Field Notes: Yanbian
Korean Autonomous

A cosmopolitan multi-ethnic melting pot in northeast China

In Yanji, prefectural seat of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region in northeast China, the airport greets flyers in both Chinese and Korean. And Japanese, and Russian, and English, and Manchu.

Yanbian, sometimes called the ‘Third Korea’– as if there were a ranking – could easily claim the title of the ‘First Korea’. Half of Mt. Paekdu, the sacred mountain associated with the foundation myth of the Korean people, is in Yanbian. The other half of the mountain is in North Korea. As a Korean-Chinese (ethnic Koreans with citizenship of China) acquaintance likes to remind people from time to time: ‘Mt. Paekdu is not in South Korea, it is our land’ – an oblique reference to a 2007 protest by South Korean athletes the Asian Games against China’s territorial claims to the region. The athletes lifted up signs reading ‘Mt. Paekdu is our land’. The Asian Games in 2007 may seems like old news, but history is alive in Yanbian.

Despite its location in a seemingly remote corner of northeast China (or alternatively, an obscure extension of Korean culture outside of the peninsula), Yanbian is arguably the most cosmopolitan region in the Korean world. With none of the de jure segregation of Pyongyang nor the less obvious de facto segregation common in Seoul, Yanbian seems worldly in comparison, despite being a collection of eight small cities in a largely rural landscape.

A large percentage of Yanbian’s population have live or worked abroad compared to other parts of China. Many from the region have worked in South Korea. (The poor performance of Seoul in welcoming Korean-Chinese and others of Korean heritage is probably the strike that makes Yanji the true metropolis. Shenyang’s Xita District, where one finds Korean-Chinese, North Koreans, and South Koreans living and working in close proximity- probably comes in a close second). Some Yanbian resident, Korean and Chinese, have connections and business in North Korea, others have gone farther afield often working in services jobs around the world. Yanji has an extremely high density of Western Unions, receiving funds family and friends overseas. The city's place at the intersection of different countries and cultures has led some to called it 'Little Hong Kong'.

This trip my local driver, a Chinese-Muslim, had worked for four years at Pizza Hut in Southampton, England (‘where the Titanic left from’) and had learned English making pizzas; I’ve met another fluent in Spanish and one or two who can beat-box. See the short documentary below for some example of Yanbian Beat-Box.

Surprising, yes? Welcome to Yanbian, a true melting pot of locals and foreigners. One never knows whom you will run into here. In our next posts from Yanbian, we'll take a look at the region's history and how it became populated by such a diverse patchwork of peoples and cultures.

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