Koryo Saram

We only went to see one movie outside San Jose for this year’s Asian American Film Festival, and that was Koryo Saram.

When Joe and I travelled around the ‘Stan’s (that were formerly part of the Soviet Union), we were kind of surprised to see so many Koreans. How did they all get there? We met Sergey Lee on the bus from Bishkek to Tashkent. He took us to his mom’s flat where she fed us pelmeni/mandoo (dumplings), naan, kimchi and tomato salad. He himself had to hurry back to Nukus (in the hinterlands of Uzbekistan). ‘Why do you not look for a job in Tashkent?’ I asked, since he was obviously intelligent, and spoke English.
“My grandmother is in Nukus, and I have to look after her. She doesn’t want to leave Nukus, because that’s where my uncle (her son) and other family members are buried.”

I knew vaguely that Stalin had a pogrom in the 1930’s that shipped ethnic Koreans from far east Russia (i.e. near Vladivostok) into what are now Uzbekistan, Kazahkstan, etc., but the whole heart-wrenching story is eloquently told in the movie. The movie focuses on Kazahkstan, but I assume the turn of events was similar in Uzbekistan.

For the average person in California or the rest of the ‘known’ world’, you might think, “Why would I care or be interested in this?”

I wouldn’t be able to answer that; after all my own curiosity stems from having visited the ‘Stan’s and meeting Sergey. (The filmmaker, David Chung, was inspired to make the movie based on a similar curiousity when he went to visit Kazahkstan, but closer to home, since I think he’s Korean-American.)

In watching the movie, I was struck by the parallels of history repeating itself, not only across time, but in different places.

Stalin uprooting the Koreans with three day’s notice and sending them on a month-long train-ride west . . . Japanese on the West-Coast sent to internment camps. Arriving in the steppes with no provision of shelter, food, supplies, etc doomed many Koreans to death in the harsh, frigid winters . . . . like sending Jews to Auschwitz, but having nature do the work of the gas chambers.

Korean theatre troupes in Kazahkstan having their repetoire restricted to ‘revolutionary’ (another word for ‘politically-correct’) plays . . . in China during the Cultural Revolution one could only see plays like “White-haired Maiden” or propaganda works authorized by Jiang Qing. Prohibition of teaching Korean in Korean schools and burning Korean textbooks in Kazakhstan . . . well, I don’t think there’s any countries where this hasn’t happened.

Kimchee becoming part of the national cuisine of the ‘Stan’s . . . Sushi is part of the national cuisine of Brazil; chicken tikka has eclipsed fish and chips as Britain’s fast food.

Oddly enough, because the Korean that’s still spoken by the old-timers in Kazakhstan has died out in today’s North/South Korea, they are of interest to linguists and anthropologists. Similarly, if you want to learn about ‘traditional’ Toishan language and customs, you’re better off looking in the original Chinatowns of the west coast, rather than in Guangdong province.


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