February 19, 2006
Super Bowl Hero Raises Plight of Mixed - Race in S.Korea
Filed at 8:34 p.m. ET
SEOUL (Reuters) - Most South Koreans had never heard of Hines Ward before he won the Super Bowl's most valuable player award but the half-Korean's sudden fame has turned the spotlight on mixed-race children in his country of birth.
Ward was born in Seoul to an African-American father who was a U.S. serviceman and a South Korean mother. After the Super Bowl he was called a great Korean athlete and became an instant sports hero in South Korea -- a country that usually pays little attention to American football.
Ward left for the United States when he was little more than a year old and his mother Kim Young-hee raised him there. Kim, who spoke little English, worked a series of menial jobs to support her son, who once was embarrassed by his Korean mother but grew to love and respect her.
But many prominent voices in South Korea have said it was for the best that he was raised abroad because a mixed-race child would have likely faced a lifetime of discrimination in South Korea.
Due to a strict family registry system, a traditionally closed society and a history of leaders speaking of the pride of pure Korean blood, mixed race children often say they find themselves ostracized in South Korean society.
``Koreans are soaking in the success of Hines Ward and his mother. But there are doubts on whether he would have created the same story if the mother and son lived in Korea. The reality of mixed-races in Korea is anything but a success,'' the mainstream JoongAng Ilbo daily newspaper said earlier this month.
``We have emphasized the importance of being a racially homogeneous nation and the preference of pure blood for too long,'' the paper said in a front page analysis.
According to social workers and groups such as Pearl S. Buck International, which helps mixed-race children in places such as South Korea, about 17.5 percent of mixed-race children in South Korea drop out of school during their middle-school years because of bullying and discrimination.
That compares with only 1.1 percent of school drop outs for the entire population during their middle school years.
Once they get older, mixed-race people in South Korea have trouble finding jobs and getting married, the groups say.
MIXED RACES ON THE FARM
Traditionally, mixed-race children have been born to U.S. servicemen and South Korean women. Those who stayed in the country were often raised by single mothers when the American father returned home. Their South Korean families often turned a cold shoulder to the mother and her mixed-race offspring.
Kim In-soon, known by her professional name Insooni, is a popular singer in South Korea. Like Ward, she was born to a South Korean mother and African-American father who served in the military. He mother raised her alone in South Korea.
She has featured prominently in South Korean media recently recounting how TV stations would not put her on the air early in her career for fear of upsetting viewers and how she donned a hat to cover her curly hair to blend in better.
There are currently about 5,000 people of mixed Korean and American descent in South Korea and about 30,000 people of mixed Asian and Korean descent, according to estimates from the Pearl S. Buck group.
The number of mixed Asian children is growing as more and more male South Korean farmers seek brides from overseas -- mainly from China and Vietnam -- because they cannot find South Korean women prepared to spend their lives in the countryside.
``There are those who point out that the mixed-race problem has been around since the (1950-1953) Korean War, but the government has failed to yet find any solutions for it,'' said Lee Ji-young of Pearl Buck International.
CONSCRIPTS AND HOOP DREAMS
Some changes are starting to take place.
Earlier this month, the government said mixed-race young men could serve in the military.
South Korea, which has compulsory military service, had a law that did not permit soldiers who ``clearly appear to be of a mixed racial background'' from serving because of the difficulty of fitting in.
There are others who are encouraged by Hines' success.
Basketball player Jang Yae-eun was born to a South Korean mother and an African-American father who was once stationed with the U.S. military in the country.
Jang was raised alone by her mother in South Korea and said every time the pair walked together, they heard whispers and insults from Koreans they passed along the way.
``People were not kind to us. The two of us had to go through many hardships on our own,'' Jang, 20, said by telephone.
Like Ward, Jang became a sports star. She plays in South Korea's professional basketball league.
``Hines Ward's success has given me a huge surge of hope,'' Jang said.
Ward and his mother have said they will come to South Korea in April for what should be a high-profile visit. Already, the country's main airlines Korean Air and Asiana, are fighting to fly first class Ward and his mother, local media reported.
Almost every newspaper in the country has shown a picture of a tattoo Ward has on his right arm of a cartoon character carrying a football. Ward's name is written in Korean above the character.