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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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Everywhere, Ward is peppered with the same questions by Korean reporters. They ask him every half hour, it seems, what he is feeling, what he thinks of South Korea, whether he has a message for young Koreans. They ask him what he thinks of the palace, does he like the garden, did he know Korean people slept on the floor? What's his favorite part of the country, does he like Korean food, what does he think of Korean people? And they keep shouting, holding their digital voice recorders aloft and pointing their cameras at him. He stands there in his jeans and sweatshirt, nods and smiles, saying, "It's exciting for me to come and see this great heritage, all this history."

Hines! Hines! Hines!

At every stop over this 10-day trip--at each palace, museum and hospital, at the Blue House of President Rho, at City Hall, at the Namsan Tower, and during a guest spot on a popular TV talk show, Ward holds his mother's hand and takes those questions and utters platitudes about how he's just happy to be learning about Korea. "I didn't know all this before I got here," he says. "It's wonderful to see what this country is about and what Korea's been doing." And when he's asked to sign a visitor's card, at a palace or hospital or city hall, he writes, "THANKS FOR HELPING ME LEARN ABOUT KOREAN TRADITION. GO STEELERS."

While riding in one of the three Kia Opiruses provided by the car company for Ward's traveling party--later, the vehicle he rode in would be auctioned off--Ward and his mother recline in the plush seats as the motorcade swerves through Seoul's rush-hour traffic. He expresses nothing but gratitude for how he has been treated on this trip. "This completes me," he says. "I never really got into my Korean heritage, as far as what being Korean means. It seems like I've been living with it the whole time, and I've never really gotten in touch with it.... There are some things my mom has hidden from me, like I never met my grandmother [because] my mom was disowned by her family. There was so much animosity toward her because she had an African-American child. It's like it took me winning the Super Bowl MVP to be accepted."

As for the Koreans' response to his visit, what he was most apprehensive about on the flight over: "It has been great," Ward says. "That's what this whole thing was about--repaying my mom. This is the way that I can show her that I appreciate everything that she's done, show her how proud I am of her. We're meeting the president, we're meeting the mayor of Seoul, we're on all the talk shows. What better way to show my mom the appreciation?"

Kim listens for a while before interrupting. "They treat Hines well because of the MVP, but they don't treat other mixed-race children better," she says. "Whoever marries an American, they are still going to be looked down [upon]. They look down on me. The kids can't even go to school. They spit on mixed-race kids...."

Now Ward interrupts. "My mom is suspicious of all this," he says. "She is a realist. Talk is cheap."

The next day Ward is stretching out on an intricately patterned olive-colored sofa in his Lotte Hotel suite. There are floral arrangements on coffee tables that have cloven-hoof legs. There is a huge mirror over the marble fireplace, and through the double, gold-trimmed doors is the dining room of this six-room suite with a table set for a dozen. He says he is going to hire a Korean language tutor when he returns to the States. He actually had signed up for Korean while he was at Georgia but dropped it after the first class when he realized how intensive and demanding the course would be--he was worried that it would knock down his GPA. "This time," he says, "I'm going to learn."

When Kim walks into the room to sit beside him, Ward looks at her and says yet again that he came to Korea to repay her, to show how proud he is of her. "I'm not ashamed any--"

"I know." She cuts him off. "Of course, a mama always knows."

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