Encouraging children of mixed race to excelA man in a yellow T-shirt and beige trousers and sporting large eyeglasses, who appears to be a middle-aged American, stands quietly beside a big, round swimming pool full of children, sometimes wandering amid the cacophony of voices. He is close enough to the pool to get wet from the water splashed by the children.
But he doesn’t seem to care, and he continues to watch over the children in silence. A little boy in a fluorescent swimsuit and cap reaches out to him, and he pulls the child out of the water and dries him off with a towel.
Benjamin Wilkerson may appear to be a typical American, but he is Amerasian. He grew up in Korea, living for more than 20 years in his mother’s homeland, and is fluent in the Korean language.
An integrated circuit design engineer for IBM in the United States, he has traveled to Korea with his daughter to volunteer for the Summer Retreat held last week by Pearl S. Buck International Korea.
The parent organization, Pearl. S. Buck International, based in Pennsylvania, was founded over half a century ago by the Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author to assist children who are discriminated against because of their mixed race or other birth circumstances.
Pearl S. Buck International Korea was established in 1964. It provides needy Amerasian children ― typically born out of wedlock and abandoned by their American or Asian fathers ― and their families with an array of health, education, livelihood and psychosocial support measures.
Individuals and groups sponsor children through a monthly financial contribution.
The Korean organization every year invites mixed-race children to participate in its summer program, which features amusements, free medical service and a chance for the children to meet their sponsors. According to Lee Ji-young, an organization spokesman, 240 children are registered with Pearl S. Buck International Korea, but roughly 600 children receive some form of help.
Such mixed-blood children frequently face severe discrimination and prejudice from Korean society and often live in poverty on a single mother’s meager income.
As a child, Mr. Wilkerson was sponsored through the organization for 12 years. Now he has become a sponsor himself, supporting three children financially through a regular monthly stipend and emotionally through the benefit of his experience.
Mr. Wilkerson was raised by his mother after his American father left Korea at the end of his military duty. He says he was not subjected to the scorn and teasing that frequently affect other mixed-blood children.
“I had a good neighbor and friends who treated me like any other boys or friends. My childhood was full of happy memories, spending a lot of time playing with my friends after school, like any boy my age. Sometimes, people gave me strange looks and whispered to each other about the way I look. Despite my young age, I could understand the uneducated people’s behavior, though.”
But he could not avoid the poverty. “We didn’t have a house, so we lived in the little space under the stairs leading to my mother’s work office,” he says. The income from his mother’s job as a telephone operator was barely enough to support the family; she struggled to pay the bills.
Still, he says, his mother used to tell him, “Son, be a respectable person like Pearl Buck,” and inspired him to have a vision. Thanks to his mother’s and grandmother’s love and care, Mr. Wilkerson says, he was able to mature into a healthy and bright boy despite the unfavorable circumstances.
In the Lotte World swimming pool on this day, mixed-blood children are not distinguished by their appearance. They are ordinary boys and girls enjoying summer vacation. “Can you swim? I cannot swim. That’s why I only walk, holding on to the edge of the pool. It is getting colder. I’d like to get out,” Elizabeth, a 14-year-old Amerasian girl, says.
At break time, the children leave the pool and head for a cafeteria. The tteokboki and noodles disappear shortly after being served to the hungry children seated at five tables.
While the children polish off their bowls, Mr. Wilkerson watches them, standing. “I hope people treat and look at these beautiful angels equally, not despising them. Who can choose his parents? Adults no longer hurt mixed blood kids with the fact that they are Amerasian. It is so sad that children hurt their feelings and they grow to hate themselves because of such icy treatment and prejudice.”
Mr. Wilkerson says he remembers being called a Korean name, Park Young-bin, by his friends. By the fifth grade he was called Tommy Park after his father, Thomas. Mr. Wilkerson says he never hated the man from whom he had originated.
Some people told him to despise his father for leaving him alone in Korea. But he says he needed to hear his father’s explanation for leaving before he decided to hate him.
“After emigrating I got to know many American fathers who were seeking the children they left in Korea. But there is no way to contact them, so I and Pearl Buck try to help them as much as possible.”
After high school, Mr. Wilkerson began work at a joint venture between an American and Korean semiconductor company, instead of entering college, to help support his family. Despite lacking an academic background, he became distinguished in his field of chipmaking by modifying a chip that competed with a Japanese model. At the same time, he attended college full time and through an introduction from a high school teacher met his future wife, a Korean woman.
His longing for his father and eagerness to work at a large company, however, led him to emigrate to the United States in the 1980s. Using only the information his grandmother had kept for 30 years, he was able to reunite with his father. His father had lived in the same house for 50 years, so he had no trouble locating him at the address his grandmother had given him.
In America, his job prospects were not bright. His experience was not recognized, so Mr. Wilkerson says it was hard to find a job in semiconductors. But he waited for the job he wanted, and began pursuing a master’s degree to improve his proficiency.
While later working toward his doctorate, Mr. Wilkerson got a job as a chip designer. Three years ago he joined IBM and now, at age 45, he is a central processing unit designer.
“I advise children there is racial discrimination anywhere in Korea and the United States. If you improve yourself in something, however, nobody will ignore you because of your color,” he says. “And educated men who are competent in their work don’t discriminate, I think.”
Despite his busy life, Mr. Wilkerson says he tries to respond to letters on the Pearl S. Buck International Web site. Here is one of those replies:
I know how you feel. I feel it in my bones.
No one can change his blood. It is NOT shameful for us.
Michael Jackson changed his face to white, even though he is famous and rich.
Why? Because, he is ashamed of himself.
However, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t change his face, and just spoke up to people.
Many people remember and respect him, because he was NOT ashamed of himself.
I love myself and have found my best talent.
Why don’t you love yourself?
Why don’t you find out your best talent?
Then you will be proud of yourself.
Everyone loves you when you love and take care of yourself.
Mr. Wilkerson emphasizes that children need both financial support and moral support to grow into healthy, happy individuals.
“Back in my childhood and adolescence I had the mental support of my grandmother, mother, friends, high school teachers and sponsors who sent letters through Pearl S. Buck all the time,” he says.
“If half-blood children are exposed to continuous care and love, they will love themselves and find their true selves, rather than giving up their life easily.”
Mr. Wilkerson says those of mixed blood are likely to be talented children because they have inherited different good characteristics from each parent. “I really want them to accomplish self-realization with those potential powers.”
by Ahn Keum-nyo