Mixed Race Peoples in the Korean National Imaginary and Family

By Lee, Mary | Korean Studies, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Mixed Race Peoples in the Korean National Imaginary and Family


Lee, Mary, Korean Studies


The Hines Ward Symptom and National Overcoming

In 2006, Super Bowl most valuable player Hines Ward was elevated to the status of a national superstar in Korea. The media seemed to be at the forefront of this publicity campaign, focusing on Ward's success as a U.S. athlete despite the hardships he endured growing up in Korea as honhyol (1) ("mixed blood") or Amerasian (2) of African-American descent. One central focus of these news stories was Ward's filial devotion to his Korean mother, which was followed by comments about the tattoo of his Korean name on his arm. The stories seemed to orchestrate a public narrative of national redemption through Ward himself, suggesting that although Korea had mistakenly rejected Ward in the past, Ward could not reject Korea; it was a part of him just as he was a part of his mother.

The social buzz over Hines Ward can be read as an attempt to achieve some sort of expedited closure on the issue of long-standing discrimination against interracial people. The recent proliferation of Korean official multiculturalism invoked to deal with the challenges of global migration and capital seem to suggest that Korean society is in the midst of "overcoming" historical transgressions and race-related injustices that have targeted mixed-race people. It is not happenstance that public debate on government-backed multiculturalism initiatives intensified during the Hines Ward craze. Legislation and social education to end discrimination toward people of "mixed blood" became a topic to consider, including a proposal to revise the language in Korean school textbooks that teaches the myth of Korean racial purity and the relationship between "purity of blood" and patriotism in civil ethics, history, and other disciplines. For the first time, perhaps, the Korean government is questioning the role of minjok (3) identity beyond its anticolonial paradigm and considering the ways in which it has been and continues to be implicated in the exclusion of minority groups.

Only a few years ago Amerasian honhyol were the only known interracial subjects in Korea and were considered shameful, regrettable byproducts of U.S.-Korea state relations. Today, however, a more recent generation of honhyol controversially referred to as "Kosians" (4) (meaning half Korean, half "Asian") from brokered international marriages are regarded in state discourse as a potential national asset. In May 2005, the Roh government announced the Act on Aging and Low-Birth Rate, which aims to "maintain the proper population composition and to improve its quality in view of maintaining the state's growth" and to "implement appropriate population politics on the basis of reasoned prediction on population change." (5) Problems of low birth rate relate to many aspects of life in the age of late capital and neoliberal principles. With the increased privatization of social services and the inflated cost of real estate and education, many families are simply not having children or choosing to have only one. The mass female exodus from rural areas into urban centers also explains why population shortages in the countryside are particularly low. Farming communities have been hard hit by debt and low productivity now that much of Korea's agricultural economy must openly compete with foreign markets.

In accordance with the newly realized interests of the state with respect to population problems, the limits to Korean subjectivity as dictated by ethno-racial conceptualizations of the nation have risen to the surface of public attention and debate. Specifically, the thousands of contract brides from Southeast Asia and China starting families with Koreans have raised deeper questions about the ethno-racial criteria that determine the legal criteria of citizenship, access to state welfare benefits, and social acceptance. The number of foreigners living in Korea totals more than one million of the country's population of forty-eight million. …

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