Survivor: Cook Islands Winner Yul Kwon and Why Media Portrayal of Asian Americans Matters
Yul Kwon is the host of the PBS series “America Revealed” and winner of the reality TV show “Survivor: Cook Islands.” He has worked in law, government, business and technology, is the vice chair of the Council of Korean American Leaders and sits on the advisory boards of the Asian American Justice Center, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and NetKAL.
But besides his impressive resume, I find Yul Kwon an interesting role model and thought leader for Asian Americans everywhere because he realizes the importance of the media and how much it influences Asian Americans to be either included as part of the cultural melting pot or marginalized as stereotypes on the fringe.
Here’s his story of how he came to be in a position to be a positive Asian American media role model, happily relinquishing his career as an Ivy League attorney. Will his TV presence make a difference for your kids or mine? I think so. I actually do. On Survivor: Cook Island he was both Asian American, smart, strong, athletically gifted, articulate and charismatic. And he still has a Stanford undergraduate, Yale Law School background both as fall back and to say to the Tiger Moms out there that there are other successful options besides Doctor/Lawyer/Engineer/Accountant. Thank god for that!
He brings up a good point: if we don’t see ourselves portrayed in the media, it marginalizes us as group. He intends to change that by being a role model for Asian Americans. But to really change how the media portrays Asian Americans, we must be filmmakers, producers, writers, directors, and reality TV stars. Do you agree? Why or why not? Please comment. Yul’s story is below.
From CNN.com Red Chair Interview
“My parents immigrated to the United States fromSouth Korea in 1970 with big dreams, but little money. Since they couldn’t afford to put my brother and me in daycare or preschool, they encouraged us to watch television as a way to learn English. Every morning, my brother and I watched “Sesame Street” on PBS, which taught us how to count and recite the alphabet. Not only did our TV become another caregiver, it became the primary medium through which I learned about the world. It allowed me to see and experience things I’d never seen before. It helped me imagine a better future for me and my family. I studied hard and eventually made my way to Stanford University and then Yale Law School. For a poor kid like me, television helped provide the inspiration and vision I needed to realize the American dream.
But as much as television was a source of empowerment and inspiration, it was also a powerful source of constraint. Television defined the way I saw myself and my relationships with other people, and I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. Asian-American characters were few and far between, and for lack of better alternatives, my favorite childhood hero was Big Bird. He wasn’t real, of course, but I didn’t care. He was nice, had lots of friends and was yellow – and hence, clearly, Asian.
In the rare instances I did see Asian-Americans actors, they were always portrayed as one-dimensional stereotypes. Women were submissive sexual servants or exotic dragon ladies. Men were inevitably math geeks who couldn’t get a date, or kung fu masters who could kick butt, but couldn’t speak English. In almost every instance, people of Asian descent were depicted as foreigners, not as Americans.
Over time, I internalized those images and grew ashamed of myself and my ethnicity. At school, I would mumble and talk fast because I didn’t think anyone would listen. I had a lisp, which people would sometimes mistake for an accent. I became afraid to speak for fear of being ridiculed. I eventually developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety and paruresis (“shy bladder” syndrome), the symptoms of which arose after I was bullied relentlessly in the bathroom by kids who called me “chink” or “gouk.”
It wasn’t until I became older that I began to address these problems directly, but even so, it took years to develop the self-awareness and confidence I needed to overcome them. As I found the courage to share my experiences with other people, I found that I wasn’t alone, that others had grown up feeling ashamed and ostracized. I came to understand how deeply and pervasively media had shaped the way I and other people in my community understood ourselves, and resolved that if I ever got the chance, I would try to drive meaningful change. ”