Yul Kwon Asian American Survivor: Cook Islands winner TV personality JadeLuckClub Jade Luck Club

Survivor: Cook Islands Winner Yul Kwon and Why Media Portrayal of Asian Americans Matters

Asian Am TV Personalities Asian in America

Yul Kwon Asian American Survivor: Cook Islands winner TV personality JadeLuckClub Jade Luck ClubYul 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 a 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. ”


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10 thoughts on “Survivor: Cook Islands Winner Yul Kwon and Why Media Portrayal of Asian Americans Matters”

  1. I forwarded this article to my sister who is forwarding to her friends and nieces that are Asian American…that’s what I like about this forum, it allows us to share experiences and success stories and stimulate discussions!

    Posted by Susan

    From My LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network

  2. As I watched the show, I thought FINALLY, an athletic, strong and smart Asian person on reality tv!

    Posted by Dianne

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network

  3. Impressive young man!
    My Grandmother drilled into my head (in Japanese, of course) that education was the key to success in a person’s life, because it is something that can never be taken away from them, ever. My Father, would tolerate racism, but at the same time make comments to me, like “We need to sit in the back of the restaurant today, but when you grow up, you’ll have the education and the voice to speak up and sit near the front!”
    Yul Kwon in showing the world what today’s Asian American is about. I admire him for pursuing his dreams and his concept of success despite having the pressure of disapproval from his parents, it must have been a difficult path, but look at him now, he is a great role model for today’s Asian Americans!

    Posted by Susan

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network

  4. He makes me think: Why isn’t there more of him and a female version on TV? And do Asian Americans need to be embedded in media positions of rank to get more of people like him on TV?

    It just so happened that he happened to win the Survivor: Cook Islands competition, but say, if he came in 2nd place, then what? He wouldn’t have had the opportunities he has now to continue to stay on TV so it’s more of a lucky fluke than a change in perception of what TV Moguls deem as a “hot TV personality — Asian American, hunky, smart, etc.”

  5. @ Mia, I was doing volunteer work at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institue and I was discussing with the Executive Director, Alison Kochiyama, about how I was absolutely blown away by this fantastic new image of the Asian male, she mentioned Actress, Sandra Oh, and how her role in Grey’s Anatomy portrays her in a non-stereotypical manner.

    Posted by Susan

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network

  6. I did not watch ER, however, I do watch HOUSE and Charlene Amanda Yi is a new Dr on the series that is part of his Diagnostic Team. One thing I noted in common is that they are playing Drs, however, each of the characters are not who they seem to be on the outside. Start in the right direction. One of the funniest movie series (because its lol funny) is the Harold and Kumar movies…now those two are definitely breaking the Asian stereotype and it is more representative of how typical Asian American kids are these days.

    Posted by Susan

    From my LinkedIn Group Asian American Leadership Network

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