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. The number of foreigners is expected to reach 1.5 million in the next five years. Of this one million, 250,000 are migrant brides of brokered marriages. (6) Thirteen percent of all marriages in Korea are international, and 30 percent of international marriages alone are unions between rural men and foreign brides. According to Pearl S. Buck International, approximately 15 percent of all newborns in Korea are products of "mixed" marriages, and that figure will likely double by 2020. (7) Additionally, one in five children is born into a mixed family in a rural area. The legal and social criteria that govern national subjectivity and belonging are being reconsidered within the context of the challenges globalization poses for the future production of nationally viable families.
The number of government bureaus involved in the multiculturalism initiative is expansive, including the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, and the Korea League Association of International Families, among others. The pronounced goal of their coordination is to facilitate improved life conditions and eliminate widespread social discrimination. Changes to citizenship laws, the implementation of multiculturalism education in public schools, special immigration provisions for contract brides, family and childrearing support for multicultural families, language and cooking lessons for contract brides, and a host of other family-focused issues have been proposed for policy action.
Many Amerasian honhyol remain doubtful of this sudden multiculturalism chorus, however, believing it to be a public fad. "People are paying more attention to us after Hines Ward came to Korea, but I think many Koreans still discriminate ... most people don't know what we have to go through. I'm afraid this kind of attention to our struggle will only be temporary." (8) Ward's fame has also incited deep confusion and anger among many noncelebrity honhyol. A series of anonymous interviews with them reveal the opinion that his fame is hypocritical given that he is loved now for the same reason they have been hated all their lives. (9) Janet Mintzer of the Pearl Buck Foundation also instructs that, for honhyol, "conditions have not changed much, despite the media focus on the success of some entertainers of mixed heritage."
Indeed, these suspicions direct attention to the ways in which commitments to the ethno-racial nation remain staunchly embedded in the juridical and social systems of national governance. It is hard to arrange various government bureaus, such as the Ministry of Education, Family Affairs, Justice Ministry, and Human Rights Commission, to work at cross-purposes because of the ways in which the illegitimacy of interracial peoples has been historically crafted at various juridical axes. In particular, the complexity of negotiating multiculturalism policies within an enduring legal framework that promotes the exclusivity of familial and national membership along "bloodlines" seems a difficult task. Citizenship has been determined by patrilineal descent, and through this arrangement, one's access to citizenship, health care, social welfare, and state education, among other rights, hangs in the balance. Amerasians with Korean mothers (which is the case almost without exception) have been excluded from obtaining these basic benefits until very recently. Military service, which is mandatory for Korean men but illegal for Amerasian men, is also an institutional rite of passage which enables access to citizen rights. Reversing or amending these fundamental posts carries weighty implications for upsetting and redefining the hegemonic marker of Korean national identity and family--"blood purity" endorsed by patriarchal authority. As an example, in December 2005 a lawmaker from the opposition Grand National Party proposed a revision of the current nationality law to give anyone born in territorial South Korea access to citizenship. However, the proposed revision was rejected in the National Assembly due to strong opposition in public opinion. The legal roadblocks and processional hang-ups at the National Assembly reveal the complex and less attractive nature of racial law and morality, which multiculturalism rhetoric seems to too easily gloss over with discussions of diversity, human rights, and globality.
Despite this more complicated picture, the sudden and awkward public embrace of Hines Ward, like that of a handful of Amerasian entertainers, seems a spectacle icon through which the mixed-race question has been invoked within the broader political framework of multiculturalism. And through the ritual of national self-problematization and self-accounting, Korea, with a new public record of democratic principles, can move forward into a national era of globalization anew.
Background on Honhyol
Recent research conducted by the Korean Migrant Workers Human Rights Center and the Korea Youth Counseling Institute reveals the deep-seated systemic and social problems the majority of Amerasians and other mixed-race people still confront. The problem of being Amerasian is apparent in the various material and psychological conditions they have endured over the last sixty years. The number of Amerasians born in Korea since the Korean War is estimated by the Korean government to be between twenty thousand and sixty thousand, although the numbers are in all likelihood much higher. Accurate records were not kept and Amerasians were not officially monitored or classified by the state except in instances of regulating overseas adoption cases. In such instances, Amerasian mixed ancestry was represented as a type of physical disability, categorized among those with "harelip, deformity, prematurity, mental illness, and heart disease" according to a document titled "Adoptees by Types of Disability: Domestically and Abroad." (10) The question of multiracial subjectivity has been folded into pre-existing medical classifications that work to pathologize Amerasians and metaphorically liken racial hybridity to physical and mental degeneracy.
The troubled lives of many Amerasians can be gleaned by their brief brush with the Korean education system. According to a 2002 survey taken by Pearl S. Buck International, a nonprofit international adoption agency, 9.4 percent of Amerasians in South Korea failed to enter or graduate from primary school, while 17.5 percent failed to complete middle school. Many Amerasians claim they are unable or unwilling to finish school because of the abuse they endure by their peers and teachers.
I had lots of problems in school. I think there is no mixed blood kid without any problem in school years.... I was ridiculed very often, so I did not want to go to school.... When I was a junior high student, I ran away with my friend. (Case 5, male, 45) (11)
A questionnaire administered by Park Kyung-Tae, in which he surveyed 101 Amerasian respondents, reveals that many experienced physical and verbal abuse by peers and teachers. These numbers reveal that a high percentage of Amerasians were regularly ridiculed, beaten by their peers, and treated unfairly by their school teachers. These factors combined with frequent isolation meant that many came to rely on violence or escape as a way to deal with problems at school.
Even when Amerasians completed school and excelled, they were aware of the slim possibilities of being accepted by a university or obtaining gainful employment. The Reverend Sveinung Moen, who wrote the only study exclusively devoted to Amerasians in Korea, …
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Publication information: Article title: Mixed Race Peoples in the Korean National Imaginary and Family. Contributors: Lee, Mary - Author. Journal title: Korean Studies. Volume: 32. Publication date: Annual 2008. Page number: 56+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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