Updated 4/10/2006 6:43 PM ET
SEOUL, South Korea — At school, they taunted him for his looks — half-black, half-Asian. “Jackie Chan!” they’d say. “Bruce Lee-roy!” At home, he didn’t understand why his mother struggled with English, couldn’t help him with his homework and made him take his shoes off before he walked in the door.
“I was a lost child,” Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward says. “I wasn’t accepted in the black community because I was Korean, and I wasn’t accepted in the Korean community because I was black.” He blamed his Korean mother for the teasing he got on the playground in suburban Atlanta. “I was ashamed of the person who instilled everything in me. I let the kids get the better half of me.”
How different things are now. Ward, 30, describes his childhood while relaxing in the $6,300-a-night Royal Suite in Seoul’s Lotte Hotel. His mother, Kim Young-hee, sits proudly beside him on an overstuffed couch, sunlight streaming through a window that offers a glorious view of the Seoul skyline and the mountains behind it.
Ward made it through adolescence, through the University of Georgia and into the NFL. He’s a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and MVP of Super Bowl XL. His five catches for 123 yards and a touchdown led the Steelers to a 21-10 championship victory against the Seattle Seahawks in Detroit on Feb. 5.
Last week, he and the divorced mother who worked three jobs to support him returned in triumph to the country where he was born. He credits her for his transformation from confused, angry adolescent to confident NFL star. “She gave up so much,” he says. “It’s a great success story.”
His mom still works at a high school cafeteria in suburban Atlanta; she tried retirement but gave up after two months.
Ward and his mother have been welcomed as heroes in South Korea, where kids like him — children of Korean women and American GIs — have been treated as pariahs, shunned, ridiculed and locked out of the best jobs and schools.
On this trip, Ward has met the president, thrown out the first pitch at a baseball game and endured camera crews hounding his every step as he tries to tour the city of his birth. At a news conference at the Lotte Hotel last Tuesday, 200 reporters and photographers filled a meeting hall with a capacity for 130, yelling at each other and jostling for position.
Ward even canceled some planned stops to escape. “It’s been wild,” he says. “I knew it was going to be crazy. But it’s pandemonium crazy. I didn’t know that.”
The adulation is a little awkward. Ward knows if he’d grown up as a half-black child in South Korea he likely would have been relegated to a second-class existence. His Korean mother knows it too. She chose a tough, lonely life in the USA to spare him the ordeal.
“I enjoy the Korean community support,” Ward says. “My mom is still leery: ‘Is it because he’s MVP, or do you really accept him?’ “
Ward has teamed with Pearl S. Buck International, a Bucks County, Pa., organization, to support mixed-race children in South Korea. He’s hoping his story will encourage South Koreans to show more tolerance. “They didn’t have a choice to come into this world as a biracial kid,” he says. “If you can welcome me — a guy who doesn’t speak the language — you can do it for them.”
South Korea’s 5,000 Amerasian children born since the Korean War have struggled to fit into a society that takes prickly pride in its 99%-plus ethnic homogeneity.
Teased and bullied, 9.4% of Amerasian children drop out of elementary school; another 17.5% quit middle school, according to Pearl S. Buck International. As adults, more than 45% are unemployed or work odd jobs to get by, the Buck organization says.
Seven-year-old Ahn Arum, daughter of a Seoul woman and an absentee American father, refuses to study Korean at school. “She doesn’t know why she should read Korean. She doesn’t feel Korean,” says her mother, Ahn Jin-hee, 29. “The boys tease her. They say she has curly hair; she is black; she is smelly. (Even) my parents didn’t want to take their granddaughter outside because it was disgraceful.”
Kim Su-bin, 20, says she goes to the salon every three months to straighten her curly hair, evidence that her absentee father is black. Just in case, she wears an Adidas cap: “I want to hide my frizzy hair.”
For outcasts such as Ahn Arum and Kim Su-bin, Ward’s celebrity is a godsend. Suddenly, their neighbors and classmates are rethinking their attitudes. “This Hines Ward phenomenon is very positive,” says Seoul resident Jung Young-ja, 72. “We’ve been proud of our homogenous society. It’s time to change.”
South Korea has little choice: Already more than 10% of South Koreans marry foreigners — mostly brides imported from poorer Asian countries. The country has 35,000 “Kosians,” offspring of a Korean and a parent from elsewhere in Asia; they are expected to emerge as a voting bloc over the next two decades, says Song Young-sun, a South Korean legislator.
So Ward is helping prepare South Korea for its multicultural future: “That guy has no idea how much good he’s doing,” says Janet Mintzer, president of Pearl S. Buck International.
Ward was born March 8, 1976. A year later, his American GI father took his Korean bride and his young son back to the USA. But the marriage quickly disintegrated. A court, convinced Kim Young-hee didn’t have the language or job skills to support a child, gave custody to Ward’s father.
But Kim didn’t give up. She stayed in the USA, working three jobs and saving everything she could. When Ward was 7 or 8 years old, he came to live with her. The change was traumatic: He was moving from an all-black neighborhood to a mixed-race community in suburban Atlanta and into a household where he and his mother could barely communicate.
Ward excelled in athletics but still struggled to find an identity between two cultures. When he was a teenager, Kim recalls, Korean neighbors recruited him to join their basketball team for a tournament and excluded him from the celebration afterward. “They used him,” she says. “I cussed them out.”
Kim knew nothing about football during Ward’s high school career — even when some of the top college coaches came calling, trying to woo the star from Forest Park High School. “Tom Osborne, Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden were in our living room,” Ward says. “My mom didn’t know who they were.”
Kim may not have known the big names or understood the X’s and O’s, but her values influenced the way her son played football. “You’ve got to be humble,” she says. Sure enough, Ward won’t take running plays off the way some star wide receivers do; he’s a ferocious blocker. And his mom better not see him dancing after a touchdown. “I tell him don’t do it,” she says. “I can’t stand it.”
Over time, she’s become a football fan. “She’s like a coach now,” Ward sighs. ” ‘You didn’t do this. You dropped the ball. You should have gone for two points.’ “
Kim didn’t attend the Super Bowl, preferring to watch it at home with friends. She didn’t want to miss the replays. When Ward called her after his MVP performance, she was fast asleep. She had to get up at 5 a.m. to go to her job in the school cafeteria.
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