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The Long Way Home
KARL TARO GREENFELD
May 15, 2006
Steelers receiver Hines Ward grew up a hurt, confused child, adrift between the cultures of his African-American father and Korean mother. Even a Super Bowl MVP award did not give him peace of mind. What he really needed was a little bit of Seoul
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May 15, 2006

The Long Way Home

Steelers receiver Hines Ward grew up a hurt, confused child, adrift between the cultures of his African-American father and Korean mother. Even a Super Bowl MVP award did not give him peace of mind. What he really needed was a little bit of Seoul

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Winning the Super Bowl and the game's MVP award should have been the crowning achievements of his career, successes that would allow him to forgive and forget any perceived slights by coaches or the organization. And while it would seem that the hard-nosed Ward would be the ideal Bill Cowher guy--tough, physical, intense--the wideout says he's never had a warm relationship with him. "I don't have anything to say to him," he says. "After what he did to me, after how he treated me, no. The numbers I put up? The seasons I had, for them to keep on bringing in guys...?"

Cowher denies having anything but respect for Ward. "Our decision to draft other wide receivers was not a reflection on Hines Ward," he says. "We had lost a couple of our top veterans, and we were just trying to strengthen that position."

It is a rite of passage for Asian-Americans to visit their ancestral homes. These pilgrimages can be cathartic or, in some cases, leave the returnees confused because they are unable to make a spiritual connection with a place that has loomed so large in their minds for so long. They can come back to the U.S. with the disconcerting sense of not fitting in with either culture.

For Ward, this journey is even more complex. He did not go to Korea merely out of curiosity or a sense of family obligation but to rid himself of all that hurt and anger--and shame. And he arrives at the peak of his celebrity, as that nation's greatest sporting figure, in the spotlight from the second he steps off the plane. He meets with South Korean president Rho Moo Hyun, has honorary Korean citizenship bestowed upon him by the mayor of Seoul and travels in a motorcade that rivals that of a visiting head of state. His Q rating here is off the charts, and he knows he has a chance to have a great influence on this society. For just as Ward is struggling to come to terms with his Korean heritage, so has Korea never been willing to accept children of mixed race as anything like equal members of society. Mixed-race children have been systematically discriminated against in Korea since the Korean War, when American GIs began fathering children with Korean women. Those children were considered reminders of that dark time, which is part of the reason why mixed-race Koreans were not allowed to serve in the Korean military from the 1960s until this year. The Hermit Kingdom, as Korea is known, has never been particularly welcoming to outsiders--the country remains 99.5% ethnically homogenous--perhaps because of its brutal treatment at the hands of Chinese, Mongol and Japanese conquerors over the centuries. "A lot of it goes back to that history," says Janet Mintzer, president and CEO of Pearl S. Buck International, an organization which works on behalf of mixed-race children in Korea. "In terms of being invaded, it all resulted in this promotion of being pure-blooded." That lingering resentment has meant that Amerasian children have been treated as second-class citizens; as a result, they have dropout rates of 27% before high school and a 45% unemployment rate as adults. Mixed-race kids regularly complain that classmates, and even some teachers, bully and harass them.

"Korean people treat these kids terrible," says Kim. "That's why, even when Hines's daddy left me, I couldn't come back to Korea. I knew it would be easier for me, but for Hines it would be terrible."

In the wake of Ward's visit to their country, South Korean lawmakers are likely to pass legislation to protect the rights of mixed-race Koreans, after having just repealed the laws that had prevented mixed-race men from serving in the military. "I really want to raise some awareness about this issue," says Ward, who plans to return in the next few weeks and set up a foundation for mixed-race kids. "I'm not here to change laws. But I want to shed light on [the treatment of] biracial kids, or maybe change a person's mind who is borderline, make people look differently at a mixed-race kid because of what they've seen me accomplish."

He walks in a slow gait, hand in hand with his mother as they tour Changgyeonggung Palace in Seoul. Kim wears rubber-soled brown loafers, faded jeans and a white sweater. Her hair is cut short and piled up like the graying pompadour of an aging rocker, a curling lock out of place over her gold wire-frame glasses. Her stride is ambling, her back and rear moving in a circular motion. She is tiny. Three of her could fit in her son.

Wherever they go, they are surrounded by bands of yellow security tape held by eight security guards. Inside the little patch of earth demarcated by the tape are Ward, his mother, his two security managers and several Korean lawyers hired by Ward's management team to coordinate the visit. Outside the tape are hundreds of Korean schoolchildren, sightseers, photographers and reporters. Ward and his mother are picking their way over the courtyard stones, between red-lacquered walls and beneath ornately painted tile roofs, and listening while a guide explains how palaces were designed: "There are three gates for a king, and five for an emperor, sometimes even seven."

"And how many does Hines get?" someone shouts.

"Nine," answers one of the lawyers.

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