They’re here, they’re biracial ― get used to itOn a recent Sunday at Lotte World in Jamsil, Kim Deanna, a 16-year-old known for her appearances on SBS-TV’s “TV Animal Farm,” is getting ready to take to the runway in a modeling competition. Before going on, she walks through the crowd, in overalls, a hooded pink sweatshirt and pigtails.
The whispers begin: “There’s Kim Deanna!” Soon, a crowd of children and mothers wielding camera phones has gathered around her.
This is a far different reception than she used to get when she first moved to Korea. Back then, the whispers she sometimes heard were, “Look at that strange person.”
Kim is the daughter of an American father and a Korean mother ― making her what’s called a honhyeol in Korean, or a biracial person.
In a country where tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers have been stationed for more than 50 years, being a honhyeol has often meant ― as in Kim’s case ― that the father was an American G.I. And in a country acutely conscious of social hierarchy and so-called “purity of the blood,” such a background was long considered a source of shame.
“I’m not sure I would have been able to do this five years ago,” Kim says.
Perhaps not even one year ago. Consider this scene, from May of 2003:
A beautiful young woman sits before a crowd of reporters, sometimes having to stop in the middle of what she’s saying because of her tears. At times, she covers her face, as if trying to distance herself from her audience.
A model and actress, Lee Yoo-jin has been in the public eye for more than five years. But until this press conference, she’s never acknowledged that her father was an American soldier. The purpose of the press conference is for Lee to apologize to the public for withholding this information.
Some people speculate that Lee “came out” because people wouldn’t stop asking her about her parentage. A few dismissed the press conference as a publicity stunt. Still others are angry that she felt the need to say anything about it at all.
After all, for many people, none of this is a big deal. “Who cares if I’m biracial?” asks Kim Deanna.
“Being biracial is the hottest news,” says Chung Seung-hoon of TTM, the management company that brought Korea the transsexual model and singer Ha Ri-su (whose name is a play on the phrase “hot issue”). The company is now grooming Jennifer, a singer whose father is American and mother is Korean.
New faces, from different backgrounds, are helping to open the doors for biracial entertainers. The singer Camilla Ghedini, whose mother is the famed Korean singer Patti Kim and whose father is a successful Italian businessman, released an album, “Introspect,” last year and debuted Sunday in the musical “Fame,” playing at the Olympic Park complex.
“More biracial entertainers are being accepted for their talent,” says a “Fame” spokesperson. “And stars like Camilla break that stereotype of biracial children who grew up in poverty.”
One of the few biracial entertainers in past decades to surmount the country’s prejudices and become famous was In Sooni, a beloved Korean singer who became well-known in the 1980s. “I’ve come this far because of In Sooni,” says Sonya, a 24-year old singer also starring in “Fame,” and the daughter of an American father and a Korean mother.
In Sooni was born in 1957 to a Korean mother and to a U.S. sailor, who left Korea when she was three. She had a hard time in middle school and high school, but the Pearl S. Buck Foundation helped her.
She moved to Seoul after graduating from high school in 1978, and was introduced to the stage by a singer who performed at the Yongsan garrison. She joined a trio, Heejamae, which became famous for the song “Silbeodeul” (Weeping Willow).
After a year and a half, she launched a solo career, singing songs that would become Korean pop classics, like “Ddeonayahal Geusaram” (The Man Who Has to Go), “Bamimyeon Bammada” (Every Night) and “Seulpeumman Namaiseoyo” (All That’s Left Is Sadness).
In 1984, when she released a song titled “Areumdaun Uri Nara” (“Our Beautiful Country”), her racial background was raised as an issue by some people who suggested that a singer who wasn’t a full-blooded Korean had no right to sing such a song. But when this criticism became public knowledge, she received support from around the country.
Several years ago, she helped sponsor the opening of the Children’s Center in Dongducheon, which caters to Amerasian children whose families are financially pressed. She’s been known to engage in many not-for-profit organizations, including the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.
Sonya, who released her first album in 1999, remembers being teased as a child. “I don’t know why biracial children aren’t accepted. It’s not like we were committing any crime,” she says. “It was hard. I was the only biracial child in the area, and you know how mean children can be.”
The organization Korean Human Rights can back up that statement with numbers. The not-for-profit organization released a study Monday about biracial Koreans, finding that 73.3 percent said they were ridiculed as children because they were biracial.
The study also found that 44 percent believed they had been discriminated against in the job market, and that 42.2 percent had attempted suicide.
Sonya has been candid about her background. She was born Kim Son-hee, but the neighbors called her “Nani,” an affectionate term for ugliness. So her mother created the nickname Sonya. Her father left when Sonya was five years old.
As a young adult, she decided to go into entertainment, releasing her first album in 1999 and starring in musicals like “Rent.” Since leaving the countryside for Seoul, she says, she hasn’t encountered any difficulties because of her background.
Several months ago, MBC-TV tracked down her father for a reunion. “I thought I’d never find him,” Sonya says. Now that she has, she says, “I feel more at peace. The people around me say I look better than before.”
Prejudice against biracial entertainers does seem to be easing, and not just among people Kim Deanna’s age.
Her fan base is young ― ranging from elementary school to high school age ― but there are also people like Kim Ha-ju, a 35-year-old housewife who, on seeing the teen star at Lotte World, leaves a stroller in her husband’s care, rushes up to her and asks, “Can I get a picture?”
“Biracial entertainers used to be rejected by society, but it’s not like that anymore,” Kim Ha-ju says later. “I mean, I watch CNN all the time. In my living room at home, I see all these people of different races. It’s not a big deal.”
As Kim Deanna points out, Korea has changed enough that a transsexual can be accepted on television. “If someone like Ha Ri-su can be on television, what’s wrong with being biracial?” she says.
Kim Deanna grew up in Dallas, Texas, but returned to Korea with her family in 2001. Her parents started a reptile farm in Bupyeong, Incheon ― just in time for Korea’s exotic pet reptile craze.
On a lark, Kim participated in a modeling competition with a friend, won fourth place and caught the eyes of an entertainment management company. As the visiting reptile expert on “TV Animal Farm,” she’s now got a fan site on the Daum internet portal where 45,000 people have registered.
She’s taking voice and acting lessons, and is in talks about a TV drama or a record deal. If the entertainment career doesn’t work out, she hopes to be a veterinarian.
The only negative remarks she ever hears about her mixed heritage, she says, are at school. “People sometimes say I’m only on TV because I’m Amerasian, and it used to hurt my feelings,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s only because I’m Amerasian. Not every Amerasian makes it. You still have to have that certain something.”
Part of Lee Yoo-jin’s problem may have been that when she came along, few biracial television entertainers had made it, although biracial singers had.
In any case, since her press conference, she has had more luck landing roles in top TV dramas and commercials. Lee now co-hosts “Yashinmanmna,” a talk show on SBS-TV.
But some are still caught in the transition between generations. One model, whose mother is Korean and father is Spanish, began her career in 1996 but had lived here for years before then.
“And you know how it was,” says the model, who asked not to be named. “Especially in the ’80s, honhyeol were not a part of high-class society.”
When she began modeling, she said, the foreign models were assigned to cheap underwear shows, while the Korean models had projects that gave them a classier image. “Companies loved the way I look, but couldn’t use me as a spokesperson because I’m too exotic,” she said.
She told most people she was fully Korean. To a few, she admitted she was biracial, but that only led to more questions, which became too personal. Besides which, she says, “I know I am biracial, but I consider myself Korean.”
The scene is changing, she says, pointing to Japan. “People in Japan fall over mixed-race beauties because they can’t be like that,” the model says. “They want to marry foreigners, especially a French guy.”
And while she is grateful to Lee Yoo-jin for “coming out,” she also says, “I don’t tell people I’m biracial, and after this article comes out, I don’t want my friends calling me and saying, ‘I never knew.’”
by Joe Yong-hee