An Interview with Yul Kwon

The Sampan had the opportunity to sit down with Yul Kwon, winner of “Survivor: Cook Islands” and host of PBS’ new show, America Revealed, prior to the show’s first episode screening in Boston. Here is a part of our conversation, the rest you can view online at sampan.org:

SAMPAN: Could you tell us a bit about the new show and this opportunity?

“When I got this opportunity, it occurred to me that, I don’t think there’s ever been a national series about America that has been hosted by an Asian American man. I think from the perspective of our community that is something that is helpful, that can help change the perception that other people have of Asian Americans, to see us more as Americans first and foremost, rather than perpetual foreigners. ”

“And it was interesting because over the course of filming I’d go to parts of the country that I’ve never been to before, like the deep South or Midwest or Alaska, and everyone was very friendly and very nice, but I think a lot of people were very surprised when they were told that I was a host. There were a couple instances where people were like ‘Oh, where are you from?” Well, I’m actually from San Francisco. And a couple times they told me, ‘Wow, you speak English really well!” Thank you, I’ve been practicing really hard for a whole year.”

“My hope was that by doing this show, it would help people understand that we are Americans and I was hoping that maybe the next generation of people in our community, if they see me then they can think ‘I can do the same thing, too.’”

“When I was a kid, I never would have imagined that television or media was an option for someone like me. It was the farthest thing from my mind. And it took me a long time to develop the confidence that I needed to one, accept who I was and be proud of my Asian American heritage, but also to imagine myself doing something like this. ”

“What I’m hoping is that kids, today, will see more images of Asian Americans doing interesting things and it won’t take them as long to develop the self-confidence to do something like what I’m doing today.”

SAMPAN: What were you expecting to get out of hosting the show?

“I have to say, I think I was sort of naive about a lot of the stuff [going into the show]. I was on Survivor but it’s a very different style. Being a host is actually really hard. It’s a lot harder than just chopping coconuts. It was especially challenging for me because we tried to make it very immersive and very kinetic, we’re trying to bring the viewers in, and we’re trying to make the stuff interesting and exciting, so we use a lot of very active sequences, where I’m jumping out of a plane, or propelling down the blade of a 300 foot wind turbine to check for damage. It’s really scary stuff, because I’m scared of heights and I’m also claustrophobic and I get really motion sick on planes.”

“Half of the stuff we filmed was either up in the sky or in confined in these really tiny spaces. So you know for most of the filming I was literally on the verge of having a panic attack, and I felt like I was being forced to go through immersion therapy to confront all of my fears and phobias, so it was really hard on a personal level. But I feel like because it was so hard, I’ve grown a lot, intellectually and as a person.”

SAMPAN: What was the scariest thing that you did?

“One thing that was scary was jumping out of the airplane. There was kind of a miscommunication. The guy who was strapped on my back asked me a question when we were up in the air. I thought he asked me if I was feeling OK, but it turns out he asked me if I was ready to jump. So he just jumped and pushes me out. And I thought I’d have this manly roar, but it was more like a high-pitched squeal.”

SAMPAN: What do you hope the viewers of the show take away from watching?

“I hope that they get a much better appreciation of for these systems that we rely on every single day, that make our modern lives possible, but we just take for granted. You know like when you order a pizza, or you turn on a light switch, or you get on a train, these are things that we use every single day, but you don’t really understand how they work. And when you go behind-the-scenes and see this beautiful choreography of people and machine and technology and these processes, all conspiring at the same time to get you what you want or get you where you want to go, it’s really a beautiful process.”

“I just have a much better appreciation for how this country works, which I’m hoping people will as well from watching the series. At the same time, a lot of these systems are becoming strained and over-burdened, so one of the things I’m hoping people take away from this is that we have to have debate, a national debate, because the reason out country got to where it is today didn’t just happen overnight, it didn’t happen accidentally. ”

“We made some key decisions to invest in large national infrastructure like our national highway system or the transcontinental railroad or the internet, that provide the foundation for our country to grow.”

“We’re now in a situation where we’re facing some real financial constraints, we cutting a lot of spending, but I think we need to make a collective decision as a country to ensure that our kids will continue to grow in the best country in the world, and I think we’re kind of hoping to facilitate or start that debate.”

SAMPAN: Had you seen a lot of Survivor before you decided to go on the show?

“Not a lot. I was generally a fan, but I was more interested, I think from an intellectual and social standpoint because I took a lot of classes on psychology and sociology, and it’s really a fascinating social experiment about how people work with each other and how to rebuild society. So I always thought it was really interested from that perspective but I never had any desire or thought I’d be on television myself.”

“But I got recruited to be on the show because they needed more Asian Americans for that season, because it was a war of the races theme. And they didn’t actually tell us that until we got on the island. But for me I wanted to go on the show for a few reasons, one because I felt that there was a lack of representation especially for Asian Americans, I wanted to get away from some of these negative stereotypes that I’d grown up seeing when I was a kid.”

“For me, I always thought it was an opportunity to try out all the things I’d learned at school and in my career about how to work with people, about how to work with teams, and so it was, do you want to sign up for this crazy social experiment and try all this stuff out? And I did, and it turns out that a lot of the stuff actually works.”

SAMPAN: Was there a point when you knew you were going to win?

“No. I mean, for most of the time, I thought there was no chance that I was going to win, because there was this one point in the game where people from my alliance mutinied and so it looked like there was virtually no chance that I would get to the end. It wasn’t until pretty close to the end that I thought I might have a chance at winning. And I also didn’t think I was going to do that well because I wanted to represent our community in a positive way, and I knew I wasn’t going to do anything that was really dirty or underhanded, and I was very conscious about not doing or saying anything that could be taken out of context to reflect negatively on Asian Americans. So I didn’t know if you could win Survivor by playing a clean game. But that’s one of the things I was hoping to do, you don’t have to play dirty and you can still win this game.”

SAMPAN: What did you do with the winnings?

“I donated some of the money to a number of different charities, including the Asian American Donor Program, and just did a lot of charity work. The rest of the money, I gave some of the money to my parents, and I invested the rest. And I paid my taxes.”

SAMPAN: What do you think are the three keys to success?

“You need to find mentors. That’s very important. Whether you’re at school or working at a job, there have been a number of studies showing why Asian Americans are hitting the glass ceiling at large organizations, and one of the biggest constraints on their success is not finding mentors. I’d say, two, don’t be afraid to speak up and make your presence visible and your voice heard. I think a lot of Asian Americans, including myself, really struggle with feeling like you can’t be assertive and you have to wait until you’re called on. So basically a lot of Asian Americans don’t feel comfortable expressing that they want to be a leader, or going for leadership positions, and I think that’s something that we need to take upon ourselves, to really have a more assertive voice. And I guess the last one is that we need to work closely with each other. We need to network with each other within our community. If you look at other ethnic groups, they often have organizations or affinity groups that are much more active in terms of trying to mentor younger people within their community, trying to create opportunities for other people in their community. I think the Asian American community is getting there, but its definitely something we need pushing on.”

SAMPAN: Did you have mentors?

“I did. I had some very wonderful mentors. One more thing I’d like to add is that if you can find a mentor that is of the same ethnicity, that’s great, but if you can’t, don’t stop there. Some of my most helpful mentors were not Asian American. But what is critical is that you just need to find someone who is going to be able to help guide you and give you advice and then ideally be an internal champion for you in your organization so they can vouch for you for leadership positions.”

SAMPAN: What’s next for you?

“I don’t know. That’s a good question. If there are more opportunities in media to do things where I feel like I can have an impact and help our community, I’d love to continue doing that. My parents are always asking me when I’ll be going back to school to get my PhD, but I think they’re just happy I’m not on Survivor and instead, doing something for PBS. If the series does well, and PBS wants to continue it, I’d love to continue doing this because I think it’s just a great series, and I really don’t think there’s a lot of television out there like this. I don’t know. For me, I don’t have the desire to be on television for the sake of being on television. So as long as I find a platform for opportunities where I feel like I can combine entertainment with something substantive in the context of the message, I’d love to continue it. Otherwise, I’ll probably go back to making frozen yogurt.

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