Korean Migrant Families in Christchurch: Expectations and experiences

Korean Migrant Families in Christchurch: Expectati…
01 Oct 2006

The Families Commission Statement of Intent states that the “adjustment and settlement of refugee and migrant families” is one of the key issues facing New Zealand in the next five years (Families Commission 2005:15). The aim of this report is to document the experiences of new migrant families from South Korea to Christchurch, New Zealand. It explores factors such as the reasons why these families decided to leave Korea in the first place, their knowledge of New Zealand prior to arrival in the country and their experience of the migration process. However, its primary objective is to document the variety of ways in which Korean migrant families have tried to forge a new sense of home upon arrival in the host country. The report outlines a range of strategies employed by the families in pursuit of this feeling of ‘being at home’ in New Zealand (however ‘home’ might be defined). It also looks at the successes and failures of each of these strategies.



The substantial part of this report, contained in Part Two below, is based on research conducted in Christchurch between March and April 2006. Over this research period, the three primary researchers on the report, Richard Vokes, Carolyn Morris and Suzana Chang, interviewed a total of 36 Korean immigrants to New Zealand. This number included 12 men and 24 women. In age, they ranged between 24 and 68 years, and had arrived in the country at different times, ranging between one and 23 years. As such, these migrants constituted part of the ‘new wave’ of migration from East Asia outlined above.

These interviewees were recruited to the study through a number of routes, primary among these being a number of adverts placed in local Korean media, in Korean. These adverts outlined the aims of the study, and asked potential participants to contact either Dr Richard Vokes or Dr Carolyn Morris directly. In addition, in both the Korean Review newspaper, and in Christchurch Korea magazine, these adverts were accompanied by full-page, feature-length pieces on the project (based on interviews with the project’s researchers). The very good response we received to the adverts was almost certainly aided by the publication of these accompanying articles. In addition, a smaller number of interviewees were recruited by word-of-mouth, either from amongst the University of Canterbury’s student base, or through an earlier interviewee.

Further, a number of announcements about the project were made at several Korean churches in Christchurch, usually during the ‘announcements’ period at the end of the Sunday service. Whilst we thank the individual churches for making these announcements, we are uncertain as to the general impact they had on people’s decision to participate in the study. For only one interviewee was this support of a church central to his decision to participate. Apart from this one individual, no other interviewee claimed to have heard about the project through church attendance, or to have taken part in it because of church support. On the other hand, a majority of interviewees stated that they had first heard about the study through one of the media sources outlined above.

Following a response being received from an advert, or a name being forwarded to us by word-ofmouth, we did not discriminate as to who could participate in the study. We did not select on the grounds of age, gender, religion or any other criteria. Instead, we endeavoured to interview all those who had expressed an interest, on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis. The only occasions on which this approach broke down was when we were unable to contact a potential interviewee, or when he or she was unavailable for interview (because of illness, etc). In addition, at the end of the research cycle, we were left with a list of names of interviewees we were unable to contact due to pressures of time.

The content of the media adverts explained that the research was primarily academic in nature and would not have any direct bearing on governmental policy decision-making. This was reiterated to all interviewees at the beginning of each interview session. In addition, it was explained that we did not have a formal list of interview questions, but instead hoped for them to ‘tell us their stories’; to share their general experiences of the migration and settlement process. Each interview explored all aspects of the migration experience, from the initial decision to move to New Zealand, through the physical move itself, to the processes of ‘home-building’ in New Zealand. In all of the interviews, we tried to not guide the conversation through our own questioning, but to instead allow the discussion to evolve according to what the interviewees themselves wanted to talk about. However, across all of the interviews a remarkably uniform set of general themes emerged, and as a result, over the course of all of the interviews, we were able to ask ever more ‘informed’ types of questions on these themes. In particular, in most – although by no means all – of the interviews, church activities, and the Christian life, emerged as one key area for discussion.

We also explained to each interviewee at the beginning of the session that he or she was under no obligation to answer any question he/she felt uncomfortable with. No inducements were offered to any interviewee to take part in the study, although we did give each interviewee an unannounced gift of one cinema ticket, to thank them for their participation and their time.

Many of the interviews were conducted solely in English, while a few were conducted in Korean or in a mixture of Korean and English. In the latter case, Mrs Suzana Chang – the only Korean speaker among the project researchers – acted as translator for other researchers present. The interviews were conducted in a range of venues, including in people’s homes and workplaces, in restaurants and in university meeting rooms. Most were conducted with one person at a time, although some included two people (usually a husband and wife, or else two close friends). We interviewed a number of church ministers and elders, but none of these individuals was present when we interviewed a member of their congregation. Most of the interviews were between one and two hours in length, and all were recorded on a digital recording device for later transcription.

Finally, the interview data were supplemented by a range of documentary research, and by a limited amount of ethnography. In relation to the latter, the primary researchers attempted, throughout the duration of the research period, to participate in, and observe, as wide a range of activities involving the Korean community in Christchurch as possible. This included attendance at a number of ‘Korean days’ and other cultural events which were held in and around the city in early 2006.


Key Results

The report’s key finding is that a majority of Korean migrant families leave Korea with a great sense of hope about their new life in New Zealand. In particular, at this stage most families harbour strong expectations as to the positive contributions they will be able to make to the host society. However, in a large number of cases, this initial optimism is soon tempered by the actual experience of living in New Zealand. In particular, many people describe a general sense of frustration experienced by new migrant families in relation to the difficulties of ‘fitting into’ the new society. In more than a few cases, interviewees related this general sense of frustration to their experiences of individual instances of harassment, discrimination and social exclusion. In this regard, it is not an exaggeration to say that a majority of those we spoke to in preparing this report had experienced some form of harassment, discrimination or social exclusion since their arrival in New Zealand. For some individuals, such occurrences were a regular part of daily life.

Despite this frustration, new migrant families continue to pursue a range of strategies aimed at forging a sense of ‘feeling at home’ in New Zealand. The second key finding of this report is that membership of Korean (and other) churches, and the practices of Christian life, are central to practically all of these strategies. Churches – and church-related groups – play a major role in advising and assisting new migrant families at all stages of the settlement process, from arrival at the airport in Christchurch, to finding accommodation, to making friends and business contacts, and so on. In addition, participation in Christian rituals, or engagement with one of the plethora of church-based social groups which exist in Christchurch, constitutes a primary mode of social activity for many Koreans living in the city. All this, despite the fact that the church played a far lesser role in many migrants’ lives prior to their arrival in New Zealand.

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