Posts By / hlim

East Asian Mothers in Britain: An Intersectional Exploration of Motherhood and Employment by Hyun-Joo Lim

I’m delighted to say my book ‘East Asian Mothers in Britain’ has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of its Family and Intimate Life Study series.

It was nine years ago when I began my research project on East Asian mothers living in Britain as a PhD student. As an East Asian migrant woman myself who was hoping to have a child one day, I wanted to explore how migrant women with children construct their identity and how they manage childcare and employment in a context where they are forging a ‘new’ life with limited social networks. As much research is often connected with personal stories of researchers in one way or another, for me it was a journey to learn about myself, where I come from and where I have chosen as my ‘home’ country.

The last eight/nine months were intense, anxiety-ridden and at times agonising. Carving out time to read, think and write was a real challenge. Also, the fear of being rejected overwhelmed me often and I spent many days and nights worrying about the outcome. Nonetheless, I loved the process and the deeply focused time that I immersed myself in something that I love. After going through this anxiety, getting accepted for publication was such a relief. Now holding fresh copies in my hands and giving a signed copy to my son seem surreal.

The publication of this book is significant for me personally. I feel writing it has helped me to overcome the psychological barriers that prevented me from enjoying writing for a long time. Since working on the book, writing has become a routinised activity for me. It has also provided me with a significant scholarship platform upon which I can expand further. I also hope it is a welcome addition to the existing studies around ethnic minority women, given the dearth of work that examines East Asian women’s experiences in the UK.

My book is a feminist analysis of East Asian (Chinese, Korean and Japanese) migrant women’s stories in terms of their identity construction of motherhood and employment, along with gender relations at home. Women’s roles are changing throughout the world. Over decades we have witnessed rising educational levels and the growing economic as well as political participation rates of females in many countries. However, gender remains a central marker of social division, and women’s lives in both the West and East continue to be moulded by their gender status, especially in conjunction with their race/ethnicity and class. In order to highlight the complex and multi-layered characteristics of identity construction, it deploys an intersectional framework. The book illuminates that intersections of multiple categories create different outcomes for identity (re)configurations between Chinese, Korean and Japanese women. As such, the book will appeal to those who are interested in intersectionality, identity, gender, ethnicity and migration studies, as well as narrative methods.

Chapter 1 outlines key themes in the book whilst situating the stories of East Asian migrant women within the broader debates around identity, subjectivity, detraditionalisation and individualisation. Chapter 2 discusses the question of identity with specific reference to East Asian migrant women in Britain. Chapter 3 explores intersectionality and storytelling in analysing East Asian women’s stories. Chapter 4 focuses on the stories of stay-at-home mothers, mostly from South Korea and Japan, which suggests a strong support for an intensive motherhood ideology. Chapter 5 shifts to the stories of employed mothers, which indicate the importance of employment for their identity, especially among those from China. Raised in the era of post-Mao gender equality, which encouraged women’s participation in the labour market, Chinese women tended to show strong worker identity, espousing the positive impacts of their employment on themselves and their children. Chapter 6 explores the gendered division of household labour. Whilst a minority of the Japanese women who married British men claimed to have a gender egalitarian division at home, the majority of women bore the brunt of domestic chores and childcare, regardless of their employment status, national/ethnic origins and financial status. The book highlights the persistent influence of their gendered beliefs, mostly rooted in their cultural/national heritage, simultaneously intersected by other factors, such as the location of settlement and their husband’s gender beliefs linked to their national/ethnic backgrounds.

Further details of the book can be found from:

Real Stories from North Korea: Defectors Talk during BU Festival of Learning by Dr Hyun-Joo Lim, FHSS


Over recent years there has been a surge of interest in North Korea, especially concerning issues around human rights abuse. For instance, both the BBC and the Guardian have dedicated North Korea sections on their websites. Additionally, numerous publications have revealed the abhorrent reality faced by North Korean people under its highly secretive totalitarian regime (Demick 2010; Harden 2012; Jang 2014; Kang and Rogoulot 2001). As a consequence, a growing number of North Koreans are leaving their country to seek refuge elsewhere, risking their lives and often their families’. Since 2004, approximately 600 defectors have settled in the UK, creating the largest North Korean community among European countries (Free NK 2014). Yet, compared to defectors settled in other countries, such as South Korea (Lee 2015; Noh et al. 2015), little is known about the UK settlers and their experiences, particularly those who are involved in human rights activism, despite increased coverage of North Korea in the media.

As a South Korean born academic, I was instantly fascinated by the existence of a North Korean community in the UK when I discovered it as part of my research. Upon learning about it, I found out about Free NK, a human rights organisation founded and run by the defectors. According to the founder Mr Kim Joo-Il, Free NK aims to achieve two major goals through their activism: raising public awareness by illuminating the reality of North Korea to the world, whilst also working towards the subversion of the regime by informing its fellow remainders about the outside world through the distribution of newspapers in Europe and to their ‘homeland’. However, as emerged in my interviews with various members, it has faced a range of challenges and obstacles. Given the significance of their work and direct relevance to my research, it seems perfectly appropriate to organise an event as part of BU’s Festival of Learning for wider engagement with the public. Two guest speakers from Free NK travelled to BU on Tuesday 28 June to share their personal experiences in North Korea and the future direction of their work.

The first speaker, Mr Choi Joong-Wha, who served in the North Korean army since graduating high school, expressed his dismay at seeing the reality of the army first-hand. Completely different from what he was taught at school about the army as the protector of people and the country, stealing from ordinary citizens to resolve hunger and raping women were common practice. He also witnessed many soldiers suffering from malnutrition, including himself, with this sometimes resulting in death. When the audience asked him at the end of the event how he survived with little food, he opened up honestly that he was able to survive only through stealing crops and animals from farmers.

The second speaker, Mr Kim Joo-Il, who was an army officer and founded Free NK since his arrival in the UK, focused his talk on Free NK activism and the future of North Korea. He outlined a range of methods that human rights activists deployed to send messages to people remaining in the secret regime, such as the use of balloons and drones. He talked of his experience during his service at the De-militarised Zone near the border with South Korea. During this period, he used to listen to South Korean radio programmes at night because they often spent the late hours in complete darkness due to limited electricity. According to him, these programmes were more enticing because they were not propagandistic but ordinary radio programmes, which revealed a comparatively free life in South Korea. Drawing on this personal experience, Free NK activists try to send newspapers that cover mostly usual news items and adverts to North Korea, rather than containing propagandistic messages.

Mr Kim also pointed out that the successful transformation of North Korea can only be achieved by the ordinary people, not by the privileged class targeted by the international society. Although the ultimate vision of many North Korean defectors is the unification of the North and South through the democratization of the former, both speakers are acutely aware of the huge chasm between the two due to different historical, political and economic paths taken by them. Until then, it will be a long journey.

The event was a great success with excellent engagement from the audience. It was also chosen by BU’s Media and Communications team as a press release that was picked up by the Bournemouth Daily Echo on 4 July 2016.

If you want to know more about my research on North Korean defectors, please email



Chung, B-H. (2009) Between Defector and Migrant: Identities and Strategies of North Koreans in South Korea. Korean Studies, 32, 1-27.

Demick, B. (2010) Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. London: Granta.

Free NK (2014). North Korean Residents Society. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2015].

Harden, B. (2012) Escape from Camp 14. London: Mantle.

Jang, J-S. (2014) Dear Leader. London: Ridler Books.

Kang, C-H and Rigoulot, P. (2001) The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. New York: Basic Books.

Lee, H. (2015) The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. New York: HarperCollins.

Noh, J-W., Kwon, Y-D., Yu, S., Park, H-C., and Woo, J-M. (2015) A Study of Mental Health Literacy among North Korean Refugees in South Korea. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, 48, 62-71




Seeing through the Confucian ceiling: Chinese and Korean mothers in England

Dr Hyun-Joo Lim

This year’s British Sociological Association annual conference was held at Glasgow Caledonian University on the theme of ‘Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?’ Taking place in April each year, it is the biggest Sociology conference in the UK. With so many great opportunities to meet new and old academics, I always find this event utterly exciting and inspiring. 

At this conference I presented a paper examining the experiences of Chinese and Korean mothers in England – titled ‘Seeing through the Confucian Ceiling’. This paper is drawn from life history interviews with ten Korean and eight Chinese mothers living in England. I analysed my data using six analytical categories, which are: motherhood and gender ideology; educational level; reasons for migration; the length of stay in England; economic circumstances of the family; and the local communities in which they reside. The paper has been submitted to Families, Relationships and Societies and is currently under review. It aims to address the following questions:

1. In what ways does the motherhood ideology of Chinese and Korean mothers in England differ, and what impact does this have on their decision towards childcare and employment?

2. What are the major factors affecting such attitudes and behaviours in a diasporic setting?

3. What implications does this have on gender relations at home for these women?

I focus on the different motherhood ideologies of Chinese and Korean women and how this impacts on their employment and childcare.

Historically both China and South Korea have been heavily influenced by Confucianism, an ancient Chinese tradition that is refined by Confucius, which supports patriarchal gender relations. The key principles of Confucianism include: hierarchical human relationships, fulfilment of individual duties, communitarian values over individual ones, filial piety, and importance of seniority. Yet, simultaneously China and Korea have undergone divergent socio, political and economic development. For instance, China has only opened up the economy to market competition since 1978, much later than Korea, whilst maintaining its socialist political system. On the other hand, Korea has followed the capitalist market economy and the democratic political system since the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948. As a consequence of this, China and Korea have developed different ‘national cultures’, founded on the distinctive socio, economic and political characteristics of the individual countries. In line with this, existing studies conducted in these countries have indicated that despite the impact of Confucian patriarchal ideals on both societies, women in China and Korea have heterogeneous understandings of what constitutes ‘good’ mothering (e.g. Cho, 2002; Rofel, 1999). Thus, there are notable differences in the employment patterns of women with dependent children between China and Korea (see Brinton, et al. 1995; Cook and Dong, 2011).

My findings suggest that Korean mothers retained their traditional values and gendered roles, having chosen not to get involved in paid employment in order to undertake childcare responsibilities. They strongly supported intensive mothering, in which the mother takes the major responsibility for her children. Often the women described mother’s employment as having a detrimental impact on their children’s emotional wellbeing. Even those who were in employment did not show much difference in terms of their support for intensive motherhood.

By contrast, Chinese mothers did not endorse intensive mothering and showed their strong inclination to work even after moving to England, similar to their middle-class counterparts living in urban China. They constructed this as an effect of Mao’s socialist work ethic, under which they were brought up, irrespective of their economic circumstances and educational levels. In this sense, their paid work was not a mere means to provide financial support for the family, unlike existing literature has suggested, but also a crucial part of their identity.

However, despite seemingly stark differences between the two groups, gender relations at home appear to be similar. Although the accounts of Chinese mothers seem to indicate gender equality on the surface, their interview data suggest continuing gender inequality for the majority of these women, taking the double burden of childcare and paid work. Although Chinese and Korean mothers showed very different beliefs and attitudes towards employment, all the women took the primary responsibility for household labour, regardless of their educational level and employment status.

In terms of intersecting analytical components, Chinese and Korean women’s motherhood and gender ideology as obtained in their country of origin, along with their settlement into respective ethnic communities, continued to have a dominant impact on their lives in England. As for the other four analytical categories, they seem to have had less obvious impact on Chinese and Korean women’s lives. However, drawing on Hall (1990), it could be suggested that what is considered to be ‘an East Asian way’ in a transnational setting is not the same as what it is in their ‘home’ countries because it is ‘imagined’ and ‘reconfigured’ in a diasporic context. In this sense, I argue that the mothering ideologies and gendered lives for my participants are ‘hybridised’ forms that are distinctive from those existing in both their ‘home’ countries and England.


“I should have married an Englishman”: East Asian women’s perception of their husband’s ethnicity on gendered division of household labour


Dr Hyun-Joo Lim, Faculty of Health and Social Sciences

University of Bristol’s Centre for East Asian Studies at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies organised a workshop on Europe and East Asia for PhD researchers and early careers academics on Friday 27 March. This was a great opportunity for an academic like me, whose interest lies in East Asia and migrants from this region, to present my work and to network with emerging scholars in the field.

My presentation in this workshop focused on East Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) women’s perception of their husband’s ethnicity in the division of housework and how they construct different modes of masculinities based on ‘race’ and ethnicity. This paper was drawn from my PhD, which examined the life stories of first generation East Asian women living in England. One of the objectives of the study was to explore gender relations at home and the ethnicity of the husband emerged as a major factor affecting them. My findings indicate a certain degree of differences in the division of household labour between couples, depending on whether they have got married to British men or East Asian men. Three participants reported to have egalitarian gender relations at home with men sharing housework and childcare either equally or even taking primary roles. All the women in this category got married to white British men. By contrast, 11 women said that they took almost sole responsibility for housework and childcare, regardless of their employment status. Among this group all but one woman were married to East Asian men.

Whilst the above findings are interesting and illuminate some degree of reality in these women’s experiences, the aim of my research is not to present a generalisable fact. Rather, I was interested in how these women construct divergent modes of masculinities in their talk and its theorisation. Therefore, my paper focused more on the nuanced meanings of East Asian women’s narratives and the impact of cultural imperialism on their perception of masculinities. More revealing than my above findings is the way women divide masculinities along the racial line and place a kind of hierarchical order. Often in their stories British men were depicted positively as egalitarian and doing a lot in the house. If they didn’t, they were represented as outdated like East Asian men. In contrast, East Asian men were portrayed as backwards and traditional, who did not move a finger in the house.

The idea of ‘racialised masculinities’ was developed from the concept of ‘racialised femininities’ based on the work of Pyke and Johnson (2003), which explored the way second generation Korean- and Vietnamese-American women construct femininities in their everyday life. According to this study, young Asian American women depicted American and Asian femininities in a dichotomised way, similar to the way my participants talked about British and East Asian masculinities. Their participants represented American femininity as independent, active and assertive, superior to Asian femininity, which is seen as passive, weak and hyperfeminine. My paper illuminates East Asian women’s internalisation of the discursive construct of the Orient by the West (Said’s 1978) and how it continues to affect their everyday psyche, resonating in their language. I concluded the presentation, arguing that racially divided masculinities overlook persistent gender inequality in Britain as well as variation within a society. For instance, it is well documented that women continue to take the majority of household work, including childcare, in Britain, despite some increase in men’s participation (e.g.  Crompton, et al. 2007; Geist 2010; Kan 2012). Simultaneously, a growing number of East Asian men, especially those who are well educated and have professional jobs, are contributing more and more to housework and childcare (Ishii-Kuntz, et al. 2004; Schwalb, et al. 2004, 2010; Yoon and Chung 1999). The paper was very well received with a lot of follow-up questions and round table discussions.