November 16th, 2011
01:42 PM ET

Opinion: Red Chair Interview: Why Yul Kwon ditched law for TV

Editor’s note: 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. 

By Yul Kwon, Special to CNN

People often ask me why I decided to leave a safe, respectable career as a lawyer to go on television. (If you’re my parents, this is something you wonder on a daily basis.) I sometimes joke that I stopped being a lawyer because I wanted more friends.

The real story is more complex.

As a child, I grew up deeply introverted. I was so shy and timid that if you had told me then that I would one day win a reality show and host a television series, I would have thought you were nuts. However improbable it might be that I would end up in front of a camera, the underlying roots of my insecurities help to explain how I got here.

My parents immigrated to the United States from South 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. Not through television - it never occurred to me that was an option - but by becoming a lawyer and community advocate who could speak on behalf of those who didn’t have a voice.

Then, something happened that changed my life. A few years ago, I was approached about appearing on the reality TV show, “Survivor.” I didn’t want to do it at first. Although I had taken long strides toward my goal of becoming a socially aware, self-assured adult, the prospect of exposing myself to millions of people frightened me. I was scared that if I did anything stupid on the show - or more importantly, got a bad edit - I would ruin my career, hurt the image of Asian-Americans in this country, and worst of all, replace Long Duk Dong and William Hung as the icons of Asian-American geekiness.

But then, I thought to myself, “How often is someone from my community offered the chance to be on a major television show where he’s not depicted as a foreigner or required to speak with an accent?” I realized that I could use the opportunity to change stereotypes about Asian-Americans, become the kind of role model that I didn’t have when I was growing up, and maybe help the next generation of kids from my community avoid some of the self-doubt that had gnawed at me.

As it turned out, getting onto “Survivor” was the easy part. The hard part was convincing my family. My dad couldn’t understand why I was willing to throw away my education and career just to embarrass myself, my family and Korean people all over the world by going on a silly reality show.

I kept trying to persuade him, and at some point, I realized that part of the problem was that he had never seen “Survivor” before. He thought the show was literally about survival - there would be 20 people on the island and 19 of them would die. The one guy who got out alive would be the winner.

I made him watch a few episodes and convinced him that I wasn’t going to die. But the real turning point came when I said to him, “Hey, dad, there are going to be millions of people watching this show. Do you know what that means? It means I’m going to be seen by thousands of potential Korean wives and their mothers.”

He looked up suddenly and exclaimed, “What? Sign the contract!”

To my great relief, my fears of getting a bad edit proved to be unfounded. Somehow, they made me seem smarter, taller, and a lot better looking than I really am - a fact that continues to elicit both surprise and profound disappointment among fans who meet me. (Thankfully, the shock didn’t completely scare off my future wife, whom I met a week before the season finale.  We were set up by one of my tribemates.)

After winning “Survivor,” I found the confidence to share my personal experiences, including my struggles, with youth and minorities. I’ve also tried to use media as a platform for to raise awareness of larger issues affecting our country. Next year, for example, I’ll be hosting a new series for PBS, “America Revealed,” which explores the vast systems that America uses to make food, produce energy, manufacture goods and transport people.

The show is a celebration ofAmerica’s monumental achievements, but it also raises important questions about the critical systems we rely on every day. I’m thrilled to be part of such an epic project, not only because the issues we cover are so timely and relevant, but because I think this will be among the few times – if not the first – that a show about the United States is hosted by an Asian-American man.

I’ve often wondered how I would have felt as a kid if I’d seen someone like me on TV. I don’t know for certain, but I think it would have made a difference, at least a small one. If I can make that kind of difference for just a few kids out there today, I’m pretty sure even my parents would be happy.

soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. Alexander Braskey

    Underlying social anxiety disorder or social phobia is the fear of being scrutinized, judged, or embarrassed in public. You may be afraid that people will think badly of you or that you won’t measure up in comparison to others. And even though you probably realize that your fears of being judged are at least somewhat irrational and overblown, you still can’t help feeling anxious.;:*,

    Most up-to-date write-up on our web blog

    July 5, 2013 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  2. George

    Haha, Yul Kwon reminds me of the typical Asian man.

    Had to be setup for a date because they're social awkward and have no social skills whatsoever.

    January 19, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
    • George is jealous

      Yes, George is jealous because Yul is better looking and a much greater success than he will ever be. LOL.

      January 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. sia

    im neither asian nor mainstream american but i did grow up learning most of my english from sesame street =D. i also get the looking for role models that look like you thing. i was born in 1966 and remember how excited and validated i felt when i started seeing more brown skinned people later on in my late teens. kudos to you for your courage in finding a way to become the role model you didnt see growing up. its people like you that crusade for change that helps us as a species evolve in a positive direction.......thank you for being brave.

    January 17, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. HaiWay

    I'm proud of the strides you have made in mainstream media!!!! Keep doin your thing man!!! There are plenty more Asian-American dudes carving our own paths right behind ya in the acting and entertainment industry! Hope to meet you in the near future!!! Cheers!

    January 17, 2012 at 5:36 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jerry Ku

    I believe 66% of all Asian Americans are foreign born. Presumably most of them have accents. I wish Asian Americans with accents were more accepted in the media. I feel like the "mainstream" media likes to put forth Asian Americans who are more assimilated. That's OK to an extent but has its own disadvantages for Asian Americans too.

    January 4, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. neokimchi

    You know what? You're a boss. I've grown tired of all the "we need a role model, Asian American males are emasculated, cry cry cry" stuff–not because it's not true, but just because Asian Americans (especially males) really love to whine about it. Especially in college.

    But I can't help but feel a little more vindicated when I see a guy like you just doing what he does on TV without any BS attached. Like being an Asian American male isn't, shock of shocks, a disability. Much as I hate whining and hate hearing people whine even more, I can't deny you're making life a little bit better for Asian America.

    November 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ben

    You make me tears roll down on on the face.

    Yes. we need a lot as role model of Korean Community in USA.

    Thank for you standing very top of real world.

    Also it was so thrill to watch your video at CNN.

    Hope you stand formly the generations to come as role model of Korean-Americans.

    Ben from Brazil

    November 18, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
  8. KoreanAmerican

    Wow, I think I can relate to you 100%. I am Korean American, 35 yrs old now, and was raised here all my life. i've had the same childhood experience and later had social disorders as well. I also feel Im not full Korean because of my bad Korean speaking, and not American because of my looks.

    But Im glad that I wasnt raised in Korea, because I think USA has a better standard of living, but not really happy about USA either, due to racism mainly.

    Anyways, thanks so much for being REAL!!!

    November 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Josh

    yul kwon 2012

    November 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jeff

    Thank you for sharing your story Yul. I'm a Chinese American male who grew up with a similar experience. Only that I'm 31 years old have I come to break many of the same roadblocks formed from my childhood. You're an inspiration to me, please keep bringing the awareness.

    November 17, 2011 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  11. sharky

    It's cool that he didn't pick an anglo name to assimilate even after being harassed as a kid. The Korean and Vietnamese immigration waves has been great for this country.

    November 17, 2011 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      To Americans its not about having an english name but one that is truly easy to pronounce. I like many asian names.
      I am still tempted to name my future daughter "Minji" which sounds very cute for a baby girl.

      November 17, 2011 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
  12. Thomas

    Good story.

    November 17, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • aaron childs

      Agreed! Nice to see a nice positive story and great comments to boot. I watched this series of Survivor and have great respect for Yul. His article also points out that he has a great sense of humor. I will be looking forward to watching his show and track his progress! Great job, Yul + CNN! -ac

      November 17, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  13. Alfred

    Yul – Thanks for fighting the good fight! I am also a product of Asian immigrants and experienced some of the same teasing/bullying that you did growing up. My siblings and I have grown up to be quite successful, but in more typical "Asian" career fields. Two of us are medical doctors and two of us are engineers. Despite this, we still encounter racism and I am afraid the perception of Asians in America has not changed that much through the years. Hopefully with people like you, that will change.

    November 17, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
  14. OneTexan

    Hi Yul! It's nice to hear someone else of asian descent verbalize these sentiments of being "different" since many of us asians tend not to because of our generally reserved nature. I'm sure many other Asian Americans like you and myself have all gone through similar experiences. What's important is that we've risen above the ignorance and proven ourselves to be just as good, if not BETTER :). I am proud to be Asian, and i am proud to be American. People who can't accept that those 2 cultures can blend into one unique package and resort to stereotyping us need to befriend Asian Americans and find out for themselves how we really are. Great work ethics, core family values, collectivist sense of responsibility for our community, keen focus on education...that's what it means to be Asian American.

    November 17, 2011 at 7:44 am | Report abuse |
  15. A Hanck

    As a long-time Survivor fan, I knew there was something special baout this man the first time I saw him. Yul, you're a light to all of us. Thanks for giving back.

    November 17, 2011 at 6:26 am | Report abuse |
  16. AAjiang

    There's nothing wrong with being geeky and being on Survivor is nothing to be proud of
    Most Asians are probably thinking inside that they'd rather go to a good school and do a cushy high paid job than what you're doing

    November 17, 2011 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
    • a.k.

      being geeky is not a sin or anything but it matters when an ethnic group is considered geeky.

      November 17, 2011 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
    • A.huang

      Sure if you don't have your own brain and listen to your parents on everything! How about have some of "you own guts?"

      November 17, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  17. Andy

    How do we find out where and when you have talks with kids about self confidence? You are a great role model and a very likable guy. Thank you for speaking out about your life and good luck to you!

    November 17, 2011 at 5:24 am | Report abuse |
  18. jdoe

    America is racist, in the sense that it's race-obsessed. Whenever someone is featured in the news, whether it's the president, a celebrity, or a criminal, some people will invariably make an issue of his or her race. Pretty sad that people have to find differences in others to disparage in other to feel better about themselves.

    November 17, 2011 at 5:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve From NH

      We're not "race obsessed", especially compared to other societies – think Middle East. I think (hope) that we are starting to realize that the "differences" aren't really physical, but cultural. We can and should celebrate the differences in culture, with an open mind – which is going to require people to give up the "my way is the only way" mentality. Unfortunately, we seem to be sliding back to 'my way or the highway', led by religious and political ideologues hiding behind bibles and flags.

      November 17, 2011 at 7:00 am | Report abuse |
  19. Mr.C

    Best wishes Yul. You were always cool in our book.

    November 17, 2011 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
  20. Mary

    Hi Yul, When you appeared on Survivor, I remember telling someone how nice it felt to see Asian Americans on the show. I had watched all the previous seasons of Survivor and during your season, it felt different to me in a way that I did not expect. I mean, you were real (not a character) and it felt refreshing because in a magical way, it made me feel connected. I look forward to watching your new show!

    November 17, 2011 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
  21. JM

    Yul, I hear you loud and clear. I actually wish that I had never come to this country. As a little boy I just followed my parents to US. I have what the society would consider to be one of top 1% of most successful career one can have, am good looking, 6'1" and fit. But, I just don't like the people of this country. I just make the most of it and work hard. But, I truly feel like a fish out of water. Most of people will say that it's all in my head and offer anecdotal evidence of Asian American friend who is this and that. But unless you know what it feels like to be someone of my race growing up in this country which considers Asian Americans to be perpetual immigrants and mostly stereotyped, it becomes difficult to feel like a part of this community/country. I wish I can leave this country. But, I grew up here. So, I wouldn't be able to function culturally in my native country either. It really is unfortunate. But, I still have pride and am happy about who I am.

    November 17, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
    • me

      boo hoo. sounds like you have self confidence issues. have you tried going into television?

      November 17, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve From NH

      You should leave this country then – volunteer somewhere for a year. You might develop an appreciation for what you have here, then you can come back. In the mean time, you can pay attention to those that discriminate and feel sorry for yourself, or you can pay attention to those that don't – your choice. And if it makes you feel any better, within the last 2 or 3 centuries we are ALL immigrants.

      November 17, 2011 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
    • crymeariver

      Everybody has their challenges. I'm a white male, so of course I am stereotyped as a power-hungry jerk who grew up with advantages of wealth, or a wife abuser, or a racist, and so on. In just about every sitcom I see white males depicted as blundering fools who live through a day without their intelligent long-suffering wife there to rescue them from their own stupidity.
      But you know what? I'm not any of those things so I don't let it drag me down.
      Man up.

      November 17, 2011 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
    • A.huang


      I grew up in china till 17....you know what? You will encounter more discrimination there than the states! People from the city despise people from the countryside; people from the south treat people from the north poorly. Moreover, if you have a good heart you will be crushed by a lot of people who have terrible heart. Moreover, the government is so opressive that people talk very little about anything because they are afraid. You think it is a better culture because you never been there! Wake up and smell the flowers! You are a lucky one you just don't know it!

      November 17, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • A.huang

      P.S. Asian parents think if their kids can be successful and make a lot of money, then the kids would be happy. Totally false! You are a good example of that.

      November 17, 2011 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  22. Bob

    Yul–Congratulations on a great job–in general and on this essay in particular. Well done! My introduction to Asia was through two years in Korea in the U.S. Peace Corps many years ago; a wonderful introduction, where I was the obvious outsider! I gained insights that I otherwise never could have hoped for. Thanks for all you do and especially for sharing all of this. RDM

    November 16, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Canada Postie

    In my workplace we always have "Survivor" pools. I picked Yul to win and both of us won. So happy to see that you are going to stay in the public eye.

    November 16, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      Cool story, bro.

      November 17, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
      • annie

        tell it again, bro.

        February 7, 2012 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
  24. PT

    What a terrific article. I'm a 5th generation Asian American from Georgia, so I can relate to Mr. Kwon's experiences growing up. I am excited to know there are positive role models for young Asian Americans like him. Unfortunately, the one dimensional characters that Mr. Kwon referred to still exists on current TV shows. Saw one recently on the Disney channel – a show my daughter was watching. The character was an Asian man with an accent who owned a fortune cookie factory wearing a silk brocade jacket. C'mon folks. Get real. I can't believe that's the best writers today can come up with. It was like a story from a 1950's show. I'm glad Mr. Kwon is raising the bar!! Thank you!

    November 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      would it have been less offensive if the fortune cookie factory owner was black?

      November 17, 2011 at 1:32 am | Report abuse |
      • brian

        No, because fortune cookies aren't a stereotype for black men. Did I really have to explain this to you or did you realize how asinine your question was the moment you hit "post" and instantly regret it? There's the real question.

        November 17, 2011 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
      • LPW

        @ Brian - I really don't think that "me" understood how asinine the question was.

        November 17, 2011 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
  25. SL

    Hi Yul. A few years ago you and your then-fiancee(?) were right behind us at the checkout line at H-Mart on Lee Highway. While you were getting a last minute item or two, we did ask your fiancee whether you were the Yul of Survivor. Small world. Best wishes on your TV career. Go Bears! 🙂 -Cal '94.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • SL

      Oh yeah, I learned English through Sesame Street, too!

      November 16, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Taylor

    Very hot!!!

    November 16, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  27. xerxes

    Hey Yul Kwon, you are cool. But you know why you're really cool? Because I read somewhere that your favorite book series is Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe! From a fellow BotNS fan, and a fellow Corean guy, congratulations on all your success.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Travis

    Really? Who wouldn't trade-in a career as a lawyer be on TV? I'm a lawyer, and I would; and so would every other lawyer I know. Contrary to what you see on TV, the practice of law is not glamorous.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Julius

      It is exceptional in Yul's situation given – as he said – he had this social anxiety and hated to be noticed by the public. Yet he chose to step up and appear in national TV, to represent Asian American.

      Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to act in spite of its presence. Yul Kwon is a true hero 🙂

      November 17, 2011 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
  29. Nancy

    You are a great role model for Asian-American kids. I have an 11-year old Korean-American boy and it will make all the difference in the world that you are on television. I look forward to watching your show on PBS.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Dave

    Wow, very interesting. Makes me wonder how sensitively and intelligently you'll be presenting things on the PBS series "America Revealed!" Looking forward to catching it....

    November 16, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  31. rae kwon fan

    are you related to Rae Kwon by any chance? i'm a big fan of rae kwon

    November 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  32. pleasedotell

    Judging by the smile, someone must have paid off his law school loans. If Sallie Mae calls, I was never here [cuts of phone line & turns off light]

    November 16, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  33. JNessmith

    Amazing column, Yul. I look forward to seeing your new show. I loved you on Survivor! You are one of my all-time favorite players! Are you ever going to play again? Please, come back for an all-stars season! And, P.S. I love the positive message that you are projecting to the community. You are a voice for those who do not have one.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ja-coffalotte

      Who or what is a yul?

      November 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
      • Reality Check

        Among other things nickname for Yuli, a variation of Jules or Julius. Yul is also the name of the man who wrote this column and if I may objectify for one moment is one hot dude both in the looks and brains departments.

        November 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  34. Tony


    November 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      People who choose to publicly brag about their ignorance have always baffled me.

      November 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reality Check

      Here, let me help you with that. The editors anticipated there might be some people who would not know Yul Kwon from Adam, I was among those people, so they added an "Editor's note," a very short, simple and easy to read bio. If the editor's note is not informative enough for one's tastes there is also a brand new web service called Google. With Google you can just type in a term or name and it will give you more information than you can possibly digest. Some may even be what you were looking for. Hope this helps on you internet travels.

      November 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
      • Scott

        And thus, Tony is burnt by 'Reality Check', and embarrasses himself in front of the entire world.

        November 17, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  35. TomHank

    Keep up the good work. I will be looking forward to your shows.

    November 16, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  36. Dave

    He's a quintessential role model. Keep up the good work, Yul.

    November 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  37. jdurand1970

    What a great interview. While I would tend to agree with the alarm your parents surely felt when you decided to change careers, I'm glad it has worked out so positively for you and, I'm sure, your viewing audience.

    I still think the legal profession could use more community-mind individuals such as yourself, Mr. Kwon, so I hope you haven't altogether given up on that as an career option.

    I do wonder if all that law school training didn't prove crucial in mastering the requisite "shady dealings" of a sucessful Survivor contestant?

    November 16, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  38. drag000n

    Lol He's not they guy from LOST!

    November 16, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  39. Kimo

    Funny commentary. Being a white male I haven't had the same issues Kwon has though probably most people have some of the same security issues growing up. I admit that Survivor is a guilty pleasure. It seems kind of low brow but it really provides a lot of insight into how people interrelate. Kwon was one of my favorite contestants and I'm happy to see him working to make a difference. Fortunately, since his appearance on Survivor there are a few good Asian role models on television. For one, Daniel Dae Kim is far and away the best and most charismatic actor on Hawaii 5-0 and the character he played on Lost was also handled very well.

    November 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  40. jack shephard

    We miss you on Lost.

    November 16, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • jin kwon

      herroh jack shephard, me miss catching feeesh for you.

      November 20, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  41. Mit

    He's a Lambda

    November 16, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mit

      A Leader Among Men

      November 16, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • theta

      Theta Chapter – Delta Class

      November 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hroll

      Whats a lambda?

      November 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |