He is a most unlikely national hero, a man who has barely spent any time in South Korea, speaks little of the language and who under other circumstances might be looked down upon in this society.
Ever since Hines Ward was named the most valuable player of the Super Bowl last week, the half-Korean Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver has been the toast of the town. People are talking about throwing parades in his honor. His name dominates the television and radio talk shows; his photo is splayed across the front pages of the newspapers.
Especially popular are close-up shots of his muscular upper arm, tattooed with his name spelled in Korean.
South Koreans’ fascination with Hines is not simply a matter of pride, but of curiosity. The 29-year-old athlete is something of a novelty in that his mother is Korean, but his father was an African American GI.
In ethnically homogenous South Korea, such mixed-race offspring are generally viewed with contempt. And because social status is based on being registered under the father’s name, children raised by their mothers alone in effect are treated as nonpersons.
Biracial men have been banned from the South Korean military, although the Defense Ministry announced Friday, in a move that some attributed to the Hines Ward phenomenon, that the policy is being changed.
“If he had grown up here instead of the United States, he would have had a hard time,” said Park Mi Na, a 17-year-old mixed-race high school student. Park, who bears a strong resemblance to the African American father she hasn’t seen since she was 2, said she has been taunted by children her entire life and stared at strangely by adults “as if I were an alien from outer space.”
Park speaks no English and doesn’t know the difference between Washington, D.C. and the state of Washington. (Her father, she said, lives in one of the Washingtons.) But she hopes to study in the U.S., if only to be someplace where she doesn’t draw attention.
Ward’s situation could have been much the same as Park’s except that he has lived most of his life in the U.S.
His parents met when his father was stationed in South Korea and his mother was working as a waitress in a nightclub. They moved to the U.S. when Ward was a toddler. After the couple divorced, a court awarded custody to his father because his mother spoke little English. But Ward ran away when he was 7 to live with his mother, Kim Young Hee, who managed to support herself and her child by working three jobs.
In interviews with the media here, Kim said she did not move back to South Korea because of discrimination against herself and her child. When she visited in 1998 to attend her mother’s funeral, she told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, people spat at her because she had been married to an African American.
Even in the United States, Korean immigrants excluded her son from their gatherings because of his racial background. “After that, I told Hines never to hang out with Korean kids,” Kim said.
Ward’s newfound celebrity has prompted some soul-searching in South Korea.
“I nearly cried when I read the story of his mother in the paper,” said Yun Nam Jung, a taxi driver. Ward should be welcomed with a parade through the center of Seoul, he said, adding: “He’s a superb man. We’re so proud of him.”
In fact, South Koreans might get their chance to celebrate Ward’s success. The MVP has said he will visit in April, perhaps with his mother. Already, the country’s two leading airlines are competing to fly them over and foot the bill for the trip.
Among the many South Koreans who want to see him in Seoul are the administrators of Pearl S. Buck International, a foundation that provides support to biracial children.
“He is an American basically, not a Korean. But the way that he overcame the hardships of his childhood could be an inspiration to our children too,” said Lee Ji Young, a social worker at the Seoul office.
There are an estimated 35,000 mixed-raced South Koreans, most of them half Caucasian, according to the Pearl Buck Foundation.
Discrimination is far worse against those who have African American fathers, although several such people have achieved prominence as entertainers.
Insooni, a well-known biracial singer, said that despite her success she made sure that her 12-year-old daughter was born in the U.S. and thus could get an American passport.
“I could bear any discrimination and taunting myself -- but as a mother, I didn’t want my child to have the same experience,” said Insooni, who goes by one name.
Many South Korean newspapers in recent days have run editorials calling for an end to discrimination. Among them, the JoongAng Ilbo opined that “pure hearts” are more important than “pure blood.”
The paper called on South Koreans to “open our minds ... to raise the second and third Hines Wards in Korea.”
The Chosun Ilbo ran a cartoon of a construction worker musing, “I wonder what would have become of Hines if he stayed in Korea?” Underneath him a biracial worker is struggling to climb up a beam with bricks on his back.
Jinna Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.