THE OUTSIDERA tall, lanky teen, Kim Ba-ul likes to shoot baskets at Korea University’s outdoor courts with his friend, Jeong Hee-cheol, most afternoons. The courts are under construction this day, so the two head for a nearby fast food joint.
As they munch on chicken sandwiches, some female students glance quickly at Ba-ul, who is 15. Others, while emptying their trays, give him a good, long stare before leaving. Ba-ul doesn’t flinch. But that’s because he’s used to it.
However, when a photographer’s flash camera goes off later, Ba-ul frowns to show his distaste. Back at home, his grandmother, Kang Il-sun, explains.
“He doesn't want his classmates to see his picture in the newspaper because he knows they will taunt him,” she says. (Ba-ul had to be persuaded by his grandmother to do this interview, for he hates being depicted as that “strange looking kid.”)
Ba-ul -- the Koreanized pronunciation of “Paul” -- is a mixed-race child, the son of perhaps an African-American soldier and a Korean woman. He has never met his father. His mother disappeared when he was less than a year old.
Ms. Kang, who does not know Ba-ul’s father’s name or his whereabouts, has been caring for her grandson since he was an infant.
“Ba-ul’s mother suffered coal gas intoxication when Ba-ul was just one month old,” she says, her voice quaking. “We couldn’t get much treatment for her. Then she started to show signs of mental illness by saying things like she was the female president of Korea. Then one day she suddenly left. We’ve waited, thinking, ‘She’ll turn up someday.’ But she never has.”
Born at a midwife’s house not far from his present-day home, Ba-ul was named after the Apostle Paul by a pastor of the church that his grandmother once attended. For a surname, he was given his mother’s maiden name.
Ba-ul lives with his widowed grandmother and two maternal uncles in a rundown neighborhood in Anam-dong, near Korea University. A tan Jindo dog that never stops barking is tied to a leash near the front door.
In this shabby abode with a closet-sized kitchen and an outdoor toilet, Ba-ul shares a tiny, perpetually cold room with his grandmother.
“The boiler costs too much so we have to use electric blankets,” says Ms. Kang. “We’ve been here since Ba-ul’s mother went away. The rent is 300,000 won ($250) per month, which is quite a burden.”
She continues: “When Ba-ul was little, he used to ask me all the time, ‘Why don’t I have a mother?’ He once said, ‘I’ve been praying to God to give me a mother but He hasn’t, so I’m not gonna pray anymore. I can live on my own.’”
So, Ba-ul never mentions his father. “Once, in a fit of anger, I said hurtful things to him like, ‘Your daddy abandoned you,’ and since then he has never mentioned his father,” says Ba-ul's grandmother. “It’s too late to look for him now or go to America.”
Worse, Ms. Kang’s daughter never revealed Ba-ul’s father’s identity. She mentioned his name once to her mother, and where she met him, but those facts have long been lost. “There’s no way we can find him,” she says.
The boy’s grandmother speaks in a low, quiet voice, fighting tears. Her heavily furrowed face and gnarled hands are of a woman far older than her 67 years. Between remembrances come heavy sighs.
A doting grandmother, Ms. Kang wishes that her grandson would gain some weight. “He is so thin that you can see his ribs. His favorite food is a hamburger, but he doesn’t get to eat it that often.” Ba-ul loved to play soccer but because he lacked endurance, he had to quit the sport in 4th grade.
With what Ba-ul’s elder uncle earns and the support the family gets from the government, the family hangs on. Ba-ul receives 214,000 won ($192) a month from Seoul, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in Korea [see box] gives the family a supply of rice each month. Neighbors help out whenever they can and Ms. Kang sometimes works part-time as a maid at a local government office.
“But it’s still tough,” she says.
Ba-ul’s two uncles, who are not at home this day, share an impossibly cramped, adjoining room. In their 40s, both men are unmarried. Ba-ul’s eldest uncle, who owns a used-record store, quit college to study for the government’s official qualifying exam, but failed. The younger uncle never finished high school and has waited tables, but mostly he does nothing.
“He’s socially retarded,” says Ms. Kang. Five years ago, the uncle began hallucinating and became dangerous to the family. “Sometimes he would charge at me with a pair of scissors. These days I don't stay home often because he might hurt me. Even Ba-ul completely ignores him.”
When Ms. Kang tells Ba-ul to be a good fellow, he frowns and snaps at her. She insists he’s a fine boy at heart, only he’s at the age when he doesn't listen to family authority figures.
He listens to his eldest uncle though, she notes, adding that the uncle gives his nephew small sums of money when he get awards in school, and even bought him a computer. He is the only person Ba-ul respects and heeds.
“Uncle is fair,” says Ba-ul. “He doesn’t scold me just for the sake of it. He is conscientious.” But he says he does not feel the same way about his grandmother, and confesses he despises his grandmother’s nagging. “She's always telling me to clean up, come home early, do this, and I can’t stand it. I’d rather have my uncle yell at me.”
Ms. Kang’s world revolves around her grandson. “When Ba-ul went off to elementary school, the kids teased him mercilessly. So I went to school almost every day to try and stop kids from harassing him.
“Children adapt well, I think,” she goes on, “but adults still stare at him and whisper when he passes by because Ba-ul is so dark.”
As she talks, Ba-ul sits in the adjoining room with his friend, Hee-cheol, also 15, playing computer games. When Ba-ul is out of earshot, his friend Hee-cheol says, “You are probably going to write some poignant tale about what a horrible life he lives, and how he eats only one meal a day and stuff like that. It’s not like that at all. He leads a normal life, you know.”
Ba-ul’s friend continues: “He’s got many friends in school. Besides, no one wants to mess with Ba-ul ’cause he’s sent two kids who got into fights with him to the hospital.”
Indeed, his grandmother tells of having to pay hospital fees twice since Ba-ul entered middle school because he beat up kids who made fun of him. Both she and Ba-ul acknowledge that his teachers at Daegwang Middle School went out of their way to be kind to him.
Ba-ul says the only times his close friends tease him is when they call him “Paul,” the Anglicized version of his name. “What I dislike the most,” says Ba-ul with a scowl, “is when perfect strangers on the street look at me like I’m some kind of alien. That really bothers me.”
He falls silent, hinting that he prefers not to elaborate. When asked to recall his early childhood, he shrugs and calls it pretty normal. “Oh, you know, me and my friends we hung out together, played games at arcades and went swimming in the streams of Dobong mountain. The usual stuff kids do.”
Ba-ul doesn’t like to talk much except to his good friends, and answers curtly. It may be shyness, but it may also be because he prefers solitude. He repeatedly says he is just fine.
“I have friends. I go to school. There's not much I need in life,” he says. Besides shooting hoops at Korea University across the street, he likes to do taekwondo, a sport in which he has a black belt. A local taekwondo school provided him a free scholarship, on account of the family’s low income. Recently, Ba-ul began attending a computer hagwon.
Ba-ul will start school this week at Hanyoung Technical High School for boys, along with Hee-cheol. Both attended a boys-only middle school which went co-ed during their second year. Ba-ul jokes, “If only we had been born a year later, we could have had all these girls in our classes. Bummer. We’re going to another all-boys school.”
Ba-ul wants to earn a lot of money so that he can travel a lot. He wants to see Japan the most, calling it “an interesting place to be.” He doesn’t know what profession he will someday enter, only that he wants to earn a decent living. He wants to be like normal people one day, having a home and family.
For now, he just wants to forget that he’s different.
For people like Ba-ul, some help is out there
The Pearl S. Buck Foundation was founded in 1964 by the Nobel prize-winning author of “The Good Earth” to give financial and moral support, and even food, to mixed-race children of American military personnel stationed in Korea and Korean women.
There are now 600 children registered with the organization, but only 230 have sponsors. Although the government assists the children through the Social Welfare Public Fund, the foundation must also rely on individual sponsors for help.
The foundation assists these biracial children (up to age 18) by linking them with sponsors, providing vocational training and organizing social events among other efforts.
The children fall into two categories: children of U.S. soldiers and a Korean mother who either are abandoned or live alone with their mothers; and mixed-race youth, or their children, living in dismal conditions.
The foundation also helps children trying to contact their father in the United States, or those who want to emigrate there.
“Most of the children have suffered terribly from scorn and vilification in Korean society,” says Lee Ji-young, spokesperson for the foundation.
“Some of the children who manage to immigrate to the United States curse this country when they leave because they have suffered so much pain.”
An estimated 5,000 children have been born in Korea who are the offspring of American soldiers and Korean women who were abandoned by one or both parents.
For more information, visit www.pearlsbuck.or.kr or call (02) 871-6916.
by Choi Jie-ho