“Survivor” Winner Yul Kwon Discusses Overcoming Asian-American Stereotypes

“Ever since I was a kid, it always bothered me that I didn’t see many people on television who looked like me. In fact, the only character I could relate to was Big Bird on Sesame Street, only because he was nice, had a lot of friends and was yellow,” said Yul Kwon, the 2006 winner of “Survivor: Cook Islands” and a current host of PBS’s “America Revealed,” to the Andover community on April 27.

In his presentation, titled “Overcoming Stereotypes: Beyond Dumb Jocks, Math Nerds and Band Geeks,” Kwon, a Korean man who was born in New York and grew up in California, described his struggles to overcome the Asian-American stereotype.

After his peers called him an “Asian geek” in elementary school, Kwon longed to create a new image for himself. While on the television show “Survivor,” Kwon aimed to portray Asian-Americans in a new light.

“In school, I began to mumble and talk really fast, because I didn’t think that anyone would listen to me. I also had a severe lisp when I was a kid, which a lot of people mistook for an accent, so I was afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to be made fun of or be bullied,” said Kwon in his presentation.

“When I got the opportunity to go on ‘Survivor,’ I remember thinking to myself, how long might it take for another Asian man to have a chance to appear on a major television show, where he’s not defined by stereotypes. Maybe if I go on this show, I can become the kind of role model that I didn’t have when I was growing up,” he said.

According to Kwon, most television shows exacerbate Asian-American stereotypes by depicting Asian women as servants or “dragon ladies” and men as cooks, gangsters, computer geeks or kung-fu masters who cannot speak English.

“I realized how much these external images that I had seen really defined how I looked at myself and how I internalized these images,” said Kwon.

BecauSe “Survivor” is an unscripted reality show, Kwon hoped to use his presence to help establish a new, stereotype-defying image for Asian-Americans on television.

Kwon said that in 2006, the producers of “Survivor” were trying to create diversity on the show and asked him to participate specifically because he was Asian. The day before the show began filming, the producers told the contestants that they would be separated into groups by race on the show.

“They couldn’t get enough Asians to apply. They literally found Becky Lee [another Asian-American participant] by typing ‘hot Asian chicks’ on Facebook. They also ‘recruited’ me to replace another Asian guy that quit,” he said.

Kwon decided to participate in the show after he was asked in a production interview whether he was from North or South Korea. He was convinced to go on the show to help educate the public about the often misunderstood Asian-American culture.

After his experience on “Survivor,” Kwon continued with his mission to undermine the Asian-American stereotype.

“I tried to use my 15 minutes of fame to encourage more youths to become active in their communities and politics,” said Kwon in the presentation.

During the 2008 presidential election, Kwon campaigned for Barack Obama as one of his campaign surrogates to youth and minorities, according to Kwon.

In 2011, Kwon began hosting “America Revealed,” a PBS series that provides viewers with insight into various aspects of the nation’s infrastructure, such as the transportation, energy and manufacturing networks, according to its website.

“I have often wondered how I would have felt as a kid, if [an Asian-America] like me was hosting a television series. I think it would have made a difference,” said Kwon.

Brandon Wong ’12 said, “I was obviously interested in [the fact that Kwon won] ‘Survivor,’ but beyond that, I think he did a good job of talking about stereotypes and how they are often portrayed in the media.”