In S. Korea, a Silver Lining to Being Biracial

Times Staff Writer

For years, Lee Yu Jin kept her secret.

Whenever anybody asked -- and they did all the time as her celebrity as an actress and model spread -- she simply denied the rumors. No, she was not a foreigner. She was Korean.

Finally, last year, Lee called a news conference and tearfully acknowledged that her father was an American GI. As her fans had long suspected from her 5-foot-9 stature, she was of mixed race.

"People ask why didn't I come out earlier and why this is such a big deal," the 27-year-old said. "It wouldn't be anywhere else, but Korea is still a closed society where people like to talk about the purity of the race."

With her acknowledgment, Lee raised the curtain on what has become a phenomenon in the South Korean entertainment industry. Once considered a national embarrassment, a number of biracial entertainers have become famous in the last few years. Many of them, like Lee, have American fathers.

Sonya, a popular singer who goes by only her first name, has landed starring roles in the South Korean stage versions of the musicals "Fame" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Jennifer Young Wisner, a bilingual 20-year-old who grew up in North Carolina, has a television show on the English-language Arirang channel and will release an album this year. Another biracial South Korean, Kim Dong Kwang, is a well-known basketball coach.

In a country that prides itself on the homogeneity of its population, these success stories have helped to erode long-standing prejudices.

Changing attitudes toward race reflect the larger changes in the society. Korea was once nicknamed the "Hermit Kingdom" for its extreme isolation from the outside world, and few Westerners visited before the end of World War II. The first mixed-race children here were widely assumed to be the illegitimate offspring of GIs and were usually put up for adoption.

"My impression is that there is more discrimination against Amerasians in South Korea than anywhere else in Asia and that it has not improved significantly," said Janet Mintzer, president of Pearl S. Buck International. The Pennsylvania-based foundation, which is credited with coining the term "Amerasian," works with the biracial children in not only South Korea, but also the Philippines and Vietnam, among other Asian countries in which the U.S. military has had a presence.

To some extent, the discrimination is institutionalized. Biracial men cannot join the army, which makes them ineligible for many jobs and benefits.

South Korea uses a traditional Confucian-inspired family registry that requires children to be listed under their fathers' names and their fathers to be Korean -- so that children with foreign fathers are in effect nonpersons under the law. Lee, for example, was registered under her grandfather's name, making her, under the law, her mother's sister.

Her parents divorced when she was 1. All she remembers of her father is that he was Latino and lived in New York.

Lee grew up in Seoul. As a child, she was beautiful and athletic. She received excellent grades in school. Yet everybody pitied her.

"They said I would come to a bad end, maybe end up in a brothel, because I was of mixed blood," Lee said. "Even my mother felt sorry for me. She still does. Even if I became president, she would feel sorry for me. That's Korea."

She started modeling as a teenager and switched quickly to acting. She landed a part in a television sitcom, "My High School Days," in which she played a typical Korean schoolgirl. That's when she decided it would be better not to disclose the facts of her paternity.

But there were clues. Her creased eyelids, for example -- a feature many South Korean women and even some men obtain through plastic surgery. Lee sees a certain hypocrisy in a society in which people go under the knife to make themselves look more Caucasian, yet look down on those of mixed race.

She says her career has not suffered since she "came out of the closet." The main inconvenience is her height -- a full 5 inches taller than the average woman here.

"Next to other Korean actors and actresses, I look like the Incredible Hulk," she said. "That's the one thing I'd change about my looks if I could."

The offspring of African Americans face even more racism.

Sonya, the singer, grew up in the conservative city of Taegu. Her GI father was reassigned from South Korea shortly after her birth, and her mother died of cancer when she was 7, leaving Sonya to live with her grandparents.

"My grandfather hit me and called me names. He was embarrassed by me. He used to say, 'What kind of ugly seed did you come from?' " the lovely 24-year-old recalled, fighting back tears.

Last year, Sonya was reunited with her father, a car salesman in Raleigh, N.C. The South Korean television network MBC, which sent the actress to the United States for the meeting, broadcast the teary reunion. She acknowledges that her life might be easier socially in the United States but says she is not ready to give up on her homeland.

In many ways, her unusual look has become an asset, getting her, for example, her first big part as Carmen, a Latina high school student in "Fame."

Several of her closest friends today are classmates who ridiculed her as a child. "I don't hold grudges," she said.

Both Sonya and Lee consider themselves to be entirely Korean in mentality. As is customary for unmarried South Korean women, they live at home -- Sonya with her grandmother and Lee with her mother. Neither speaks much English.

Their problems with social acceptance stem not only from being biracial but also from being raised by single mothers. In cases in which the parents have remained together, the children are usually U.S. citizens and their experiences are somewhat easier.

Wisner, whose father is retired from the U.S. military, was spared much of the abuse faced by other Amerasians because her parents are happily married, she says, and because she attended an international Christian school in South Korea.

"In school, it was OK. Many of the teachers were Americans and the kids were Koreans who had lived abroad. But when we went out on the street, there was a sense that the grown-ups didn't like us or approve. We got dirty looks on the subway," said Wisner, a student at Seoul's Yonsei University in addition to being an actress and singer.

As the country becomes more cosmopolitan, it is attracting a more diverse and international population. Nowadays, mixed-race children in South Korea are as likely to be offspring of diplomats, expatriate bankers or academics as of GIs, and an increasing number come from unions in which the father is Korean.

Yet old stereotypes hold sway, and the assumption is that their mothers were either impoverished war brides, or even prostitutes servicing U.S. troops.

"The first experience South Koreans had of mixed race were the children of very poor women living in villages near the U.S. military bases," said Park Kyong Tae, a sociologist who worked on the recent report for Durebang, a human rights group.

The population of Amerasians near the villages probably numbers about 500 today, he said. Their experiences, Park noted, are different from the children of international marriages, who tend to be more affluent than ordinary South Koreans and live in an expatriate bubble.

"One of the first questions people ask me is, 'Is it your father or your mother who is Korean?' " said Maria Hajiyerou, a 24-year-old law student at George Washington University, who is working in Seoul for the summer. "When I answer, 'My mother,' they say, 'Oh,' and give me a certain look like they've figured out everything they need to know about my background. At first I didn't understand what that look meant, but then it was something I picked up on."

Her father, a Cypriot, met her mother while they were working in New Jersey.

"I think it is getting better," Hajiyerou said. "When I was here earlier, people would point at me and even follow me. Now people don't seem to take much notice."

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