Survivor Star Battles Stereotypes

Yul Kwon. (SLMotley)

HOUSTON, April 4, 2013 — Yul Kwon, the Korean-American Yale Law School graduate who leaped to national celebrity in 2006 as winner of Survivor, said he reluctantly agreed to participate in the reality TV show after realizing “how long it might be before another Asian American man had the chance to appear in a major television role and not be speaking with an accent or depicting a foreigner.”

Speaking before some 200 mostly young, Asian American, fans as part of Asia Society Texas Center’s BP Diversity Series, Kwon recounted his upbringing as the son of South Korean immigrants and his struggle to break free of ethnic stereotypes, a journey that ultimately led to his career in television. He combined his personal story with a plea to Asian Americans to get more involved in politics and community affairs and to be aware of cultural baggage that may be holding them back in the workplace. While ranging over substantive themes, Kwon also proved a relaxed, witty, engaging speaker.

Kwon’s upbringing in Northern California wasn’t easy. He described humiliating anxiety disorders he suffered as a boy, the result of bullying by non-Asian schoolmates. “It took me years to learn how to deal with and control these problems,” he said. In high school he began to push himself outside his comfort zone in an effort to break out of his social cocoon.

In college at Stanford the death from leukemia of a close friend prompted him to become active in the effort to find bone marrow transplant donors among Asian Americans, many of whom seemed indifferent or reluctant to get involved.

“I saw within our community that we were not organized and we were not committed to helping each other,” Kwon said. “It made me realize how many people of my own generation had been taught to focus on their careers and not on helping others.”

He sees his stint on Survivor, where he won kudos for his strategic prowess and ability to forge alliances, as a form of public service, a way to “educate people about who [Asian Americans] are and that we are not all alike.”

Kwon is currently hosting a PBS television series America Revealed, about the systems that keep America functioning.

He concluded his talk with an overview of where Asian Americans stand in the media, in politics, and in the corporate world. He had upbeat things to say about the first two. The rise of new media has enabled young Asian American artists to find new channels of distribution that bypass traditional channels, he said. In politics he noted that President Obama has appointed four Asian Americans to cabinet posts, an unprecedented number.

The corporate world represents a more mixed picture, he said, with Asian Americans well-represented at entry levels but sparse in upper management. Kwon urged Asian Americans to be more assertive in the workplace and to seek out mentors and partners who can give their careers a boost.

“We have to make sure our voices are heard and our presence visible.”


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