The survivor revealed
It was hard to find any trace of insecurity when talking with Korean-American Yul Kwon, the winner of U.S. reality show “Survivor: Cook Islands” in 2006. He was dubbed “The Godfather” by his competitors for his strong leadership skills and strategic prowess.
It is hard to match such an extreme introvert with today’s renaissance man. Kwon graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University with a Bachelor’s degree in symbolic systems. He then went to Yale Law School, where he earned his J.D.
Kwon has worked at two law firms, served a judicial clerkship and landed jobs at Google and McKinsey & Company. He has a beautiful wife and a baby daughter and was chosen as one of the “sexiest men alive” by People magazine.
But he “wasn’t born like this,” Kwon said.
His parents moved from Korea to Flushing, New York, where he was born. Kwon said he was ashamed of his Korean parents and felt as though he couldn’t fit in with either culture.
“When I was a kid, I felt like I wasn’t accepted. I was very scared,” Kwon said during a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily.
The sudden death of a close friend, who was also dealing with similar issues, marked a turning point in Kwon’s life. He made a set of personal rules such as to always ask questions - something he had dreaded for so long - during high school classes.
His years of persistence and hard work paid off. It even brought him down an unforeseen path that landed him on one of the United States’ most popular television shows. Yet Kwon was driven by neither riches nor fame:
“I wanted to use it to try to help our community and to change perceptions,” said Kwon. “The stereotypes are Asians can’t be leaders; they don’t have the social skills or charisma, they can’t be sexy and attractive.”
The Korea JoongAng Daily recently caught up with Kwon, who visited Seoul to promote his book. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q. You have so many titles. What did you write when you entered Korea this time?
A. It depends on the context. I wrote that I was a lawyer this time, but other times I say TV host. I kind of like that. I think we’re living in a society where you’re pressured to be one thing. If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? I want to have many stories with many chapters. That’s what I want for my life. I think that’s how people should be. We shouldn’t be defined by one word.
Your first book has recently been published in Korean. You probably received many offers to write after “Survivor.” Why did you publish this now?
For most of my life, I’ve been trying to hide these problems. I think if when I was young I saw other public figures talking about it, it would’ve helped me. The reason I wrote this book is that I began to realize there are a lot of kids here in Korea who are under enormous pressure.
You know, mental illnesses, psychological problems and emotional problems are not well understood. There’s a real cultural bias against these issues. I also wrote this book for Korean parents. I was free to talk to my parents, but I didn’t know how they would respond and I was afraid that they would be ashamed and disappointed in me.
I think when a lot of Korean parents hear from their children that they are struggling, they say, “You’re just being weak.” I wanted to target parents because a lot of Korean parents use me as an example for their children.
I think that’s a wrong message because I wasn’t born like this. I struggled for a very long time. What I want parents to understand is that if your kids are going through this, it doesn’t mean that there’s something bad about them.
You watched a lot of television growing up, but you wrote in your book that it was hard to find Asian-American role models on the air. You mentioned that Big Bird was the only comforting character. Do you think you’ve seen changes over the years, especially after your victory on “Survivor”?
One of the reasons I went on “Survivor” was that there just weren’t a lot opportunities for Asian-American actors in scripted roles. The problem is there are very talented people like Daniel Dae Kim, but the only roles that they were able to fill were ones that are very stereotypical. So when Daniel - he’s a friend of mine - got his role in “Lost” initially, he took some criticism. People said, “you’re playing a very stereotypical role and it shows Korean as being sexist.”
The irony is that he’s incredibly articulate and he didn’t speak Korean but the only role he could play was someone who didn’t speak English. But now he’s on “Hawaii Five-O” and he speaks English from day one, which is great.
So I think in that sense I’ve played a small role. The other thing that’s really helpful are Internet sites like YouTube. Before, Asian-Americans didn’t have any distribution channels to show themselves. It just makes it clear that there is a community out there and that they do have talent and people are getting used to seeing more of us on screens. And now it’s transferring over to television.
You recently hosted the PBS documentary series “America Revealed,” which captures people and industries in the United States that inspire the country. What was it like to host the show as an Asian-American?
I thought it changed how mainstream America looks at Asian-Americans. I go all around the country and interview people and I was the only one in the crew who wasn’t white. When I was introduced as a host, they were very surprised. They asked, “Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from Washington D.C.” “No, no, no, no where are you really from?” “I’m Korean-American, but I was born here.”
They are always very surprised and say, “You speak English really well,” and I say, “I’ve been practicing it my whole life.” They just don’t think the host for the show “America Revealed” could look like me. I’m hoping that will continue to help change people’s perceptions.
It seems as though you are always trying to set a good example for Asian-Americans. Do you find it hard sometimes?
It was hard at first. When people kind of put me as a role model - I don’t feel like that’s me. I feel embarrassed. The other thing was the pressure. I felt like I had to live up to this image. This is much more of a basic example, but on “Survivor” people look at me and they think I’m this huge person. And when they meet me in person, they are like, “Huh? What happened? I think you’re so much shorter than on TV. You’re smarter on TV.”
I’m like, man, I have to live up to this image, but I can’t grow. It was hard at first. Even if I don’t feel that way with myself, if people perceive that image and it can be helpful for them, then I have to do my best.
You suggest a very different leadership model in your book. One might become successful like figure skater Kim Yuna after working on one area for so long, but what you say is global leaders of today should look like Leonardo da Vinci, who explored so many different things. You’ve also worked in many fields, from television to law. What are your thoughts on this approach?
As corporations are getting larger, global leaders are not people who necessarily have deep expertise in one area. But they have to have many different skills and be able to synthesize. My concern is that Korean students here are not getting the kind of education to become global leaders because the education is so rigid, narrow and just working in one direction.
One big issue Korean society is facing is the increasing number of children from multicultural families. They are discriminated against just because they look different. What is your advice for these children?
They often don’t feel like they fit in either culture. I kind of understand them. I, too, felt I wasn’t part of either culture living in the United States. But you have a unique chance to draw from the best. Because you understand both cultures, you have an opportunity to become a leader of both.
I would tell them to be patient. If you learn to overcome the obstacles, it will make you a better person. For me, I used all these experiences when I was a kid being bullied. When I was a kid, I felt like I wasn’t accepted. Now I can see when people feel they are not part of the group and I can emphasize with them.
I think my skills wouldn’t have developed if I didn’t feel the discrimination. And the issue is also a matter of time. We can think of slavery. How can people be so barbaric? I have no doubt that in the future people going to look back and say, “Why do people discriminate with each other?” I’m sure that’s going to happen.
By Sung So-young 1[email@example.com]