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.