Yanji, the third Korea

There are two Koreas, as people often say. But there is one more.

Lying right next to North Korea, the northeastern part of China is the unofficial third Korea, as the largest minority group there is the ethnic Koreans. They share the same language and tradition, somewhat the same culture but a definitely different mindset.

Travelling to this part of China was a bizarre experience. The signs were bilingual, written both in Chinese and Korean characters. People dressed as Chinese, but spoke mainly Korean then Mandarin. It is a mix of what I am familiar with and what I am not.

As a foodie, I was desperate to get some authentic Korean food here after numerous bowls of noodles in soup – a standard Chinese cheap eat. Yanji did not let me down. The largest city in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Yanji has a Korean-dominated population as well as a big market in the heart of the city selling all kinds of traditional Korean food, exactly what I was after.

Guided by an ethnic Korean woman, I was explained different foods while we strolled through the market. There were buckets of bright red kimchi, venders making fresh mochi and ginseng lying on the floor. It was early morning that day, around 6:30am, but the locals already filled the market to get groceries and breakfast.

We stopped in front of a restaurant. The Korean auntie smiled at me and said, “I’ll show you our traditional breakfast.” There were pictures of the dishes on the window, mostly some meat and vegetables soup with rice. And there came the Chinese character, “dog”.

Koreans eat dogs – sorry if it is an uncomfortable truth. My Korean auntie placed her order in Korean, then within a few minutes a bowl landed in front of me. “It’s dog meat soup.” She explained and encouraged me to take it. It was my first time eating dog meat, and I told myself it would be the last time. Although I felt guilty, I knew I wouldn’t be able to try this in the civilized and modern South Korea or the poverty-stricken North Korea. Poor dog sacrificed for nothing, because the soup didn’t leave me impressed.

After the market we came home. My Korean auntie lived with her mother who was in her 90s. She mostly stayed home and watched South Korean TV shows. When I entered their home, she was delighted to see a petite girl who came all the way from Hong Kong and gave me a warm hug.

As we chatted, I realised that the granny’s account perhaps gave the best picture of the fate of the ethnic Koreans in the 20th century. She was born and raised in North Korea, at a time when the border between China and North Korea was open and people could move freely. She later settled in Manchuria, China and even joined the People’s Liberation Army, an experience which made her think she was an ethnic Korean in China, rather than a North Korean. One of her relatives in Yanji, a promising professor at Yanji University, was lurked by the better development and economy in North Korea in the 1950s, and decided there would be his new home. He never came back. Or rather say, he just could not.

When asked if she thought of herself as Chinese or Korean, my Korean auntie said without hesitation, “Chinese, of course. I was born and raised here. When it’s Olympic Games, I root for China.” She had some relatives in North Korea whom she used to visit from time to time in the early days, but now contact has ended.

“I remember going there to see my relatives. We brought them rice, food, clothes, anything we could. When we came in, there was nothing in the house. Poor them.” This matches what we believe to be how it is like in North Korea, other than its elites-studded Pyongyang. “Once we entered the country, we would be followed by the local authority. We gave candies to the children on our way. One boy had crooked legs, I guess due to malnutrition.”

She must have been grateful that her mother chose to stay in China back then, even though it was a poorer country. Today she lives in a spacious and warm apartment, and her son studied in Copenhagen and Seoul.

The ethnic Koreans I encountered in this part of China somehow all had ties with North Korea. Either they have relatives there whom they never see again, or they do trading with the country. My Korean auntie would bring some extra clothing to sell there, and was shocked one time when a soldier came to her to buy some socks – he was just using some fabric scraps to wrap his feet. Another ethnic Korean farmer I met in Hunchun also ran a trading business, which got him quite a comfortable life in China. “The North Koreans bought everything! Really, anything I brought there”, he said.

I travelled to North Korea and later the South, to try to understand better the Korean culture and hope to complete my ultimate Korean experience. North Korea is a new country now, with its history rewritten by the Kim regime, which built monuments here and there throughout the country to consolidate its communist ideology and its legitimacy. South Korea belongs to the developed world, with an Anglophile attitude that makes the country somewhat westernized, at least it was the impression the country left me when I saw so much fried chicken and everything in cheese sauce. To find authentic Korean culture, I keep wondering, maybe this is the place to be. At least when the North is busy rewriting their history and the South trying to wipe out their northern neighbour’s presence in theirs, I came to learn the most about the Koreans in the northeast of China, my third Korea.