May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. All month, Tell Me More is featuring guests who trace their heritage to that part of the world and who have changed the game in everything from science to sports, pop culture to politics.
Yul Kwon first earned his game-changer status when the Yale University-trained lawyer put his career on hold to compete on the CBS show Survivor in 2006. He became the first Asian-American to win that show's $1 million prize. That led to work as a special correspondent for CNN, a lecturer at the FBI Academy, and deputy chief of the Federal Communication Commission's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.
He was also once named to People magazine's list of "Sexiest Men Alive."
Being A Target Of Bullying
Kwon's early life involved a host of challenges. He was born in 1975 in New York to South Korean immigrants. He tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin he had a severe lisp as a kid, so many people assumed he was a foreigner who could not speak English properly. Kwon says he grew increasingly quiet to avoid being teased or beaten up.
"But as people who've been bullied are well aware, the more quiet you are, the more you attract bullies," he says. "And it started to be a real problem for me. I started to develop a number of social anxiety disorders."
Kwon says these issues continued for many years, partly because he did not see many role models from his community. He watched a lot of television (as a way to learn English), and in the rare times when he did see Asian-Americans onscreen, they were portrayed in negative stereotypes.
"If you're a guy, you're either a Chinese cook, or a gangster, or a Kung Fu master who could kick butt but can't speak English, or a geek who can't get a date," says Kwon. "And so, over time, I think I just internalized a lot of these images and I became that quintessential Asian-American."
Despite a difficult childhood, Kwon went on to earn a bachelor's in symbolic systems from Stanford University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He also earned a juris doctorate from Yale Law School, where he served on the editorial board of the Yale Law Journal. He worked in law, politics and business, then made what some would consider a surprising shift to television.
Becoming A Star Of 'Survivor: Cook Islands'
Kwon says he never imagined that television was an option for someone like him, but one day, he received an email from a Survivor casting agent who was seeking Asian-American contestants.
"It turns out that the reason they wanted to do this was because they had a twist to that season," he says, "which was they were going to divide the contestants into racial tribes and have a war of races."
Kwon initially was not interested in participating, but then he thought back to his hunger for positive role models as a child. He says that if he had seen them, it might have helped him build courage, confidence and an image of himself as a potential leader.
"The great thing about a reality show is that it's not scripted, so I don't have to play a stereotype, I don't have to play a role where I'm speaking with an accent," he says. "And so I thought if I did well on the show, I could potentially be the kind of role model that I didn't have when I was growing up."
Kwon surprised even himself by winning the show, a victory he attributes to fair play. He says he wanted to apply all the things he learned from working in law, politics and management consulting, and to play an intelligent game that did not involve backstabbing.
He says the win also brought him closer to his father, who initially discouraged Kwon from joining Survivor. He says his performance on the show prompted his father to say something he'd never heard before: "He said, 'Yul, I'm sorry.' And I'm like, 'What?! Who are you? You're not my father,' you know. And I asked him, 'Why are you sorry?' And he said, 'You know, I've always just kind of viewed you as this kind of kid who's trying to figure out what he wants to do, and you know, didn't really have it together. And then I saw you on the show, and I'd seen what kind of man you'd grown up to become, and I was really proud of him. So I'm sorry that I doubted you.' "
Making Headway For Asian-Americans
Kwon says that in recent years, television audiences have seen more Asian-Americans playing roles that don't descend into stereotypes. He points to actor Daniel Dae Kim. Kim now stars on the CBS series Hawaii Five-O, but had his breakthrough role as Jin on the hit TV series Lost.
"What Daniel Dae Kim told me when he first took on the role was, 'Look, I want to bring a level of craft and artistry to this role that no one else can. And in doing so, I want to create a narrative arc that allows this person to become a three-dimensional character.' And that's exactly what he did on Lost. Over the arc of that whole series, he became one of the most popular characters on that show."
Regardless, Kwon notes that Asian-Americans still have a ways to go in achieving equality on screen. He says he would like to "use media to get to a point where people look at us as Americans — as opposed Asian-Americans, African-Americans or any other subcategory. But first and foremost, we're Americans."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay.
But, first, May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. All this month, we are talking to people who trace their heritage to that part of the world and who are what we like to call game changers, people who have made a difference in various fields, from politics to science to culture.
Today, we have with us a man who has changed the game in entertainment and media. Yul Kwon was an unlikely reality television star. He was a Yale University trained lawyer who put his career on hold to compete on the mega-hit CBS show, "Survivor," in 2006.
He became the first Asian-American to win the million dollar prize. That eventually led to work as a special correspondent for CNN and the Discovery Channel. He currently hosts the news program, LinkAsia on LinkTV and Yul Kwon just wrapped a stint hosting the PBS documentary series, "America Revealed."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICA REVEALED")
YUL KWON: We're going to go on quite a journey coast-to-coast across this sprawling land to discover the habits, the rhythms and the secrets that you only notice when you step back and see the big picture.
MARTIN: And the career picture for Yul Kwon has also included government. He once worked for U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman at the Federal Communications Commission and lectured at the FBI Academy and we cannot help but note that he was once named to People magazine's list of Sexiest Men Alive.
And Yul Kwon joins us now. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.
KWON: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: In order to talk about why you're a game changer, we do need to go back a little bit to the beginning. And you've talked about the fact that bullying is something that you experienced...
MARTIN: ...in part because of language issues. And it's kind of an interesting story that you tell, so would you mind telling that story about, like, why you think you were targeted for bullying and what language had to do with it?
KWON: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. My parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea back in 1970. I was born in New York in 1975 and, you know, growing up, I just didn't see a whole lot of people who looked like me in the media, in school. And, when I was young, I also had a pretty severe lisp, so a lot of people just assumed that I was a foreigner and that I couldn't speak English or that my lisp was actually an accent.
And, over time, I became so self-conscious about it that I just became quieter and quieter because I didn't want to get made fun of or beat up. And it eventually got to be a real problem for me. I started developing a number of social anxiety disorders.
There was one incident in particular when I was in elementary school that really had a very scarring effect on me for most of my life. Some of the older kids would hide in the bathroom and, when one of the smaller kids, including myself, would come in, they would jump them and they would beat them up. Some of these kids started doing this thing where they'd grab the kid and force him against a urinal and a larger kid would come up and urinate on them.
This went on for months and I couldn't use the bathroom and, over time, I developed a condition known as paruresis, which is shy bladder syndrome, and the fact was I just couldn't go to the bathroom when other people were around. And so, over time, I essentially became a prisoner in my own home. I couldn't go to movies. I couldn't go to parties. I couldn't go to ballgames. I couldn't even go shopping because I didn't know if I could use a bathroom.
So this, you know, progressed over time and it took me many years to overcome some of these issues.
MARTIN: How did you finally figure all that out?
KWON: It took me a long time. Even through my early adulthood, I suffered from some of these issues. I also had something known as social sweating where, any time I felt like someone was looking at me, if I raised my hand in class, if I met someone new, I would have, essentially, a panic attack and I would sweat uncontrollably and I got so scared that this would happen and so embarrassed that I started avoiding people and stopped making eye contact.
And it took me many years until I got over these issues and, you know, I also think part of the reason why this happened was because, you know, as an ethnic minority in this country, I just didn't see a lot of role models from people of my community. I watched a lot of television when I was a kid and, you know, my parents encouraged us because it was a way to learn English, but I never saw Asian-Americans and, in the rare times that I did, they were usually portrayed according to these negative stereotypes. And I think, over time...
MARTIN: Limited language skills, played for laughs.
KWON: Well, if you're a guy...
MARTIN: ...broken English.
KWON: Right. You're either a Chinese cook or a gangster or a Kung Fu master who could kick butt, but can't speak English...
MARTIN: But can't speak English.
KWON: ...or a geek who can't get a date. And so, over time, I think I just internalized a lot of these images and I became that quintessential Asian nerd.
MARTIN: Well, you know, you obviously did very well. I mean, you graduated from Stanford and then Yale Law School and, you know, started doing kind of the traditional route, so I think, for a lot of people, it will be very surprising that you then decided to go on a reality program. And, as I understand it, though, your earlier history actually played some role in your wanting to do that.
MARTIN: Can you talk about that?
KWON: You know, my parents, I thought, were going to disown me. Like, we came to this country to give you all these opportunities, to put you all through these great schools to have these great jobs and, you know - why do you hate us so much? What did we do to you?
MARTIN: Then you want to take off your shirt and walk around in a bandana, you know, spear fishing. What's up with that?
KWON: You know, I never imagined I would be on television. But one day I got an email out of the blue from someone who's a casting agent for "Survivor" and they were looking for more Asian-Americans to go on the show. They had a twist to that season, which was they were going to divide the contestants into racial tribes and have a war of the races. And so they recruited heavily and they found me randomly through a friend of mine.
MARTIN: Well, how did you feel about that once you realized that part of the agenda was a war of the races?
KWON: I remember thinking about stuff. You know, why would I, you know, throw away my career, right, just to embarrass myself and my family and Korean people all over the world by going on a silly reality show? But I thought about when I was a kid and the fact that I didn't see people who looked like me on television. And I thought that if I did see role models that it might have help me along. Help me build courage and confidence in myself, and at an earlier age be able to see myself as someone who could become a leader. And the great thing about a reality show is that it's not scripted so I don't have to play a stereotype. I don't have to play a role where I'm speaking with an accent. And so I thought if I did well on the show I could potentially be the kind of role model that I didn't have when I was growing up.
MARTIN: And you won.
KWON: I did. Yeah. I totally didn't expect that to happen.
MARTIN: Why do you think you won?
KWON: What I wanted to do was to play a game applying all the things I'd learned over the course of my life - working as a lawyer, working in politics, working as a management consultant, and to try to play a very intelligent game that didn't involve backstabbing people. And in my case, you know, I was able to create a multiethnic alliance from people from all the tribes and we ultimately got to the end without stabbing each other in the back.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're honoring Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with game-changer Yul Kwon. He is a lawyer and a television host who began his entertainment career by winning the reality show "Survivor" in 2006.
After you won, presumably your parents felt a little better about your decision to step away from your budding law career?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KWON: A little bit better. A little bit better. You're still asking when I'm going to go back to school to get my PhD. Like I think that ship has already sailed.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KWON: It was funny. My father was adamantly opposed to me going on the show. He just could not understand it and was very upset about it. And then it turns out that part of the reason that he was opposed to it was that he had never seen "Survivor" before so he thought it was literally about survival. So he thought there would be 20 people...
MARTIN: He thought it was "The Hunger Games."
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: And that you'd really fight to the death.
KWON: Twenty people on the island and 19 of them would die.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KWON: So I convinced my dad that I wasn't going to die. But, you know, ultimately I explained to him why I wanted to be on the show and he understood. And after I won, it brought us closer together because he said something to me I'd never heard him say before. He said Yul, I'm sorry. And I'm like ,what? Like, who are you? Like, you're not my father, you know. And I asked him, why are you sorry? And he said, you know, I've always just kind of viewed you as this kind of kid who is trying to figure out what he wants to do and, you know didn't really have together. And then I saw you on the show and I'd seen what kind of man you'd grown up to become and I was really proud of him, so I'm sorry that I doubted you. And I just lost it at that point. I just broke down. I said I-I love you, dad. And really, it brought us closer together so now my parents are very happy. They're especially happy that I'm now working for PBS as opposed to any more reality shows.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, do you feel that you and other let's say cultural workers...
MARTIN: ...are making headway in what your stated objective, which is to try to expand the realm of possibility for people of Asian descent? And, you know, I don't mean to be hurtful to him, but a character like Ken Jeong, who portrays essentially, he's kind of played for laughs. I mean he's both a Chinese gangster character in "Hangover..."
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: ...and is portrayed as an idiot.
MARTIN: And so, but then there's also figures like Daniel Dae Kim...
MARTIN: Who is both gorgeous, smart and so forth.
KWON: Yeah. Amazingly articulate and sexy. I don't mind saying it.
MARTIN: And you're the sexiest man alive. One of the sexiest men alive.
KWON: No. No, no. I think someone fell asleep while the watch.
MARTIN: Well, but, you know, that's one of the other issues is, you know, Asian-American men portrayed as like sexless...
KWON: Right. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...whereas, you know, Asian-American women portrayed as all about sex and then...
KWON: Ultra sexy, over exoticized.
MARTIN: Ultra sexy in Asian-American men, the opposite.
KWON: Yes. Right.
MARTIN: You know, do you feel like you're making some headway? Do you feel headway is being made, I should say?
KWON: I think so. I think in the last few years we've really seen a proliferation of roles and talent from our community playing leading roles. And the fact that "Survivor" did this whole racial thing, you know, at first it was gimmicky but the fact is it did cast more people on the show. And I think the fact that we were able to show that you can have in Asian-American who was in a major role on one of these television franchises and not have the ratings like fall off the cliff, I think, proved the point. And so in the last few years we've started seeing more people like Daniel Dae Kim, playing roles that, you know, we're they're speaking English from day one.
People who, you know, take on roles like Ken Jeong does, I mean I - a lot of people have criticized that within our community. And even Daniel Dae Kim, when he first took on the role of Jin in "Lost," took some criticism because the procession was you're playing these roles that perpetuate these negative stereotypes. But what Daniel Dae Kim told me when he first took on that role was, look, I want to bring a level of craft and artistry to this role that no one else can. And in doing so, I want to create a narrative arc that allows this person to become a three-dimensional character. And that's exactly what he did on "Lost" or that arc of that whole series. He became one of the most popular characters on that show.
And so I don't begrudge people who take on these stereotypical roles, because the reality is there aren't a lot of roles out there. But if you can use that as a basis for expanding the roles so that people start seeing these roles as fully developed realized human beings, then I think you've achieved something real.
MARTIN: Let's talk about your PBS show. You mentioned your parents are much happier about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: So let's talk about that - just make sure the parents know - that "America Revealed," it's finished its four episode run earlier this month. The show focused on transportation, energy, manufacturer, agriculture. You seem very excited about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KWON: It's a super cool show. I mean it's hard to describe, just by reading it or discussing on the radio.
KWON: But, you know, we used some amazing visual animation and aero photography to show the systems coming alive in a way you've never seen before. So the idea is like, you know, we are surrounded by all these massive systems that make life easy for us, but we don't really know how they work. You know, when you turn on the light switch how does light come on? When you order a pizza, like where does that food come from? And so we use a lot of computer animation and interviews with people to show how these things all conspire to get you the things that you need when you need them.
MARTIN: What is next for you? I mean what do you see for yourself?
KWON: You know, one of the reasons want to host "America Revealed" is that as far as I know this is a first national show about America that's been hosted by an Asian-American man. And it's interesting, because even over the course of filming this, you know, I go to parts of the country and people would be sort of shock that I was a host, and they'd ask me questions like so, you know, where you from? Like, I'm from D.C. Like, no, no, no. Where you really from? And then they would compliment me on speaking English so well. And then I tell them yeah, I've been, you know, cramming for a whole year.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KWON: It all paid off. But I still think, you know, there's this perception - especially for Asian-Americans - that we're perpetual foreigners, that because we look different people just assume that we're not American. And what I'd like to do is to use media to get to a point where people will just look at us as Americans as opposed to Asian-Americans, or African-Americans, or any other kind of subcategory, but first and foremost we're Americans.
MARTIN: Yul Kwon is the host of Link TVs news programs "Link Asia." And as he mentioned, he just finished hosting the PBS documentary series "America Revealed." And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Yul Kwon, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KWON: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.