As you might imagine, Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward has become the object of the Korean media’s affection and a source of national pride–his name managed to become the No. 1 search word on at least one Korean Internet portal site. I don’t find this particularly odd, and at any rate, Ward’s story is truly inspirational. I know the Nomad and Cathartidae have commented on the media’s coverage of Mr. Ward, and Jodi sparked a pretty good discussion on Ward and what actually makes a Korean. Yes, there’s a lot of nationalist chest-thumping, but that doesn’t mean the media is totally oblivious to certain social realities. Point in case would be today’s edition of the JoongAng Ilbo (Korean), which ran a front page story this morning that analyzed the “Hines Ward Craze” and engaged in some rather sincere self-reflection over the hardships faced by mixed-race individuals in Korean society. It said:
There are also voices of reflection using the opportunity to call for the correction of mistaken perceptions of mixed-race individuals. It’s said that Ward experienced the hardship of ostracism from even Korean-American society because he was mixed-race. One netizen pointed out, “If Ward had continued to live in Korea, he would have been teased as a twigi (a Korean term of derision for mixed-race people) and would have been unable to properly attend school… We must end our society’s exclusionary ethnic nationalism that views mixed-race people through colored glasses.” There are even calls for us to learn the cultural inclusiveness of American society that made Ward’s success possible.
The secretary general of HiFamily.net, which is conducting a campaign to promote the rights of mixed-race Koreans, told the JoongAng he hoped the “Hines Ward Craze” would eventually lead to greater interest in the problems faced by mixed-race Koreans.
Meanwhile, Yonhap News (Korean) ran a lengthy piece today on how the media frenzy around Hines Ward’s story should focus attention on the realities faced by mixed-race Koreans. There are some 35,000 mixed-race individuals in Korea; 5,000 “Amerasians” born of Korean mothers and American military fathers, and 30,000 “Kosians” born of a Korean parent and a parent from another Asian nation. Historically, they can be divided into three “generations;” a first generation composed of GI-fathered Amerasians, a second generation that arose in the 1990s as more and more South and Southeast Asian men came to Korea in search of the “Korean Dream,” and a third generation born since 2000 of a rapidly increasing number of marriages between rural Korean fathers and Southeast Asian women.
According to the report, despite globalization and the appearance of mixed-race stars on TV (like Daniel Henny and Dennis Oh), attitudes concerning mixed-race Koreans are changing slowly in a society that puts primacy on ethnic purity. They are still treated much as “strangers” in many segments of society, with “first-generation” Amerasians born of African-American fathers suffering from particular hardship.
Mixed-race Koreans find it difficult to adjust to school, and hence find their educational opportunities limited. When they try to find jobs, they rank alongside the handicapped as the people companies would like to hire least. And there are differences even within the mixed-race community, with Koasians born of Korean fathers relatively better off thanks to things like better educational opportunities, while those born of foreign fathers like U.S. soldiers or migrant workers often experience more difficult economic circumstances.
Yonhap warned that with interest in Ward focusing more on his individual success story rather than on the problems faced by ordinary mixed-race Koreans unfairly treated in the society, such mixed-race people might feel yet again deprived. Lee Ji-yeong of the Pearl Buck Foundation told Yonhap:
“The problems faced by mixed-race Koreans won’t go away just because a couple of mixed-race entertainers grow popular or because people like Hines Ward gather attention… First the government must set proper policies, and then all people must take time to work together.”
A professor at SungKongHoe University warned that while interest in mixed-race stars was better than no interest at all, there was the danger that the minority of success stories might lead some to transfer responsibility for the failures from society onto the individuals.