Steelers MVP visits Korea, and sparks soul-searching on race
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Football superstar Hines Ward is giving Koreans a lesson this week - not so much in the mysterious game of football as in racial tolerance and loyalty to family.
Mr. Ward, wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and MVP of February's Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks, is visiting for the first time since he left Korea as a baby with his Korean mother and African-American soldier father. Ward's parents soon divorced, and his mother, Kim Young Hee, raised him alone in suburban Atlanta.
Now, with his mother by his side, Ward is being received here like a long-lost son. He lunched Tuesday in the presidential Blue House. On Wednesday, he will become an honorary citizen of Seoul.
But even as Koreans watch Ward's stellar catches and crunching blocks endlessly played out on TV, they're taking a hard look at their ethnocentric culture. Ward's racial background is sparking a round of soul-searching about deep prejudices that often subject biracial children to taunts at school, rejection on the job, and poverty.
"It is very difficult in Korean society," says Yi Kyung Kyun, country director of the Pearl Buck Foundation. "They don't appreciate alien people. They are prejudiced against mixed-blood children."
The prejudices show up in every phase of the lives of the 5,000 biracial Koreans from broken homes, most of whom have never known their fathers.
"They cannot keep up with education, and they cannot get good jobs," says Yeo Han Gu, secretary-general of a nongovernmental organization, Hi-Family, that tries to reunite parents of children of mixed race. "Koreans think they are no good. Hines Ward is a very special case."
Mr. Yeo hopes that Ward - who is receiving rock-star treatment - will help to break down some of the severe prejudices often visible in this homogeneous society. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the makeup of Korean society.]
"Promise to Mother," is how Ward's Korean fans label this visit. The vow is one he made to his mother, who worked for years in kitchens and hotels, to someday bring her home.
"My mother had to overcome much more than I had to do," Ward told the press, relaxed as he talked about his family past. "I'm not here to change the world." He does, however, want Koreans "to accept me to be a Korean."
Nightly, Koreans are getting lessons in football, which is not played here on any serious competitive level, as they follow footage of Ward scoring touchdowns in crucial games.
Munwha Broadcasting, one of the three TV networks, is airing a feature on his life and plans to interview him on a main newscast.
The US Embassy, seizing on the public-relations value of Ward's visit in an era of anti-American protests and differences between Washington and Seoul on how to deal with North Korea, hosts him Thursday at a party at which he is to meet the MVP of the local amateur football league.
The adulation has raised questions among Koreans about ethnocentrism. The high-school graduation rate of biracial Koreans is far lower than the national average, and most of such children never make it through or even to college.
Mr. Yi at the Pearl Buck Foundation cites statistics that show just how tough it is for biracial Koreans without fathers to make their way.
"It's a family financial situation," he says. "It's very hard for them. Maybe one or two a year go to college, up to the second generation." The "ladies left behind," as he delicately puts it, "are lower educated, and about 10 percent of them are completely illiterate."
Koreans admit in private conversations that they feel uneasy about the presence of people of mixed race, but many wonder whether those sensitivities are justified - or moral and ethical. Many simply avoid the issue.
"It's very different from generation to generation," says Hong Hae Ryung at Seoul City Hall. "Maybe the older generation has a conservative opinion."
A measure of Ward's concerns about prejudices here is that he came without his wife and son. He says they'll accompany him next time.
The depth of the prejudice is as puzzling to Miss Hong as it is to most people when confronted by the issue. "I do not know why these people are discriminated against," she says. "They are all Koreans."
Those whose fathers are white, says Yi, comprise about 60 percent of the 5,000 biracial Koreans whose fathers have since disappeared. The rest have African-American fathers.
"It's easier for whites," he says. "Koreans really do not like black people."
A major exception is a singer, In Sooni, a star on Korean TV and daughter of a Korean and an African-American father.
She promises to show up Saturday when Ward presents gifts and poses for photographs with 100 children at Seoul's Olympic Park, before throwing out the first ball in the baseball season opener.
Ms. In has a message for children of mixed parentage as she tries to convince them they too can be stars.
"When we have a summer retreat in July, she encourages them," says Yi. "She says, 'You must work harder than any Korean.' She says, 'You know why I am what I am? Because I work harder.' "