caught and deported. This context of desperation made me think a lot about the waiting and immobility inherent in this kind of migration.

Along with long, painful waiting and stuck time, the two major themes that arose and lingered throughout the narratives that I collected were love and money. The reason why my informants could or should stay and work in Korea as long-term undocumented migrant workers is that they needed money to support family members. It was a very basic condition of life. But, within the migrant lifestyle, the ways that money and love intersected were often quite complex. It was as if these complexities were asking for more analysis and explanation. Once I arrived in Yanbian in 2006, I found so many actively waiting people taking care of the money, house, and children left behind. The waiting and immobility that I observed in China was a very different kind of “stuckedness” from the waiting in Korea. Most of all, the Korean government granted broad amnesty to undocumented Korean Chinese workers in 2005 and 2006 in order to embrace Korean Chinese as a population of Korean diaspora who could provide cheaper labor than South Koreans. The post-amnesty situation opened a new area for me to research, exposing new rhythms of migration and waiting time. I wanted to examine how the varieties of waiting are related and how the waiting plays a role in perpetuating the circulation of people and money.

JC: Early in your article, you refer to a discussion that happened during a hiking club activity. Could you elaborate on the contribution of your participation in everyday activities, even those seemingly detached from your project, to your fieldwork?

JHK: One of the big challenges of fieldwork is to create “everyday life” as a total stranger coming from a different world. Everyday life is not always eventful or interesting; it is also dull, predictive, or even automatic. As a researcher and an anthropologist, I cannot be part of the local life in a natural way; for instance, I arrive in Yanbian for research and leave after a certain period of time even though I will return the following summer. Despite a concentrated, sincere effort, I was not able to get close to people in Yanbian for the first three months. Both Korean Chinese and Han Chinese in Yanbian kept me at a distance since there was no immediate benefit to allowing me access into their lives. Above all, they believed that speaking with me could put their freedom in danger—they worried that the government might censor or interrogate them as a result of sharing personal information with me. The scope of my research—whom I could meet with and where I could go—was quite limited under this situation. I relied on individual interviews and expanded the original scope through snowball sampling, but I felt that interviews did not give the full picture of everyday life.

I asked myself how I could deepen this surface-level relationship with interviewees through what Clifford Geertz wryly called “deep hanging out.” I wanted to figure out the missing pieces to the puzzle that my prepared interview questions might have missed. Hiking, volunteer English teaching, and online-offline community meetings were channels that got me into Yanbian everyday life. After participating in those activities, I realized that they were not detached from my project. Rather, those activities shaped a new set of ethnographic questions that expanded my spatial understanding of Yanbian.

JC: To continue on the theme of fieldwork, have you encountered any challenges in conducting research on a subject of such deep and personal significance to your participants? Have you ever been caught in ethical dilemmas between two spouses, and if so, what were some of the ways in which you dealt with the situation?

JHK: One of the difficulties I encountered was related to legal issues. As I mentioned earlier, there were many undocumented workers in Korea and others wanting to go from Yanbian to Korea by illegal means. I met those who got cheated by illegal brokers and lost large amounts of money. Their lives were difficult and miserable. They were desperate to arrive in Korea, and they asked me for help. But I did not have the legal expertise and could not help on my own. Despite my efforts to support those I met, I sometimes ended up in an uncomfortable situation without being able to provide a solution. The difficulty is not only dealing with cheating brokers, but also with the law that actually constrains mobility.

JC: By your own account, the focus of your article differs from other work on Korean Chinese transnational migration and remittances (and arguably, work on other ethnic and national groups). Would you argue that migration studies must shift or broaden its questions and approaches? What might be some themes, situations, and conditions that remain overlooked or deserve more attention?

JHK: My work has been influenced by current transnational labor migration and citizenship studies in the wake of globalization. It takes three different perspectives from previous migration studies. First, I would like to juxtapose two places—sending and receiving countries, home and work—by moving beyond the simple push-pull factors and demonstrating more complex relationships between the two, insofar as they are connected or disrupted through the flow of remittances and people. The relationships are confusing: where is home and where is work? Where is the sending or receiving country after all these years? Second, I would like to focus on the immobility embedded in mobility. Even though migrants are mobile, they have to endure the waiting, the stuck, immobile time, which is intrinsic to mobility. As two sides of the same coin, mobility and immobility are not only spatial terms, but also socio-ontological ones; migrants may be stuck as working-class laborers throughout their lives, even when they are no longer living as migrants. Third, I aim for an understanding of the articulation between affect and economy. Individual choice is not only driven by a will or rationality, but also by affect—such as love or suffering. The affective dimension has deeply influenced the economy of migration as I discuss in my article: “if there is no love, there is no money.” I think that these three directions in my work may contribute to understanding different dimensions of migration, going beyond migration as movements between different spaces to or complex questions of belonging.

JC: On page 478, you mention the significance of social groups that “formed part of a secure emotional safety net.” Could you expand on this idea of “safety net,” not only in terms of support, compassion, and coping, but also in terms of your reference to governmentality and subject-making?

JHK: Migration has definitely created social differentiation or diversification in terms of economic status and cultural practice. For example, what people can do and where they can go for travel or study may seem to be determined by how much money they and their families have made. Social groups provide an emotional safety net, a way to share the loneliness in Yanbian where everybody is gone, where people can be quite alone. At the same time, they have to face the economic and social differences dramatically reshaped by the influence of remittances—the so-called Korean Wind. For example, in the hiking club, members wear high-end hiking clothes that show off their cutting-edge style. They also talk about where they bought new houses, how they have decorated the houses, and so forth. These are not just symbols of comfort. In other words, the social group is not only an emotional safety net, but also a place to share new information to keep up a new style of life. The safety net plays a role in governing how to live a rapidly changing life in the midst of postsocialist China.

JC: Time, waiting, and anticipation are central questions of your article. I was intrigued by the ways in which it might be said to circulate between partners and shape their subjectivities. In this regard, could you further expand on temporalities in regards to their relation to affect?

JHK: Waiting requires a deferred temporality, anticipating something to happen, something that could happen or not. Waiting is driven not by a guaranteed future, but by a fragile future and a willingness (or obligation) to gamble. In that sense, waiting imposes an emotional burden as subjects deal with uncertainty and anxiety; what if the awaited event does not happen or s/he does not come as promised? Waiting for something or someone is intrinsically intersubjective—shared between two different parties, or between a human being and a thing or event. This intersubjectivity affects and is affected by the mutuality of different parties. In this sense, waiting is a concept of temporality that entails an affective dimension.

JC: You write that waiting binds spouses together, “conditioning their interpersonal subjectivity” (493). As such, the type of transnational migration you describe constitutes a dialogic project that revolves around couples’ collective hope for a brighter future. Yet, as you also point out, this “deferred temporality” (480) is the source of uncertainty and anxieties. Spouses’ relations to time and each other may become desynchronized, potentially resulting in the end of remittances, interrupted lines of communication, and divorce. Amidst precarity, vulnerability, and anxiety about betrayal, were there other ways and means beyond remittances through which spouses secured their marital relationship and the endurance of their bonds? In their communications, did they elaborate on future plans to look forward to?

JHK: Future plans tend to be imagined, inscribed, and practiced in material terms such as the number of apartments, the kind of car, the ability to educate their children, and the amount of cash saving. The material achievement is a key means of connecting two separate parties: “This is what we as a unit have achieved.” The affirmation of a well-planned strategy proves the long effort of transnational labor. After two decades of the Korean Wind, many Korean Chinese have already achieved those dreams in a material sense. Here, we might ask: what is like after their dream came true? I found that a common theme of “making home” emerges. After a long separation, Korean Chinese transnational workers try to imagine where the home should be and what they should be doing at home, sometimes with aging or unhealthy bodies. “Making home” seems to be another mutual project to fill the gap created by the long separation.

JC: After reading your article, I have the naïve, yet nonetheless irresistible temptation to ask you: how do you understand love? Has your perspective changed through your work?

JHK: While I conducted my research, I thought that the meaning of love was very much based on the concept of responsibility or familial duty—especially in relation to loving family members, partners, and children. In other words, the object of responsibility is the precarious family (and self) that will have to go through the social and economic turmoil of China. Responsibility can be built along cultural, emotional, social, and financial lines. Yet I found this responsibility to be mostly ethical, in that love requires affecting and being affected by the other party. Korean Chinese do not use the term of “love” on a regular basis. What’s more, love is a confusing term since it can rapidly change and attach itself to another partner in a form of having an affair in Yanbian. The relationship between parents and children may not be as intimate as those who have lived together for decades. But love or responsibility is always used as a good and legitimate reason for going to Korea and leaving the beloved family behind. Here, I have come to believe that love is a “life anchor” or life-force that brings the flow of money in and makes people eventually return. Love also allows the waiting time to be more meaningful; as those who wait endure a long, unpredictable, and anxious life, they can share this deferred futurity with their beloved one. I came up with the concept of love as “life anchor” by reflecting on the setting of migration, but I believe that this notion may be applicable to other settings of human life, too. Perhaps love is such a part of everyday life and responsibility that there is less of a need to express it in the familiar Western “I love you.”

Further Readings

Bloch, Ernest. 1995. The Principle of Hope, Volume 1. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gasparini, Giovanni. 1995. “On Waiting.” Time and Society 4, no. 1: 29–45.

Hage, Ghassan. 2009. “Waiting Out the Crisis: On Stuckedness and Governmentality.” In Waiting, edited by Ghassan Hage, 97–106. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press.

Jeffery, Craig. 2010. “Timepass: Youth, Class, and Time among Unemployed Young Men in India.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 3: 465–81.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 1996. “Immaterial Labor.” In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Paul Virno and Michael Hardt, 133–50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Newly built high-rise apartments in Yanji, the capital of Yanbian, 2014. Photo by June Hee Kwon.
Korean Chinese members of an archery club sharing their leisure time, 2011. Photo by June Hee Kwon.
A new house purchased and decorated by the money from Korea, 2011. Photo by June Hee Kwon.

Classroom Activities: Discussion Questions

What does the Korean Wind refer to? What have been the effects of this phenomenon on Yanbian and Korean Chinese people? How is it linked to China’s postsocialist economic reforms?

How do Korean immigration laws affect the mobility of Korean Chinese migrants and their relatives?

Kwon argues that “the work of waiting enables mobility and helps perpetuate the circulatory routes and returns of migration” (481). Explain the interconnections she traces between mobility, people, love, money, and waiting.

How does Kwon understand and conceptualize the work of waiting? In what ways does waiting constitute unwaged affective labor, and how does it contrast with wage labor?

Kwon writes that “remittances have their own agencies and act both as an end and as a means” (492). What does she mean? How are the implications of remittances negotiated between spouses?

In light of this article, why might it be important from anthropologists to attune to the experience and making of time, the intricacies and multiple facets of different temporalities?

In the interview above, Kwon identifies ethical responsibility as a crucial element of love. Discuss Kwon’s understanding of love (especially love as a “life anchor”) in relation to Michael Hardt’s, Lauren Berlant’s, and Lawrence Cohen’s discussions of love as political concept (see Editorial Footnotes above).

Classroom Activities: Exercise

Note: this is an exercise based on extrapolations made from the article, not real events.

Imagine that you are carrying out fieldwork on transnational migration. You are interviewing a Korean Chinese man living in Yanbian, whose wife you have interviewed a year ago. He is anxious about the possibility that she might be having an affair while working in Korea. He asks you for details about her life that she might not want you to share, even if they are not incriminating. How do you navigate this situation in an ethical way? Assume that both people are key participants in your research, and that you want to be careful about not offending either one of them.