Category Archives: migration

What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.

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Filed under Cambodia, China, economics, education, food, language, migration, nationalism, philosophy, Vietnam

Dreaming of Salina in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 766-804:

Television stations in Japan, Britain, Italy, Germany, and the United States broadcast the film of Berin at the brewery [mortar attack]—without the more gruesome scenes—and footage from the funeral. A retired couple in Salina, Kansas, were watching and arranged to evacuate the boy so he could live with them. It all happened so quickly Berin barely had time to say good-bye. Victor Jackovich, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia at the time, accompanied Berin on a UN flight. An ABC crew filmed the hurried good-bye in the courtyard on Logavina Street. Berin wrote Delila a letter the day he was airlifted out of Sarajevo. “I have just taken a hot shower. I ate five bananas. I watched television,” Berin said in the letter written from the Frankfurt airport while he was en route to the United States.

Delila talked about Kansas incessantly. Her English grammar book and dictionary were always on the kitchen table. She would curl up on a rug-covered divan in the kitchen studying as her grandmother read the Koran. She kept an atlas open on the kitchen table with a circle drawn around Salina, Kansas.

When I first met Delila in January 1994, the kitchen was the only room in the house warm enough to sit in. It was an old house to begin with—slanty floors with bright Oriental rugs, hand-printed wallpaper curling at the edges. Plastic sheeting was taped over the broken panes of a window. A tiny aluminum stove was jerry-rigged on a stack of bricks. Berin’s cat curled up to it for warmth. Delila wore a baggy maroon sweater over three layers of T-shirts. Everything hung loosely on her tall, underweight frame.

“Physically, I am in Sarajevo, but in my mind, I am in America,” Delila said. “Everything that comes from America, I am interested in. I saw a television program about Bill Clinton that was great.”

The retired couple in Kansas did not realize initially that Berin had a sister still alive. After Berin’s arrival, they tried to bring Delila out as well. “They know how close we are. My brother is very attached to me. He used to take my cigarettes, hide them, and say, ‘I’ll give you one back when you give me a kiss,’” she said.

Delila’s recklessness completely vanished with the promise of emigrating to the United States. Suddenly, she was always frightened. She worried she would die before she could leave Sarajevo. She was afraid to take flowers to her parents’ graves across the street. She would only go on days when fog obscured the cemetery from sniper fire. The brewery shelling had left Delila with four pieces of shrapnel in her body, and she worried that if she slipped and fell on the ice, the shrapnel would shift and hurt her.

Outside the Lačevićs’ front gate, small children from the apartment next door used to sit on the stoop and play with dolls. Delila would yell at them to go back inside. “The kids hate me, but I don’t care what the neighbors say. I chase them away, and tell them, ‘Look, you can see Trebević like it is the palm of your hand.’”

Delila no longer disregarded the mortar shells that came crashing down from the mountain. When the shelling started, she said she could feel her shrapnel itching and she would run, not walk, to the bomb shelter, usually carrying the cat.

“I can run fast, when I’m scared. I’ll tell you, Carl Lewis is nothing compared to me,” she said. “When I get to America, I’m going to start running professionally.”

Delila planned out her future. She wanted to eat at McDonald’s and study medicine. She promised to give up her two-pack-a-day cigarette habit as soon as she got to America. (“I won’t be nervous anymore, so I won’t need it.”)

Once she left Sarajevo, Delila declared adamantly, she would probably never come back. Her brother had written her that his English tutor had asked if he missed Sarajevo. “He said no. If he ever came back, it would be as a tourist—and maybe not even then. I feel that way, too. I have to go somewhere where I can relax, physically, mentally. I don’t know that I would ever return.”

Delila’s sixty-nine-year-old grandmother had been listening to Delila speak, quietly weeping. I asked if she was afraid she might never see her granddaughter again. “No,” she replied, without hesitation. “I am looking forward to it. I will be happy when Delila leaves.”

Delila couldn’t count the days. For security reasons, people being evacuated usually had only a day or two’s advance notice. So she kept her bags packed and her documents folded neatly in an envelope in the bedroom with her few precious possessions. Her grandmother had given her a farewell present, a gold four-leaf clover that she always wore around her neck.

Delila practiced her good-byes to family members. She didn’t bother with her friends. “I told them that one day if I’m not around, I’ve either been killed or I’ve gone to America.”

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Filed under education, food, language, migration, U.S., war, Yugoslavia

How Yunnan Became Chinese, and Muslim

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2475-2501:

Seven hundred years before the present wave of tourists was an altogether different wave, of Mongols, Turks and Islam. The Mongol conquest of Yunnan in the thirteenth century brought this hitherto independent kingdom for the first time under Beijing’s control and began a process of integration into ‘China proper’ that has continued to today. The Mongol conquest also brought an astonishingly diverse influx of mainly Muslim peoples, from across their Eurasian domains.

Though the invasion forces were ultimately under Mongol command, many of the officers and most of the soldiers were Turks or people from further west. The force that invaded Burma for example is said to have included no fewer than 14,000 men of the erstwhile Persian Khwarezmid empire, under their own commander Yalu Beg. Others came to garrison the new possession. They included Turks from Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv and Nishpur. They also included tribal peoples like the Kipchaks and even Bulgars from the lower Volga. Yunnan itself had been conquered by the Mongol Prince Uriyangkadai who had also conquered Baghdad, and his forces most likely included captive soldiers from the Abbasid caliphate as well as southern Russia and the Ukraine.

There were even more exotic immigrants. They included the Alans–a Sarmatian tribe today known as the Ossetians–who had submitted to the Mongols and had provided a thousand warriors for the personal body guard of the Great Khan. A son of the Alan chief, Nicholas, took part in the conquest of Yunnan, and men from the North Caucasus were posted along the Burmese borderland.

A member of the Mongol imperial clan, Prince Hugeshi, was appointed ‘prince of Yunnan’ whilst the old ruling family, the Duans, were allowed to stay in Dali and keep the title of ‘maharaja’. The Muslim newcomers, based at Dali, became extremely powerful and the most powerful of them all was a native of Bokhara named Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar. He claimed descent from the emir of Bokhara (though some say his family were originally from Cairo) and by the late 1250s he was a rising star in the Mongol establishment. He served in Baghdad and in China and was appointed as the top administrator in Yunnan in the 1270s. Today the Muslims of Yunnan regard him as the founder of their community, a wise and benevolent ruler who ‘pacified and comforted’ the peoples of Yunnan.

Sayyid Ajall was officially the Director of Political Affairs of the Regional Secretariat of Yunnan, about as bureaucratic a title as one can imagine in medieval times. According to Chinese records, he introduced new agricultural technologies, constructed irrigation systems, and tried to raise living standards. Though a Muslim, he built or rebuilt Confucian temples and created a Confucian education system. His contemporary, He Hongzuo, the Regional Superintendent of Confucian Studies, wrote that through his efforts ‘the orang-utans and butcherbirds became unicorns and phoenixes and their felts and furs were exchanged for gowns and caps’. There were many other civilizing missions on China’s periphery but only in Yunnan was one conducted under Muslim (and essentially Turkish Muslim) leadership.

In this way, Yunnan became known to the Islamic world. When Sayyid Ajall died in 1279 he was succeeded by his son Nasir al-Din who governed for five years and led the invasion of Burma. His younger brother became the Transport Commissioner and the entire family entrenched their influence. There were still very few Han Chinese in Yunnan and the growing Muslim community began to excel as long-distance traders as well. In the early fourteenth century, the great Persian Jewish historian Rashid al-Din Hamadani stated that the Dali region had become exclusively Muslim.

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Filed under Burma, Central Asia, China, Islam, migration, Mongolia, Turkey

Kitachosenjin in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 534-548:

In fact, Japanese Koreans, who were known as kitachosenjin, after the Japanese term for North Korea, Kita Chosen, lived in a world apart. They had distinctive accents and tended to marry one another. Although they were far from rich by Japanese standards, they were wealthy compared with ordinary North Koreans. They had arrived in the new country with leather shoes and nice woolen sweaters, while North Koreans wore canvas on their feet and shiny polyester. Their relatives regularly sent them Japanese yen, which could be used in special hard-currency shops to buy appliances. Some had even brought over automobiles, although soon enough they would break down for lack of spare parts and have to be donated to the North Korean government. Years after they arrived, Japanese Koreans received regular visits from their relatives who would travel over on the Mangyongbong-92 ferry with money and gifts. The ferry was operated by the pro-regime Chosen Soren and its visits to North Korea were encouraged as a way of bringing currency into the country. The regime skimmed off a portion of the money sent by relatives. Yet for all their wealth, the Japanese Koreans occupied a lowly position in the North Korean hierarchy. No matter that they were avowed Communists who gave up comfortable lives in Japan, they were lumped in with the hostile class. The regime couldn’t trust anyone with money who wasn’t a member of the Workers’ Party. They were among the few North Koreans permitted to have contact with the outside, and that in itself made them unreliable; the strength of the regime came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely.

The new immigrants from Japan quickly shed their idealism. Some of the early immigrants who arrived in North Korea wrote letters home warning others not to come, but those letters were intercepted and destroyed. Many of the Japanese Koreans, including some prominent in Chosen Soren, ended up being purged in the early 1970s, the leaders executed, their families sent to the gulag.

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Filed under economics, Japan, Korea, migration

Homelessness in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2613-2626:

It is worth noting here how extraordinary it was for anyone to be homeless in North Korea. This was, after all, the country that had developed the most painstaking systems to keep track of its citizens. Everybody had a fixed address and a work unit and both were tied to food rations—if you left home, you couldn’t get fed. People didn’t dare visit a relative in the next town without a travel permit. Even overnight visitors were supposed to be registered with the inminban, which in turn had to report to the police the name, gender, registration number, travel permit number, and the purpose of the visit. Police conducted regular spot checks around midnight to make sure nobody had unauthorized visitors. One had to carry at all times a “citizen’s certificate,” a twelve-page passport-size booklet that contained a wealth of information about the bearer. It was modeled on the old Soviet ID.

All that changed with the famine. Without food distribution, there was no reason to stay at your fixed address. If sitting still meant you starved to death, no threat the regime levied could keep people home. For the first time, North Koreans were wandering around their own country with impunity. Among the homeless population, a disproportionate number were children or teenagers. In some cases, their parents had gone off in search of jobs or food. But there was another, even stranger, explanation. Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households—they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive. That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.

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Filed under economics, family, food, Korea, labor, migration

Hawaiians in the American Civil War

One of my earliest blogposts was on the American Civil War in the Pacific, which focused on the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah sent to the Pacific Ocean to attack American whalers, most of whom were from the New England states.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a small ceremony at Oahu Cemetery honoring one among at least 119 men from the Hawaiian Kingdom known to have joined the war effort, mostly on the Northern side. The ceremony dedicated a headstone for the grave of PVT J. R. Kealoha, who sailed to Pennsylvania in 1864 to enlist in the 41st Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, then fought at Petersburg and Appomattox, and returned to Honolulu, where he died in 1877. His burial site had been entered in the cemetery records, but no grave marker had survived. Two of the organizers of the event, Justin W. Vance and Anita Manning, recently published an article I highly recommend, “The Effects of the American Civil War on Hawai‘i and the Pacific” (World History Connected, October 2012).

At least a score of those who enlisted in Massachusetts regiments were descended from Protestant missionaries from the Bay State who had attended schools in New England. But at least 49 Native Hawaiians also served in either the Union or Confederate military, half of them at sea, where their sailing skills were highly valued. They had to use anglicized aliases, like “Friday Kanaka,” which make their records hard to track, and most of the soldiers served in the U.S. Colored Troops. Ten Hawaiian sailors were forced to enlist in the Confederate Navy after their whaling ship, Abigail (from New Bedford, Mass.) was captured by the CSS Shenandoah, which finally surrendered in England many months after the war ended. The most unusual Asians in the Confederate ranks were Christopher Wren Bunker and Steven Decatur Bunker, sons of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins,” who migrated from Siam via Boston, where they were moved to adopt the name Bunker, to North Carolina, where they became tobacco-planting slaveholders and strong Southern sympathizers.

The Western National Parks Association is due to publish a book on Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War some time this winter (2014–2015), and the Hawai‘i Sons of the Civil War are planning to a documentary film.

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Filed under Hawai'i, migration, military, Pacific, U.S., war

Manchuria Again a Promised Land

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1886-1905:

The capacity of the Chinese borderlands to absorb North Koreans is significant—and significantly underappreciated outside of Northeast Asia. The area is not all that foreign—or unwelcoming—to Korean-speaking migrants.

When defectors cross into China, the first “foreigners” they encounter are usually ethnic Koreans who speak the same language, eat similar food, and share some of the same cultural values. With a bit of luck, they can, like Shin, find work, shelter, and a measure of safety.

This has been going on since the late 1860s, when famine struck North Korea and starving farmers fled across the Tumen and the Yalu rivers into northeast China. Later, China’s imperial government recruited Korean farmers to create a buffer against Russian expansion, and Korea’s Choson Dynasty allowed them to depart legally. Before World War II, the Japanese who occupied the Korean Peninsula and northeast China pushed tens of thousands of Korean farmers across the border to weaken China’s hold on the region.

Nearly two million ethnic Koreans now live in China’s three northeast provinces, with the highest concentration in Jilin, which Shin entered when he crawled across the frozen river. Inside Jilin Province, China created the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where forty percent of the population is ethnic Korean and where the government subsidizes Korean-language schools and publications.

Korean speakers living in northeast China have also been an unsung force for cultural change inside North Korea. They have affected this change by watching South Korean soap operas on home satellite dishes, recording low-quality video CDs, and smuggling hundreds of thousands of them across the border into North Korea, where they sell for as little as fifteen cents, according to Rimjin-gang, the Osaka-based magazine that has informants based in the North.

South Korean soaps—which display the fast cars, opulent houses, and surging confidence of South Korea—are classified as “impure recorded visual materials” and are illegal to watch in North Korea. But they have developed a huge following in Pyongyang and other cities, where police officers assigned to confiscate the videos are reportedly watching them and where teenagers imitate the silky intonations of the Korean language as it is spoken by upper-crust stars in Seoul.

These TV programs have demolished decades of North Korean propaganda, which claims that the South is a poor, repressed, and unhappy place, and that South Koreans long for unification under the fatherly hand of the Kim dynasty.

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Filed under China, economics, Japan, Korea, labor, language, migration