How do recent transnational encounters in East Asia help us explore the condition of poverty amidst increasingly unpredictable global and national political economy? Against a backdrop of East Asian “postmiracle” times, this article sheds light on the precarity of South Korean migrants in Northeast China, whose labor is no longer demanded in Korea’s neoliberal restructuring processes and who try their luck in China’s uncertain but fast-growing economy.
In Seotap, a Korean migrant enclave in Shenyang, South Korean sojourners, who mostly engage in the unstable service sector, have undergone the fluctuations of life in response to shifting relationships to Korean Chinese dwellers as well as to political economic transformations across their homeland and the receiving country. The author examines how these migrants experience and respond to endemic fear of becoming a “loser,” a stigmatic marker of poverty, with an eye to the neoliberal production of a “culture of poverty.”
The author argues that a “culture of poverty,” which is invoked in Seotap, is neither a subculture that is passed down from generation to generation among a particular group of the poor, nor a disposition that is allegedly found among those who rely on governmental welfare schemes. The neoliberal production of a “culture of poverty” indicates contingent processes in which many ordinary people, who experience life insecurity and downward mobility under neoliberal economic transformations, invoke and (re)produce arbitrary cultural markers of poverty to secure their normalcy and distance themselves from other “losers.” Despite staying outside a nation’s governmental scheme based on the measured distinction between the poor and the nonpoor, transnational sojourners whom the author met in Seotap summon the arbitrary markers of poverty, which have been coined and widely narrated along with the very scheme. Importantly, however, their action does not just end up with a makeshift delineation of the other poor but also marks the embodiment of what they blame. The author’s ethnography brings to light how precarious migrants, who are caught up in erratic political, economic shifts in both China and South Korea, are often inescapably embroiled in cultural and moral constructions of poverty as they are pushed into a series of informal, illicit practices for survival. This statement does not signal psychological features of poverty but suggests the grievous entanglement of structural, political economic violence and affective burden on the daily web of individual lives.