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|11-10-2009, 07:32 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Ward Helps Biracial Youths on Journey Toward Acceptance
Ward Helps Biracial Youths on Journey Toward Acceptance
By JOHN BRANCH
PITTSBURGH — Steelers receiver Hines Ward surrounded himself with old friends at the dinner table on a recent Saturday night. The bond was as obvious as the look on everyone’s faces — half Korean, half something else. The shared experience was far more than skin deep.
There was a boy who was bullied into depression and tried to commit suicide. There was a girl ordered by a teacher to keep her hair pulled back tight, to straighten the natural curls she inherited from her black father. There was another too intimidated by her taunting classmates to board the bus, choosing instead the humiliating and lonely walk to school. There were the boys who were beaten regularly and teased mercilessly. There were college-age girls who broke into tears when telling their stories of growing up biracial in South Korea.
But when they looked around the table, they saw familiarity. And a future.
“It is so special that no one is staring at me, and no one is asking me about my hair,” Lisa So, 20, said. “It gives me hope.”
The eight boys and girls, between 16 and 21, were visiting Ward from South Korea, where people of mixed races are considered everything from a curiosity to an abomination. What starts with teasing from childhood peers often turns to widespread ostracism and discrimination. It eventually leads to higher dropout, poverty and suicide rates.
“It’s a great culture,” said Ward, who was born in Seoul to a Korean mother and an African-American soldier father, and was raised mainly in Georgia by his mother. “I love everything about it. But there’s a dark side to that culture. And me, I’m just trying to shed a light on that dark side and make Korea a better place than it already is.”
The plight of biracial children in South Korea was largely ignored until 2006, when Ward was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XL. Koreans were quick to make the link to his Korean heritage.
That spring, Ward and his mother, Young He Ward, visited South Korea for the first time since Ward was a baby nearly 30 years earlier. They were mobbed by television cameras and gawking fans. They were honored by the South Korean president.
“I got more love there than I did in the States,” Ward said.
Ward was only starting to understand the underlying hypocrisy. Biracial children in South Korea recognized it instantly.
“They liked someone because he is famous,” So said. “If you are not famous, they are very cold. So I was happy, but also bitter.”
It represented, however, a slow turn toward tolerance.
“Nobody thought this problem was so serious in Korea,” said Jin Roy Ryu, the chairman of a multinational metals company, Poongsan Corp., and of the South Korean branch of Pennsylvania-based Pearl S. Buck International, which has provided social services to biracial children in South Korea since 1965.
“We’re a closed society, and no one really talked about it,” Ryu said. “But Hines came, and it really brought the issue to the center.”
When Ward visited the Pearl S. Buck office in South Korea, he found the stories heartbreaking — and familiar.
He was a year old when his family moved to the United States. His parents split, and Ward spent his early years with his father. In second grade, Ward moved in with his mother, who spoke little English and worked low-paying jobs. She still works in a school cafeteria; Ward said he had little contact with his father.
“It was hard for me to find my identity,” Ward said. “The black kids didn’t want to hang out with me because I had a Korean mom. The white kids didn’t want to hang out with me because I was black. The Korean kids didn’t want to hang out with me because I was black. It was hard to find friends growing up. And then once I got involved in sports, color didn’t matter.”
But there is no such relief valve for most of the estimated 19,000 biracial children in South Korea. The fast-growing majority of them are Kosians, with a parent from a different Asian country.
The number of Amerasians — those generally with white or black American fathers, often from the military — is slowly shrinking. But their mere appearance leads to harsher discrimination, officials said.
“Korea is traditionally a single blood,” said Wondo Koh, a Korean who met up with the group in Pittsburgh while doing business. “We Koreans are not comfortable with this mixed-blood situation. We have become familiar now, but we did not know how to cope.”
Ward and Pearl S. Buck International have taken eight Amerasian children to Pittsburgh during each of the last four football seasons. They stay with host families, people who have adopted South Korean children through Pearl S. Buck. They share stories about their experiences, a bit of therapy for children who usually do not know other biracial people back home.
Ward’s message: never be ashamed; embrace the opportunity to be part of two cultures.
Ward met the contingent at the airport. The next day, he treated them to several hours of arcade fun at Dave & Buster’s. Ryu and Ward hosted dinner for the group at a Korean restaurant.
Gifts were exchanged. Two boys did a tae kwon do exhibition. Two girls sang. All of them read essays written as part of the application for the trip. Several cried.
Earlier that day, Min Hyeok Han, 16, sat at the dining room table at the home of Ryan Little and Mary Kate Kelley, parents of two young boys they adopted from South Korea. Like most of this year’s group, Han was making a repeat trip to Pittsburgh.
“Here, they would just be the popular kids,” Kelley said. “It’s hard to imagine what they go through in Korea.”
Han is funny and smart, with a hipster’s bent and a maturity beyond his years. Korean strangers, he said, often think he is American — a common conclusion that he and the others rarely correct, simply to avoid an uncomfortable episode as a biracial South Korean.
Han lives with his grandparents and a great-grandmother. His mother lives nearby, but he knows nothing of his father, a white American soldier. Cousins shun him, he said, especially those from the countryside.
He said he was physically bullied by classmates once or twice a week, and verbally harassed daily — often with derogatory terms reserved for mixed-breed dogs. Sometimes, the barbs were aimed at his mother. When Han sat down for lunch with other children, he said, they frequently moved to another table. He has been beaten on the street by much older children quick to notice that he was a “half-blood.”
Han said he was ashamed to admit that he tried to overdose on his grandparents’ medications and had cut his wrists.
Things have changed the last three years. Han met Ward in 2006. When classmates saw pictures of the two together, Han was suddenly treated differently. Most antagonism ended. Some peers even find his biracial heritage “cool,” he said.
“I can see Korea is changing every year,” he said. “It’s slowly changing.”
On Oct. 25, before the Steelers played the Minnesota Vikings, the group stood on the sideline at Heinz Field. They were bedecked in Ward’s No. 86 jersey and other Steelers gear. Ward came over for high-fives and hugs.
From the end-zone stands, sitting with their host families, they waved Terrible Towels and cheered the Steelers to victory. The next day, they left Pittsburgh for a week of sightseeing in Philadelphia, Washington and New York with Pearl S. Buck officials. Then most returned to South Korea, carrying with them a booster shot of confidence.
They are part of a generation caught between yesterday’s racism and tomorrow’s acceptance. But as they sat around a dinner table in Pittsburgh, their vastly different faces did not seem unusual at all. What they had in common were their smiles.
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