The Work of Waiting: Love and Money in Korean Chinese Transnational Migration


Harvard University

Everybody Is Gone

Wife is gone, husband is gone, and uncle is gone,

Everybody is gone, to Korea, to Japan,

To America, to Russia, to make more . . .

Everybody is separated and crying,

What does life mean? We are all broken down.

Why are we sick from missing each other?

We are waiting to be together again, someday.

“Everybody Is Gone” is a popular song in Yanbian, the Korean Chinese Autonomous Prefecture in the province of Jilin, China, on the border with North Korea. Its lyrics capture the shifting demography and emerging socioeconomic landscape formed by massive Korean Chinese migration to South Korea beginning in the early 1990s, in the wake of China’s economic reforms. The fashion of and passion for going to Korea is called the Korean Wind,1 throughout and beyond Yanbian. The Korean Wind has driven Yanbian’s rapid urbanization and dramatic economic development in the past two decades. It has also brought about multidimensional mobility—not only physical but existential (Hage 2009), as seen in Korean Chinese upward class mobility and an unprecedented self-reinvention from farmers to city dwellers to transnational migrant workers.

In Yanbian, where “everybody is gone” to Korea, there are also many people waiting for those who are abroad. The single parent or waiting partner is called a botoli, a Yanbian term that connotes someone who is waiting and suffering from long-term loneliness due to the conditions of the contemporary transnational, migratory landscape. In response to an increasing number of botoli, many Yanbian residents have identified loneliness and waiting as a source of social illness, exacerbating high divorce rates and juvenile delinquency. Yet I also found multiple social groups—hiking clubs, writers’ workshops, bowing teams—that formed part of a secure emotional safety net. During my dissertation research in 2008 and 2009, I joined a hiking group as a way to get to know everyday life in Yanbian. Here I met many Korean Chinese botoli. On one of our regular trips, we reached the top of a mountain, and some of the hikers opened up about their anxieties and concerns as botoli.

Mr. Ho: After my wife went to Korea ten years ago, I became so lonely I started drinking—almost every day. In Yanbian, there are so many lonely husbands without wives. What can we do? Nobody is there waiting for us.

Hiker 1 [enviously]: But your wife sends the remittances on a regular basis, right? How many houses do you own now? Two or three?

Hiker 2: Nowadays, we should be happy if we’re not divorced, if we own a house or two, if our kids have grown up without causing serious trouble, and if the remittances are still being sent.

Mr. Ho: You guys are right. But waiting for my wife for more than ten years is not an easy task. I don’t hope for anything more except that my wife eventually returns. After waiting so long for my wife, I happen to believe that, as long as money is being sent back to China, there might still be love [He laughs].

These hikers capture the uncertainty and vulnerability they feel about living as botoli for the sake of economic betterment and survival in a rapidly developing China. They also express anxious feelings toward partners who might have an affair or try to obtain a divorce, which would cause the influx of remittances to come to a sudden halt. The temporality of everyday life, in general, entails not only the passing of time but also the necessity of waiting (Adam 1991, 121). To Korean Chinese migrants and their family members, waiting has emerged as an essential activity that requires the capacity to endure loneliness to maintain a stable love life and the flow of remittances. In Yanbian, “waiting properly” or heroically “waiting out,” as Ghassan Hage (2009) critically highlights, comes into play as a valorized quality and manifestation of governmentality that shapes an orderly and self-governed subject within an uncertain context. What, then, makes waiting a necessary life condition for Korean Chinese transnational migration? What is the actual role of waiting as a link between intimate life and economic conditions? What pushes Korean Chinese to endure these long, lonely vigils?

My analysis of waiting is related to, but different from, recent accounts and scholarship on Korean Chinese transnational migration. These studies have tended to focus on the rampant mobility, displacement, and social issues commonly reported in everyday Korean Chinese life (Kim 2008; Park 2006; Lee, Lee, and Kim 2008; Seol 2002). They describe such symptoms as “money fever” (Noh 2011) and “faking and making kinship” (Freeman 2011), and characterize “going to Korea” as an inevitable life phase, one that must be endured to arrive more quickly at the next stage of life. Despite their aspirations to migrate to South Korea, Korean Chinese face the implementation of a restrictive entry policy by the Korean government. The regulations have fostered a market for illegal migration, including a sizeable production of counterfeit documents. At least until the mid-2000s, with the rise of Chinese economic power still inchoate, this rampant Korean Chinese transnational migration was mainly driven by a strong belief in mobility as a necessary condition of a modernity that was more about movement than staying put, and more about work than leisure (Felski 2000). I came to witness, however, that the perception and practice of transnational migration to Korea has diverged sharply in response to Chinese economic advances. In particular, since the global financial crisis hit the Korean economy in 2008, many Korean Chinese migrants have begun returning to China in hopes of benefiting from new economic opportunities.

During my research in 2008 and 2009, along with follow-up work in 2011, 2013, and 2014 in both China and Korea, I saw that the widespread phenomenon of waiting did not subside even in the dwindling Korean Wind. I focused my attention on increasingly tighter interconnections between those on the move and those left behind. As Julie Chu (2009) compellingly portrays it in her account of the massive emigration from Longyan, China, mobility in a (mostly) human-smuggling context has led to the “emplacement” of those who have stayed put, as well as of others who were moved around. Those who remain at home feel displaced and marginalized, as their surroundings change rapidly due to remittance-driven development. Waiting at home, as Longyan’s residents do, becomes a passive activity that produces feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and vulnerability (Crapanzano 1986). In this liminal temporality, those who are waiting experience an indeterminate boundary between the past, the present, and the future (Rundell 2009), while remaining in a state of repose or inaction until something happens (Gasparini 1995). Yet waiting also has the potential to create a new sociality and mutuality through “a mode of being attuned to others” with whom we have relationships (Minnegal 2009). Thus waiting constitutes an active attempt to realize a collectively imagined future.

My ethnography of how separated spouses wait pushes this analysis further by calling attention to dynamics of dependency and the intersections of mobility and immobility, money-making and waiting-for-money. Loretta Baldassar and Laura Merla (2013) have elaborated the concept of the “circulation of care” as a new perspective through which to understand the connectedness of people on the move. The transnational family, an increasingly common contemporary social form, has developed different ways to exchange asymmetrical, reciprocal care among family members and kin. This functions as a form of the moral economy of waiting for other family members who are abroad and in motion. They bring themselves “together across distance” by dealing with the challenges posed by absence and separation (Baldassar and Merla 2013, 40). I focus not only on the connectedness or circulation of care between separated family members. Rather I highlight the vulnerability that connectedness entails in transnational families, especially in the case of spousal relationships that are susceptible to divorce. Unlike waiting and caring for parents, children, and other family members, anticipating the return of a spouse is conditioned as a couple-oriented project. Especially as migration and waiting are linked through the flow of remittances—as expressed in the words of a common Yanbian saying, “where money goes, love is”—most separated couples would eventually prefer to be brought together in China where life’s insecurity has been increasingly elevated in the wake of rapid economic reform and an open economy. In other words, “waiting properly” for remittances and spousal return creates the possibility of mutual future economic welfare and preserves intimacy by generating and sharing a deferred temporality. And yet, the following ethnographic accounts also show that waiting can be met with betrayal or a partner’s foundering appreciation, which leads to elevated anxiety and further precariousness in relationships.

In what follows, I develop two interconnected arguments. First, I argue that waiting for love and money within migratory contexts constitutes a form of unwaged affective work that can generate not only a financial safety net but also a binding commitment between the divided parties. I understand affect as a communicative “action on action” of the self and others, “the capacity to be affected,” and a medium through which intersubjective relations circulate (Deleuze 1988; Richard and Rudnyckyj 2009; Spinoza 1994). Affective labor includes intimate (Boris and Parreñas 2010) and immaterial (Lazzarato 1996) labor, which at times trades in communication and information. Affective labor often aims to create a feeling of ease and well-being, as in personal and caring services (Hardt and Negri 2000). Yet I highlight waiting as a distinct kind of affective labor that can be distinguished from wage labor in the market economy. I suggest that waiting is an immaterial, but nonetheless important, form of unwaged, profit-producing labor. Taking care of money and love in the process of waiting leads to the production of a better future and the maintenance of long-term, long-distance, and (often) vulnerable transnational relationships. Second, I argue that while waiting may begin as an act of love, it is susceptible to being transformed into a kind of work that requires the constant management of monetary flows and, in turn, remakes the expectations and realities of transnational spousal relationships. By analyzing narratives of waiting, we are able to unravel the complex nature of remittances as promises of love, and to see them as an affective medium that mitigates uncertain and vulnerable intimate relationships. My ethnography of waiting among the botoli, who could be romantically betrayed, financially abandoned, or treasured by their partners, elaborates on the experiences of those who do not migrate but nonetheless sustain a critical dimension of migratory practice. The work of waiting enables mobility and helps perpetuate the circulatory routes and returns of migration.


The widely shared interest in “going to Korea” among residents of Yanbian springs not only from personal aspirations but also from rapid structural changes generated by Chinese economic reforms beginning in the early 1990s. As in many other regions of China, in Yanbian the economic reforms were expedited through the privatization of work places (danwei) previously run by the local government.2 This resulted in many workers being laid off and leaving for larger cities in search of economic opportunities.3 Farmers seeking an improved financial situation have moved from the countryside to urban centers, becoming a “floating population” that has found work in manufacturing or in the booming service industry (Mackenzie 2002; Pun 2005; Yan 2008; Zhang 2002; Zheng 2009). What is specific about Korean Chinese migration in contrast to that of Han Chinese, however, is the intersection of urban migration and transnational migration to South Korea, a country portrayed as an enemy homeland during the Cold War. By rejuvenating long-neglected kinship ties and recuperating their linguistic and cultural similarities, Korean Chinese came to consider migration to South Korea as a strategy for navigating a rapidly changing China of the early 1990s. As many Korean Chinese recount, the idea was to go to Korea “to have a better life at a faster pace than is possible in China.” This aspirational, catch-up mentality drove the Korean Wind.

Alongside the immediate urgency of fleeing a privatizing China, Korean Chinese have responded to the Korean market’s growing demand, from the early 1990s onward, for cheap sources of labor for the service, caretaker, and construction industries (Lim and Hwang 2002). In this context, Korean Chinese and Korean labor markets have mutually promoted a unique identity among Korean Chinese as almost Korean, but not quite,4 based on their ethnic similarity as Koreans and their national difference as Chinese citizens. This unique ethnic relationship has enabled Korean Chinese to undertake specific kinds of labor designated by the Korean government (restaurant workers, caretakers, and construction laborers) while also marking “Korean Chinese” as an ethnic underclass who often face discrimination in South Korea. Despite mutual ethnic recognition based on market needs, however, Korean Chinese have, during the past two decades, considered South Korea both an inaccessible homeland and also, paradoxically, a land of opportunity. Under the obvious push-and-pull relationship between China and Korea, the Korean Wind has brought nearly 600,000 Korean Chinese to live or work in Korea as of the end of 2014, out of a total population of about two million Korean Chinese throughout China.5

Ms. Kang is one of those Korean Chinese migrants. She used to be a Yanbian factory worker who made wooden tables and chairs, but she lost her job when her factory went bankrupt in the mid-1990s. I first met her in Korea in 2004 in a church office that advocated for Korean Chinese labor and residential rights in Korea; she was anxious about the constant danger of being deported as an undocumented worker—a longtime talented cook working around multiple restaurants in Seoul. Although Ms. Kang wanted to return to China eventually, at that time she still needed to earn more income in Korea because all the money she had acquired in her first three years in the country had gone to pay off debt to the illegal broker who facilitated her migration. Ms. Kang missed her family—her husband and two sons—and communicated with them using international phone cards once every week or two. She could have tried to use Internet messenger or web-camera chats to better stay in touch, but she wasn’t familiar with the technology. One day, she asked if I could help her with an instant messaging program with webcam capability so that she could actually see her family. I said yes and she called to arrange for her family to be sitting in front of her son’s computer at a predetermined time. Through MSN Messenger, a commonly used but previously inaccessible medium to her, she was finally able to see her husband and two sons. I vividly remember how emotional the encounter was; she smiled broadly, her eyes moist with tears, through the whole conversation. Her younger son asked, “Mom, when are you coming back?” “As soon as I make enough money,” she answered. Yet nobody seemed to know how much money would be enough, or how long it would take to accumulate this unknown amount. Her husband did not show much affection and said little on camera. But it was obvious that all family members desired to see each other not virtually but in person, sometime soon.

Until 2005, the sort of waiting endured by Ms. Kang’s family prevailed among Korean Chinese. Their often-undocumented legal status did not allow these workers to freely move back and forth between China and Korea. Ms. Kang and more than 200,000 other undocumented Korean Chinese were held in limbo while the Korean government granted them amnesty through revisions to the Overseas Korean Act, which ultimately defined legal status for Korean Chinese in Korea.6 The act identifies those belonging to the category “Overseas Korean” and determines which benefits they can receive in the “home” country (Korea). By instituting rights nearly equal to those of Korean citizens (Park and Chang 2005), the act granted a quasi-citizen status to overseas Koreans. Overseas Korean, however, did not include Korean Chinese because of their socialist associations and possible political conflicts that might ensue with China regarding questions of dual citizenship. This exclusion turned most Korean Chinese toward illegal immigration brokers who charged high fees, equal to one or two years of average income—from $10,000 to $20,000. Because of the exorbitant costs, couples usually had to decide who would go and who would remain behind to take care of the children and the family’s property. In part structured by Korean immigration law and the illegal work regime it engenders, spouses increasingly separated so that they might send one spouse to Korea. In this configuration the waiting party has become an essential part of Korean Chinese migration in constituting a new form of intimate relationship and financial management that heavily relies on the flow of remittances.7

Since Korea’s Constitutional Court declared the Overseas Korean Act unconstitutional in 1999 because of its discriminatory characteristics, until 2004 the law was pending to be revised to include those it had previously excluded. The new act granted the same rights to all overseas Koreans—except those who engaged in menial physical labor, the sort of work that most Korean Chinese did. As a result, Korean Chinese already working in the service and construction sectors could not take advantage of the revised act’s benefits. Instead, the Korean government issued H-2 visas, the Overseas Korean working visit visa, to these workers, requiring them to transmigrate between Korea and China for set periods of time both in Korea and China to maintain their working visas. This peculiar visa system, designed to prevent Korean Chinese from settling in Korea, now controls both the working and waiting of Korean Chinese, a temporal governmentality that structures the flow of their remittances and the cadence of their movements.

Under this visa-structured temporality, Ms. Kang eventually returned to Yanbian and remained there with her family for a year. She soon realized, however, that she could not keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living using only her earnings from Korea. As she told me anxiously in Yanbian in 2008, “I can’t buy much of anything with 100 Yuan—not like seven years ago, before I went to Korea. Everybody seems to be much better off than me as they spend money like water.” After all those years of backbreaking labor in Korea, she felt she was experiencing downward mobility and relative poverty at home, and this caused her to return to Korea. When we met once more a year later in that country, she kept worrying about her husband: “We are not that close and we do not talk much over the phone.” Equipped with an H-2 visa, she continues to move back and forth between Yanbian and Korea, faithfully sending her remittances. Her husband, who earns no income himself, continues to seek out another apartment to buy so that he can secure rent as an extra source of income. This couple in their late fifties, onetime factory workers with very little in the way of pensions, are preparing for retirement: one by making money, the other by waiting for money in two different countries, both together and separate—“together across distance” (Baldassar and Merla 2013).


Beset by multiple forms and periods of waiting, Yanbian is like a place of “dwelling-in-travel” (Clifford 1997, 2), with everyone always on the verge of moving. In the waiting stories I collected, I found that the most common question among Korean Chinese migrant spouses waiting for their partner was, “What if my partner has an affair?” (paramnada in Korean), with either a Korean or a fellow Korean Chinese migrant. In numerous cases Korean Chinese migrants have stopped sending remittances and broken off contact after beginning another life with a new partner in Korea. In this context, a breakup can be a critical, life-threatening event for the waiting partner, as it results not only in the loss of the relationship but also in exposure to economic vulnerability.

In addition to the anxiety emanating from undocumented status in Korea, moral and sexual anxiety can become intense, especially when love becomes a means of transacting and transferring money. Marriages of convenience, mainly between Korean men and Korean Chinese women, are one of the common methods illegal migration brokers utilize to channel middle-aged Korean Chinese women in search of entering Korea.8 Caren Freeman (2011) captures the new moral climate that belies the legal restriction by illustrating the unpredictable and unreliable nature of the entry process to South Korea. Immigration officers frequently found it hard to recognize counterfeit documents based on false kinship through so-called paper marriage, and thus allowed fraudulent visa holders to bypass customs. At the same time, those who held legal visas based on kin relations were sometimes denied entry. Instead of merely being subordinated to the capricious visa regulation that kept Korean Chinese dangling, Korean Chinese migrants continued to confront the state’s policy designed to constrain their entry and long-term residence. They were able to unsettle moral and legal norms by both making and faking kinship.

The pursuit of transnational marriage has been characterized by other anthropologists as a “global self-making” process that strengthens transnational ties through international marriages and remittances (Faier 2007) or, alternately, as “global hypergamy” (Constable 2009). Both in China and Korea, however, marriage has become a contentious topic not only because it enables entry into Korea but also because it is stigmatized as instrumentalizing women’s bodies for the sake of monetary gain. Marriage “as transaction” serves as both a survival and an advancement strategy, allowing an escape from economic precariousness (Brennan 2004). Despite wide variations, Korean Chinese international marriages illustrated a strong tendency, especially at the early stage of Korean Chinese migration from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s: marriages usually occur between lower-class Korean men (rural farmers and urban low–working class) who cannot find Korean brides, and Korean Chinese women who seek a way to enter and work in Korea. In this marriage, love is a key term used to judge the nature of the marriage—whether it is real or fake—within and beyond legal definitions in both China and Korea. Love becomes “the new gold” (Constable 2007; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004; Parreñas 2001), a means for the production of value and new conditions of possibility.

International marriage is ambivalently accepted as “global self-making” or “global hypergamy” predicated on the ability “to eat and live,” as one Yanbian expression puts it. Especially for those who have undertaken marriages of convenience by divorcing their real Korean Chinese husbands to marry fake Korean husbands, the anxiety about the high divorce rate and the nasty endings of relationships is more elevated in the wake of the Korean Wind. However, my focus is not limited to the frequent moral laments heard in Yanbian about the commodification of love. Rather, I want to push my questions in a new direction, and to emphasize the conflation of money and love in remaking transnational couples. How have Korean Chinese couples who are separated developed ways to manage their anxiety about potentially losing their partner to transnational migration? What kinds of transactions have been made between the separated parties? And what is the reward for the couple that has successfully endured long periods of waiting, deferment, and isolation, in addition to the precarious relationship maintenance?

One day in March 2009, I had lunch with a number of “waiting people” whose partners had been working in Korea for several years. In the midst of a lively conversation, I saw Ms. Li looking sad. Then in her late forties, she had been a farmer before her marriage to a Korean Chinese man. She was at that time working in a Japanese plastic bag factory in Yanbian, a job she disliked because of the long working hours and low wages. But there was no way for her to escape the factory—unless she left for Korea, she could expect little improvement in her life. Ms. Li’s husband had gone to Korea seven years earlier, promising that he would return in three years and that they would have a happy life together afterward. He was heavily financially indebted to the illegal broker on whom he had relied to get to Korea. Ms. Li and her husband had believed the debt to be a worthwhile investment in a better future for them both. The broker helped the husband secure a temporary, two-week business travel visa to Korea. Thus very soon after he had arrived in Korea, Mr. Li became an undocumented person. His illegal status prevented him from moving back and forth between China and Korea, so he determined to stay in Korea until he had earned a satisfactory amount of income. Things looked tough. But Ms. Li was willing to endure this struggle as long as her husband returned to China with the money that he had promised her.

For the first two years of his stay, her husband sent money to Ms. Li every other month. She took good care of it, saving all of the won (money) in her bank account to purchase a modern apartment in the city of Yanji, Yanbian’s capital city, where many Yanbian Korean Chinese hope to end up living. The remittances definitely helped, and she felt as if they were making financial progress. In her husband’s third year abroad, however, the remittances began arriving later and less often, and the amounts became smaller and smaller. Eventually, they stopped altogether. Her husband did not call or send word to Ms. Li. She could not reach him. He had literally disappeared from her life. There were rumors about Ms. Li’s husband, suggesting that he had met a new woman or had gone broke. She had been waiting seven years for his return and he had betrayed her, making her feel as if she had wasted her life for nothing. Unlike her relatives and friends whose Korean dreams came true, Ms. Li still had neither a house nor financial resources, typically the visible evidence and reward for waiting for one’s husband. She wanted badly to leave Yanbian and to go to Korea, even through a fake marriage if necessary. Ms. Li told me that she would use whatever means she could to get to Korea. And yet she was still married to the disappeared husband and could not divorce him, meaning that even a fake marriage to a Korean man was not an option. “I’m getting old and sick of waiting for my husband,” she said. “I’m really stuck. There’s no way out for me.”

If we consider promises as an ordering of the future to make it predictable and reliable (Ahmed 2010), the broken promise disordered Ms. Li’s future. Her husband’s disappearance all but destroyed her life, and left her with few escape routes.

I’ve been dying to go to Korea—not only for money, but also to find my husband. At first I worried about him so much when he didn’t call me. But when I understood that he had intentionally cut off contact, I wanted to kill him! Now I’m just so exhausted from waiting for him, and then from hating him. I’m just one of a lot of unlucky people swept up by the Korean Wind. What’s the use of revenge? Still, I need to divorce him officially, so that I can start my life over again. I am really stuck.

Ms. Li’s long-term and long-distance relationship with her husband started with a mutual promise, one that was given a time limit: “I will return in three years.” However, once her husband stopped sending money and calling her, their bond to each other and their commitment to a common future dissolved. Since then, her wait has transformed into a chronic, hopeless vigil. The longer it goes on, the more vulnerable she becomes. In fact, Ms. Li could have made ends meet in China without relying on the remittances sent by her husband. Although the wages were not as lucrative as they would have been in Korea, she could feed herself and her daughter following a tight budget. What made her more miserable, however, were her ceaseless attempts to travel to Korea and her ongoing hope to make more money there. “If I went to Korea, I could get paid ten times more than now.” But, as her visa requests were repeatedly rejected, her life seemed to float, not in her present, but in an imagined future somewhere else—perhaps Korea. The anticipation seemed poisonous, making her feel desperate to escape from the present. Furthermore, the discrepancy between her present life and her anticipated future resulted in a suspended life that was much more painful, especially when she compared herself with someone who had realized the Korean dream.

Once she ceased to hope for a rosy future with her husband, her mental and physical health deteriorated remarkably. She was sick but had to work. She was weak but still wanted to go to Korea. Until she succeeded, her desperation and angst would not go away. At the same time, she believed that there was not much for her to do except wait for the day she could go to Korea. Now, Ms. Li told me “I’m no longer anxious because I’ve lost hope.” At that point, she still desperately wanted to go to Korea—not to exact revenge on her husband, but to be rewarded for her lost time. Beset by this internal struggle, Ms. Li felt miserable both economically and in terms of her sense of time and possibility. She was becoming a mere spectator in her own life—she saw herself increasingly lagging in rapidly changing Yanbian. In fact, Ms. Li came to profoundly understand that she did not reflect the prosperous Yanbian that enjoyed the fruits of the Korean dream. She could not brag to her friends and relatives who had seized their chance and whose husbands had not failed them. Her long wait had been a hard task, but, worse, it had turned out to be futile, breaking her heart as well as plunging her life into a kind of suspended animation. Her prolonged waiting—promised in love—did not produce any value, and she was left empty-handed. Ms. Li continued to wait, not now for her husband, but for her imagined departure to Korea.


Even as most Korean Chinese remained undocumented in Korea and thus were prohibited from moving freely between China and Korea, Korean Chinese families expected remittances to continue to flow to Yanbian, even if there was always the risk that they might be interrupted or cease altogether (as in Ms. Li’s experience). In Yanbian, talk of remittances is everywhere. Remittances not only meet the economic needs of transnational families but also build connections and convey shared meanings between family members (Baldassar and Merla 2013). In other words, remittances are a personalized form of money dedicated to supporting the family back home, in the name of love. Remittances are also an impersonal form of economic value used to buy houses and things such as new cars, big flat-screen TVs, high-end refrigerators, or luxurious furniture. In either case, remittances require special treatment; they need to be wisely saved, spent, and invested to create more wealth and a better future. Remittances transfer not only the actual value of their monetary equivalent but also an affective sense of care toward the partner and the relationship itself, which is seen to be sustained through the flow of remittances. Here we can see that, coupled with deferral and waiting, remittances emerge as a dubious medium of affection and support. It provides a means to practice moral responsibility for one’s family and its future—but it can also constitute a source of tension, forcing couples to separate for long periods of time. In what ways have senders and receivers negotiated their remittance transactions? What kind of money is a remittance?

In numerous botoli waiting stories, full of frustrations, betrayals, and breakups, money and love can become intermixed and interchangeable. Mr. Ho’s story exemplifies the complex relationship between money and love in a context of transnational mobility. Mr. Ho was a dedicated Communist Party member in Yanbian whose wife had been working in Korea for twenty years. As a factory worker in a printing unit, he married and had a child in the mid-1980s. But when the Chinese government began privatizing both housing and education in the early 1990s, the cost of living soared, and his income quickly became insufficient to support his family. As part of the process of privatizing the housing market, Mr. Ho’s work unit provided him with a new apartment at a lower-than-market price. He bought the apartment thinking it was a great deal. But he had to go into debt to do so. Then, in 1992, the critical year in Mr. Ho’s life when he became an apartment owner, China normalized its diplomatic relationship with South Korea. The door to Korea suddenly opened wide. Many of his friends and relatives hurried to depart for Korea to seek better economic futures. Mr. Ho and his family were no exception. His wife, a factory worker, quit her job and went to Korea, while Mr. Ho concentrated on earning further promotions and extending his social network in Yanbian. Given that Mr. Ho had a prestigious position in a good work unit, the couple believed that her departure for Korea would be a rational choice as a long-term plan.

However, Mr. Ho did not want to let his wife go. He was worried about the truth of a popular expression in Yanbian: “Once your wife is gone to Korea, she will be lost in the Korean Wind.” At the same time, he had to let her go if he wanted to pay off the debt he had incurred when purchasing the family’s new apartment. After his wife left for Korea in 1993, Mr. Ho underwent an internal struggle as a patriarchal male breadwinner whose wife was now earning more money than he was. He filled his time waiting for his wife with familial duties: taking care of his son, saving the remittances she sent, and transforming the money into tangible properties. His wise management of the remittances allowed his family to achieve material prosperity. Despite his and his wife’s accomplishments, Mr. Ho remained anxious about her absence. “In order not to ‘lose’ my wife and to manage our common future,” he reflected once, “I have had to develop my ‘secret method’ to keep my wife for the past twenty years.” His secret method was based on a belief that “taking care of money is more important than making money.”

In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx (1998, 138) writes about both the constructive and destructive force of money. As an impersonal but objective medium of value exchange, money is intimately mediated by human attachments. It directly transforms human bonds through its dramatic intervention into relationships between subjects. Yet we cannot know what changes money will foment in human bonds; the uncertainty of money arouses anxiety about its uncertain consequences. Mr. Ho, for instance, described the creative power of money in transforming his wife into a controlling figure. Thanks to her income, Mr. Ho’s wife gained power over many aspects of their marriage. For example, when Mr. Ho bought a new apartment with the remittances he had saved, his wife asked somebody else she knew to verify the actual price and conditions of the home. Apparently, she never fully trusted the way Mr. Ho spent her money. Although Mr. Ho felt horrible about his wife’s suspicion, he knew that it was the consequence of her labors and the sacrifice of her body and youth. He believed that the money in fact belonged to her. Thus there was little he could say against her. At the same time, Mr. Ho grew incredibly anxious about his wife’s growing freedom as a sexually independent subject. Mr. Ho always feared that his wife might have affairs with Korean men, whom he imagined as “cooler” and more sophisticated than Korean Chinese, based on his experience viewing Korean soap operas. His wife’s increased freedom meant increased anxiety for him. Despite his loneliness and frustration, however, he could not imagine having an affair with another woman. “If I had an affair, I would lose my wife, my money, and all that I have made. How could I dare think of such a thing?” After observing many cases where waiting partners’ extravagant spending of remittances ended in divorce, Mr. Ho was convinced that his proper financial stewardship was the core element strengthening his long-distance marriage.

Mr. Ho’s anxiety reached its peak when he visited Korea. He was eager to see the capitalist country, but even more eager to see his wife for the first time in three years. Mr. Ho was excited about the trip, and he imagined how emotional, moving, and arousing the encounter would be. He repeatedly practiced the right words to express his love for his wife. However, when he met her in Seoul, Mr. Ho was utterly disappointed. All she talked about was money. “My wife was very cold toward me. I had dreamt intensely about having sex with her. But she seemed to have no interest in me. She ‘gave’ herself to me only once, and was in fact very reluctant. We had not seen each other in three years. I wondered what had happened. Is this because of capitalism?”

His wife, Mr. Ho believed, had developed a strong attachment to money as a result of her long and harsh labors, more than twelve hours a day for years and years in exploitative conditions. Mr. Ho believed his wife worried about neither her husband nor her son. All she seemed to be concerned about was money—the way in which her “blood money” should be spent, saved, and managed. She had been living for money.

I see her obsession with money from two different angles. First, Mr. Ho’s wife’s strong attachment to money reflects her desperation to claim a hidden relationship between her work and its outcome. Money is an emblem of her investment of time, health, youth, and loneliness, a biography of her labor during the past twenty years. These financial objects act as her alter ego and a manifestation of herself, which needs to be well-managed and preserved in whatever forms it takes. Second, money demonstrates its transformative power in reshaping the couple’s relationship and subjectivity. Mr. Ho’s wife converted herself from a docile wife working in a low-level factory job into a controlling breadwinner who directed the family’s financial fortunes. At the same time, Mr. Ho—a self-defined patriarchal Korean Chinese man—dedicated himself to “caring work,” normally considered the province of the wife, all the while catering to her directives. Despite the material affluence he was able to achieve because of his wife’s remittances, Mr. Ho had to develop a “secret method” to tame the transformative power of money and the unpredictable desires of his wife in more creative ways. He did this by overseeing the expansion of the family’s wealth and the maintenance of their home to which his wife would (hopefully) want to return. Remittances have their own agencies and act both as an end and as a means.


Whereas Marx highlights the transformative potential of money, Marcel Mauss (2000) emphasizes the anxiety that follows from the mutual obligation implied by the gift—the requirement that it be reciprocated in time (Gregory 1982). Jacques Derrida (1994) also considers the “time limit” as a condition for a gift to become a gift: only if there is a deferral between exchanges and only if waiting is experienced can something be considered a gift. Under the gift exchange, the wait between receipt of the gift and its reciprocation creates anxiety, because failing to return the gift or breaking the promise could result in the destruction of the relationship. Due to this kind of waiting two parties expect promises to be fulfilled in time.

Yet I would like to push the analytical meaning of waiting beyond its gift-return relationship by thinking further about the role of the promise for a separated, transnational couple. In reality, people must cope with broken promises, as we saw when Ms. Li’s husband betrayed her both emotionally and economically. When waiting is conditioned by factors far beyond individual control, such as state policy changes, evictions, or new housing developments, it becomes more oppressive because it undermines the individual’s or the family’s ability to plan economic and social activities (Harms 2013). An overabundance of unstructured waiting time indicates a form of precarity, social suffering, and social exclusion. As recent ethnographies have highlighted, those who are waiting experience boredom and suffer from high unemployment because of postsocialist development and neoliberal economic restructuring (Harms 2013; Jeffery 2010; Mains 2007; O’Neill 2014).9 Yet waiting is not a completely passive, powerless, and unproductive condition, or a mere consequence of structural violence. As Craig Jeffery (2010) points out, waiting can be transformed into an opportunity to make social connections. Instead of anxiously waiting for something to end or to happen, those who wait can actually create economic value by producing not things but social connections that turn possibilities into realities (Harms 2013). In fact, “skillful waiting” produces a subject suited to the speed and contingency of late capitalism (Chua 2011).

Following the narratives of Korean Chinese, I have argued that affective deferrals and vulnerable socioeconomic conditions demonstrate waiting as a key element of value production in transnational migration. Here, waiting is work; Korean Chinese who wait in Yanbian do not work directly for money, but rather for the potential of making or receiving money as they sustain the affective thread between the mobile and the immobile. Waiting is work because the act of waiting constitutes a means of motivating two parties to remain together and committed as part of a larger circuit of migration and remittances. But the work of waiting is not always appreciated, nor is it necessarily monetarily rewarded as a form of waged labor.

Mr. Ho’s story tells us how waiting and remittances represent a coeval embodiment, both promise and love, in support of a family’s future through a deferral of togetherness. Mr. Ho had to effectively reimburse his wife by providing competent care for the money she sent; this was a way of showing his appreciation for her labor. As Mr. Ho told me, “I have always felt indebted to my wife. But I know my wife and I are mutually indebted to each other.” The mutual debt between Mr. Ho and his wife must be reciprocally returned to each other at a given time. That is because the debt, which generated waiting by manifesting the desire for possibility (Han 2011), provided the condition for continuing their marriage relationship. Mr. Ho was waiting for his wife’s return home, and his wife was waiting to return to China. They had each endured distinct kinds of waiting in different places, and they had each engaged in particular forms of attending to financial resources. Waiting bound these two parties together, conditioning their interpersonal subjectivity.

Caring for money, however, did not prove sufficient for Mr. Ho to sustain his long-term, separated relationship. In part, this resulted from the fungible quality of remittances: they are of ambiguous ownership, never fully belonging to anyone. Mr. Ho’s wife’s control over their money proved more powerful than he imagined.

One day I lent some money to my mother because she needed a security deposit to buy a new apartment. I did not tell my wife because I thought it was a trivial matter. Yet when she found out, she became incredibly furious. She could not stop crying for several days and did not talk to me for a week. I had simply lent money to my mother! Wow! Since then I have realized how important the money is to her, and also that I’m not supposed to touch the money under my control. I thought it was our money that needed my caring and management.

After discovering that the remittances could not be spent without her permission, Mr. Ho felt powerless because the situation gave him the sense that he did not have the right to use the money, even though he was responsible for safeguarding it and increasing its value.

I have never been selfish about the money. Thinking of her, I have done so much work here in Yanbian waiting for her to return. Is waiting easy work to do? I have had to play multiple roles to fill her absence as a mother, father, and teacher. Waiting has killed me for the past twenty years. Loneliness has been the source of all my diseases. I say to myself, I deserve better than this!

Even though he managed their money and properties over the years, Mr. Ho’s obligation seemed to remain unfulfilled. He felt cheated by his long waiting period because his wife was never satisfied with his efforts. Waiting, for him, entailed the sensation of being stuck. It is also hard work that requires “an ability to await events” and “the full acceptance of the other’s time” (Gasparini 1995). But as Mr. Ho found, waiting is a kind of labor that often goes unappreciated. Mr. Ho believed that he had paid back the hardship of his wife’s labor. But his wife apparently did not agree. In her view, the transaction was never fully completed, thus leaving both of them with a seemingly unpaid debt.

Mr. Ho kept emphasizing to me that his waiting as a botoli should be recognized in economic terms as well, because the remittances required his efforts if they were to expand as property and wealth. He asserted that the insufficiently recognized labor of waiting made him feel feminized and undervalued by the market and his wife. Even though Mr. Ho was not the person earning the money, he was the one responsible for spending it. And yet his expenditures were subject to the supervision of his wife, who claimed that the money belonged to her. The enjoyment of remittances is, then, always deferred from the present to the future. The ability to imagine a common future is contingent on a mutual promise, one that is breakable and fragile. In the context of this uncertainty, Mr. Ho’s secret method proved a reasonable response: preserving and investing these financial resources was the only technique and tangible evidence that could demonstrate his love and appease his anxious waiting. Mr. Ho believed that “where money is saved, my wife returns.” Money comes to appear as the true binding force for love. At the same time, this bond is fragile, since the flow of money might stop whenever the love does. Money and love can thus be connected as well as separated in a vulnerable spousal relationship navigating a transnational, migratory, and remittance-inspired setting.


By furnishing ethnographic details of the deep but vulnerable interdependency between two remittance-linked spouses,10 I have argued that waiting is often unappreciated and largely unrewarded affective work even though the act of a spouse’s waiting facilitates the flow of love, money, and people. I have also argued that waiting forms part of an intersubjective couple-project, a kind of future-making strategy necessary to survive life in an increasingly competitive China. Here, I emphasize the future not as a stable temporality or psychological state, but rather as a malleable set of possibilities that waiting partners actively manipulate to overcome uncertainty and despair. Two parties—sender and receiver—exchange and share not only economic value but also a particular responsibility for the future of their family, which is sustained through the deferral of present togetherness. Although the two parties may be eager to create a mutual futurity and sociality through the labor of waiting, their affinities may draw them into precarious conditions.

These precarious conditions extend beyond the personal level. Remittances have played an obvious role in enabling migrant families to acquire material affluence: new, modern apartments, their own businesses, expensive cars, and the ability to educate their children in Beijing, Shanghai, or other large, cosmopolitan cities. What becomes crucial in this context is how to maintain this affluent, urban lifestyle. Yet, as many Korean Chinese migrants have testified, “However much money I have earned in Korea, my hands are still empty.” China has rapidly become a much more expensive place than the country they left in the early 1990s. The necessity to survive in China pulls Korean Chinese migrants back into the circuit of migration; they must return to Korea to keep apace with economic development in Yanbian. The work of waiting continues not only under the pressures of visa regulations but also under the obligation to maintain new lifestyles and expectations in China.

Korean Chinese transnational migration suggests that the bifurcation between mobility and immobility, making money and waiting for money is not easily separable. Rather, spousal waiting at home forms part of migration; with no waiting there is no intimate bond and, in turn, no monetary circulation. Returning to Mr. Ho’s secret method, his proposition that “taking care of money is more important than making money,” I believe that the essence of the work of waiting lies in the vulnerable interdependency between (remittance) money and love, between waiting and working. It is this im/mobile unwaged affective labor that continues to drive circuits of migration today; as the Yanbian saying goes, “where money goes, love is.”


Acknowledgments My gratitude goes to Korean Chinese migrant workers and their families, as well as to the many scholars, writers, journalists, and friends willing to share their stories and time with me both in Yanbian and in Seoul. My fieldwork and writing were supported by numerous institutions at Duke University (a Research Fellowship from the Department of Cultural Anthropology, the Evan Frankel Dissertation Write-up Fellowship, the John Hope Franklin Dissertation Writing Workshop, and the Asia Pacific Studies Institute), as well as the SSRC Korean Studies Dissertation Workshop, the SSRC Korean Studies Junior Faculty Workshop, and the Japan-Korea Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. For careful readings and productive comments, many thanks to Nancy Abelmann, Anne Allison, Gary Ashwill, Christina Chia, Leo Ching, Nicole Constable, Arianne Dorval, Jatin Dua, Koonyoung Kim, Ralph Litzinger, Gabriella Lukacs, Lorien Olive, Seo Young Park, Charlie Piot, Senghwan Shin, Orin Starn, Rebecca Stein, Kathi Weeks, and Katya Wesolouski. I appreciate the comments and feedback on this article presented in the Departments of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University. I am especially thankful for Anne Allison’s multiple readings of different versions of my manuscript, and for Ralph Litzinger’s critical insight and stimulation for lively ethnography. Thanks also to three anonymous reviewers and the editors of Cultural Anthropology, especially Cymene Howe, who offered incredibly insightful comments and great support throughout the revision process.

1. I use the term Korean Wind as a translation of Han’guk param. This concept is distinct from that of the Korean Wave, which refers to the contemporary popularity of Korean culture throughout and beyond Asia. Korean Chinese transnational migration was initiated by the ethnic connections that gave them access to the Korean labor market, with its need for cheap labor in the fields of restaurant work, child care, nursing, and construction.

2. The danwei system is the basis of the livelihood and employment security of the urban working class in China (Lee 2007). Some have called this system “organized dependence” (Walder 1986) and “danwei welfare socialism” (Gu 1999).

3. Xiagang (stepping down from one’s post) is the state of no longer being employed, while still maintaining a contractual relationship with one’s enterprise (work unit) and retaining benefits (Hung and Chiu 2003).

4. I borrowed the idea of “almost Korean, but not quite” from Homi Bhabha (1994, 122), who describes mimicry as “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.”

5. These numbers are based on the statistics reports posted on the website of the Korean Immigration Office,

6. The precise number was difficult for the government to figure, given that most Korean Chinese workers stayed undocumented until the amnesty was granted in 2004. According to numbers provided by the Department of Law in South Korea, as of September 2014, Korean Chinese represent 580,520 of 1,628,771 foreigners registered in South Korea.

7. Entire families can also migrate permanently to South Korea, provided they can obtain household registration and recover their Korean nationality. Yet most Korean Chinese migrant workers are willing to maintain their lives in China, for children’s education and for the wide-ranging economic opportunities that the Chinese economy brings about.

8. I have witnessed numerous cases of fake marriages practiced by middle-aged Korean Chinese women. They divorce their current husbands and marry fake husbands on paper.

9. In India, the educated young who experience “timepass” end up “being left behind” (Jeffery 2010). Romanians mired in lengthy periods of underemployment have suffered from “a brutal kind of boredom” without any social security net (O’Neill 2014). Ethiopian youngsters with too much unstructured time struggle with an inability to progress in life (Mains 2007).

10. The global financial crisis of 2008–2009 caused the value of the Korean currency to be cut in half. During that time, many Korean Chinese migrants held their Korean money without remitting it to China until the currency rate recovered.


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