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Mixed emotions

Super Bowl hero's S. Korea homecoming forces debate on race

From Sohn Jie-Ae
CNN

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Ward (C) sits with children of mixed racial origins during a meeting in Seoul.

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South Korea
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- From throwing passes with the president to throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season, Hines Ward was celebrated everywhere he went during his visit to South Korea.

Ward is the wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was voted "Most Valuable Player" in this year's Super Bowl championship.

Even though most South Koreans have never watched American football, they embraced the son of an African-American serviceman and a Korean mother as a national hero in his first homecoming since leaving as a baby.

Many biracial kids happily identified with their new role model, including 4-year-old Ji-sun who asked Ward if Spiderman was one of his heroes, too.

In a country that's more than 99 percent ethnic Korean with an emphasis on "pure blood" lineage, Ward's triumphant return has caused many to re-examine prejudices against biracial children, who are often associated with brothels around American military bases.

Cho Yong-Sun, 11, is a shy young boy. But that's not why he has no friends at school.

"No one will play with me because they say I look like an American," he says.

It's that kind of mind set that Ward hopes to change.

"We can't change the past but the present day and the future. Maybe if I can provide hope and inspiration to make Korea even better place than what it already is, then I will be more than excited," says Ward.

There are moves to take the momentum created by Ward's visit and channel it towards something that will provide more long-term benefits for biracial children in South Korea.

Lawmakers have already started drafting a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against biracial Koreans in various parts of society, especially the workplace.

The only workplace where being a biracial Korean is an exotic plus is in a nightclub, which is where James Lee sings.

Lee gave up his dreams of being a soccer player as a young child, when his coach told him no team would take on a player who looked the way he did.

Tired of being teased, he dropped out of high school, and he knows what his future will look like.

"I have seen many others go down this path," says Lee. "We don't have an education, all we know is singing at a night club. When we get older, people like me do menial labor, with a hat pulled over our faces."

Lee knows it may be too late for people like him. But he ardently hopes the changes brought about by the U.S. football star will provide a different fate for those who follow.

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