Call him Cool Yul. If you’re a fan of “Survivor,” you know who Yul Kwon is. He’s the Korean American attorney who won the “Cook Island” season (season 13), helping to chip away at the myth that Asian men are meek and mild-mannered geeks. He was a good student, all right, and he works hard, so he fulfills the “model minority” stereotype in those ways. But he’s also buff, handsome, an eloquent speaker (even though he says he hates public speaking) an Asian American activist and just plain cool.
Kwon was in Colorado yesterday, as the main speaker for an APA Heritage Month celebration organized by the MillerCoors Asian Network, the beer-maker based in Golden just west of Denver. Also on the bill were traditional Filipino dances by members of the Filipino American Community of Colorado, and terrific Filipino food by local chef Leah Eveleigh’s Tropical Grill Catering. The turnout was smaller than it should have been — shame on the local Asian American community for not coming out to support this kind of event, which was free of charge and featured a nationally-known celebrity as a draw. But the crowd that was there about half Asian descent, and mostly curious Coors employees and their families, was appreciative of Kwon’s speech, and the performances and food.
I thought Kwon’s speech was especially notable. He’d been to Denver before, last year during the Democratic National Convention, to urge Asian Americans to register to vote. He’s still passionate about having AAPIs involved in politics, but he’s not so interested in running for office himself, as he explained to a fan who asked. But his speech was all about his experiences growing up Asian in America, and how important it is for our future to have AAPIs to look up to as role models.
He explained how he grew up without seeing anyone who looked like him on TV or in movies, except people who were subservient, foreign and exotic, or at the other end of the scale, martial arts masters.
He explained how even today, so many Asian American actors, who may have been born and raised in the United States and don’t have accents, are forced to take roles that require them to perpetuate the Asian-as-foreigner image by speaking with an accent. He relayed how his friend Daniel Day Kim of “Lost,” for whom he’s sometimes mistaken, was asked if his role on the hit show led to other acting offers. Kim said yes, but he turned them down because they were all roles for Asians who couldn’t speak English, or spoke with a heavy accent — just like his role in “Lost.”
He explained that we don’t have enough Asian Americans in elected office, but marveled at how we have three Asian Americans in the cabinet, and a President like Barack Obama, something he hadn’t expected to see in his lifetime. He explained he cried on election night.
He explained that we don’t have enough Asian Americans in the executive levels of corporate America, even though we have many, many AAPIs in lower level positions.
He explained that he took on the Survivor challenge (he was a last-minute addition after someone else fell through) because he tonthought it was important to have an Asian American man in a reality show, being, well, real.
And, he explained that when he was invited to audition for “Survivor: Cook Islands,” he was told to show up in glasses and a suit, even though he wears contacts and he’d be running around half naked on the show. Of the 22 men who auditioned that day, he was the only Asian — and the only one wearing glasses and a suit. So even the show’s producers imagined him as an Asian nerd stereotype.
Must have been a sweet victory for him, and a big shock to the producers when he ended up winning the million-dollar prize at the end of the season.
He gave much of his winnings to charities he supports. (The Coors event’s organizers also announced he gave away his honorairum for coming to Colorado to non-profits.)
So he goes around speaking these days about getting Asian Americans in higher profile positions in politics, entertanment and corporate America. He wants the next generation of AAPI youth to see themselves reflected in American society. He wants role models and a path for others to follow.
That’s why he’s Cool Yul.
(By the way, he’s hoping to return to Denver to be the keynote speaker this summer for the annual convention of the National Association of Asian American Professionals. Cool Yul may return.)