Catching dreams: Deaf Korean hopes to play MLB

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Some dreams are so big they extend beyond one country and continent. Such is the case for Gilwon Seo, a 19-year-old from South Korea who hopes to play professional baseball in both his native country and the United States.

But for Seo to start chipping away at his dream, he's had to cross not just a great geographic distance, but two linguistic ones simultaneously.

Seo, a Catholic, was born deaf and grew up learning Korean Sign Language along with written Korean at a boarding school far from his home, in the North Chungcheong Province.

Since arriving in the United States last December, Seo's vision for his future hinges on mastering written English and American Sign Language while adjusting to a new country and culture.

"Some people who are deaf (say), 'I am deaf, so I can't do anything,'" said Seo. "That is not right. Instead, deaf people can do anything with hard work."

Pitching in for a dream

On a Friday evening in early October, I met Seo at D.C.'s Gallaudet University, established in 1864 as the first university in the world for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. It's also the jumping-off point for Seo's dreams. South Korea has no universities focused on serving the deaf community.

The young athlete has a small frame for a catcher, but what Seo lacks in size he's made up for with his hard work, and he carries himself with confidence.

Sitting in the Gallaudet student center, I asked a few questions in my limited ASL, but portions of the interview involved a circuitous translation process similar to what Seo navigates internally every day. I'd ask a question in English, and Manshik Kim - a parishioner of St. Paul Chung Church in Fairfax, one of a handful of Korean parishes in the region - would write it down in Korean. Seo then answered through written Korean, and Manshik would translate it into English for me.

Eventually we switched to texting, a faster mode and one in which Seo could practice his written English. Given he's studied the language for less than a year, his grammar and spelling are impressive.

"When I arrived in the U.S., I only knew the ABCs in English," said Seo.

He is in the States thanks to the encouragement and financial support of his principal in South Korea and the St. Paul Chung community.

Sister Myeong-Hui Chang - the former principal of Chungju Sungsim, a Catholic school for the deaf Seo attended - was moved by Seo's determination and set out to assist him. Through a St. Paul Chung parishioner she knew, Sister Chang reached out to the Northern Virginia parish for help.

Seo currently is enrolled in Gallaudet's English Language Institute and studying for the ACT, a standardized test for college admissions. He must achieve specific scores to be accepted into Gallaudet and play baseball for head coach Curtis Pride. Pride, who is deaf, is a former major leaguer whose career included stints with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Seo has taken the ACT four times. His score continues to improve, but he still needs to pass the reading section.

"It really takes double time and effort to learn English sign language and English in a new cultural environment," said Sister Chang in an email.

St. Paul Chung parishioner Moon Kim said most of his fellow parishioners are first-generation immigrants and have firsthand knowledge of the challenges Seo faces.

"We had a hard time coming here, but for him it's a double whammy learning two languages," said Kim. "We want to help in whatever way we can so he can be the person he wants to be."

Mastering curve balls

Seo was born in the small suburban town of Hongseong, in the South Chungcheong Province, to deaf parents. His father had difficulty supporting the family as a farmer, and the financial stress led to his parents' divorce when Seo was young. At just 5 years old, Seo was sent to live and study at Chungju, the school for the deaf.

"Living with a disability, as the product of deaf, divorced parents (has been) difficult," Seo wrote in a personal statement he used for scholarship applications. "I grew up missing my family, longing for love and at times even contemplating giving up on everything."

With the help of his faith - Seo converted to Catholicism in the sixth grade - and the support of his teachers and principal, Seo said he "began dreaming about a brighter future."

In middle school he started playing baseball, and loneliness gradually gave way to confidence.

"I learned independence and responsibility," said Seo. "And I loved baseball."

Even during his high school team's tough patches, Sister Chang witnessed great strength in Seo.

"At times of low morale, fatigue and exhaustion, he has always performed well as the top player on his team and maintained a positive attitude," said Sister Chang, adding that he "never uttered a single complaint."

Seo went on to earn a national player-of-the-year award and for two consecutive years helped his team win a silver medal at the Asia-Pacific Deaf Baseball Tournament in Tokyo.

Along with serving as captain of his baseball team his senior year, Seo was student council president and a resident adviser in his dorm.

In 2011, the stand-out leader and athlete had an opportunity that gave his future focus.

A Korean broadcasting network spent a year shadowing his baseball team for a documentary. As part of the film, the team was given the chance to visit Gallaudet and play against a high school for the deaf in Washington.

Seeing so many thriving deaf college students made an impression on Seo, and he told himself someday he would return to Gallaudet.

The university "seemed to open up a new doorway to my future," said Seo, who met Pride during the visit. The coach encouraged Seo to apply.

As he works to meet admission standards for Gallaudet, Seo thinks about all the people who have made his dream possible.

"He would sacrifice anything to prove that a deaf student can succeed," said Sister Chang.

Playing professional baseball is really just the first step toward Seo's vision of success. He eventually wants to coach and inspire other deaf baseball players in South Korea.

"(I) want to return to Korea with all of my challenges, experiences and newfound wisdom and become … a mentor to others," he said. "That is really my dream."

How to help

To help support Gilwon Seo, mail checks to St. Paul Chung Church, Atten: Caritas Wonju International Relief Inc., 4712 Rippling Pond Dr., Fairfax, VA 22033. Write "Gilwon Seo" in the memo line.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015