This one time, in the USSR

Here’s a story of expatriatism I heard the other night from an interesting corner of the world, Sakhalin Island, Russia.

It comes from one of the other Calvin students on the program. His name is Sasha and he was born in the USSR, but he’s ethnically Korean. He went to high school at an international school in South Korea, but he doesn’t speak any Korean, and now as a student in the United States (or, temporarily, Hungary), he identifies himself as Russian but admits that he’s given up on figuring out his cultural identity. That’s pretty common for a lot of third-culture kids, I suppose, but the way he arrived at that in-between identity is more unusual.

None of Sasha’s ancestors moved to Russia or the USSR. Instead, they moved to Japan, which controlled the southern part of Sakhalin Island in the early 20th century. Three of his Korean grandparents were forced laborers who where sent by the Japanese to Sakhalin (Karafuto in Japanese) to work in the coal mines on the island. His other grandmother was the daughter of a Korean businessman who moved his family to the island for his work around the same time. When the Second World War ended, the USSR took control of the entire island, and while Japanese citizens moved to Japan proper, almost a third of the island’s 150,000 Koreans were unable to move to either Japan or Korea. Japan wasn’t too concerned about its one-time forced laborers, the USSR didn’t take too much notice of them, and Korea was already pretty occupied with a looming war of its own.

Sasha’s businessman great-grandfather tried to leave the country to return to Korea, but he was thrown into prison as a member of the bourgeoisie. Without their patriarch, his grandmother’s family decided to marry her off, and did so, to Sash’s grandfather, who was a coal miner. And so it came to pass that the daughter of a bourgeois businessman married a forced laborer.

So for many years after that, Sasha’s grandparents lived in the USSR, learning Russian and raising families. Sasha was born a few years before the Soviet Union dissolved and he grew up in Russia in the 90s. There’s a whole nother battery of stories about that decade, but they’re not for this post. Anyways, today, one set of his grandparents have returned to Korea after 60 years of living on Sakhalin. His parents still live on the island, where they speak Russian but eat Korean food. In Russia, Sasha says he feels Korean; in Korea, Russian; and perhaps somewhere in between  in America or Hungary.

What a world.

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