Survivor: Cook Islands winner Yul Kwon loves being Asian – and he wants you to love it, too.
Kwon discussed his experiences with Asian stereotyping in hopes of affecting positive change in politics, the media, and business on Monday evening in a mostly full Harris 107. The event sponsored by Lambda Phi Epsilon and partnered with the Cammy Lee Leukemia Foundation.
Before Kwon spoke, leukemia survivor and foundation recruitment manager Cammy Lee addressed the audience on the importance of signing up for the National Bone Marrow Donor registry. Since becoming an official marrow donor recruiter, the foundation has registered over 100,000 minorities.
“Basically, if you’re Caucasian in this country and you need a bone marrow transplant, your chance of finding a match is pretty good – about 70 percent,” Kwon said. “But if you’re a minority, especially an Asian-American, your chances are basically nonexistent.”
In Kwon’s sophomore year in college, his best friend and fraternity brother was dying of leukemia. Kwon stopped attending his classes and began to organize donor drives to help his friend. Although a match was found, it wasn’t perfect, and his friend died a year later, he said. This spurred Kwon to use whatever status or power he might gain in his life for the good of others.
“What I remembered most clearly about this time was how hard it was to get anybody to listen and how hard it was to get anyone to care and help,” Kwon said.
But not everything Kwon talked about was so serious. He also elicited laughs from the audience with descriptions of his childhood in a traditional Korean family.
“Basically, my parents taught me and my brother that smart kids got Ph.D.s and became professors,” Kwon said. “Dumb kids dropped out of school and became hookers – or worse – actors.”
Kwon said he was chosen as a contestant for Survivor through a mutual friend. Initially, he was reluctant to sign up for Survivor, and admitted to nearly quitting the game after he found out that the tribes on Cook Island were to be separated by ethnicity. He recalled being told to wear a business suit and glasses to casting calls, and how the contestants seemed typecast in racial roles.
“The manipulation comes in the editing [of the show],” Kwon said. “On the show itself I didn’t feel any pressure to be one way or another, but I was worried that during the editing process [that's how] they’d portray me.”
Kwon got a pretty glamorous treatment when the show aired, though.
“Towards the end they kind of played me up as being a godfather,” Kwon said. “For the most part they had me being the kind of Korean Jesus.”
However, Kwon said he wasn’t as concerned with $1 million prize as he was with building a strong group of people and defeating stereotypes.
“I didn’t really care if I won,” Kwon said. “I just wanted to make sure that someone from my tribe would get to the end and we wouldn’t have this racially biased outcome at the end of the game.”
Kwon participated in a question-and-answer session with the audience after he spoke. One student asked him for advice on higher education and employment.
Kwon described being pushed into certain careers by his parents and the difficulties in trying to break out of traditional jobs to find what would make him happy. He urged the listeners to avoid the “gambler’s fallacy” of staying in one place for fear of losing all the effort put into it.
“The other thing I’d encourage you to do is really consider alternative careers. Don’t stick with being a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer just because it’s the path of least resistance,” Kwon said. “If you’re only doing it because your parents are telling you to do it, or because you’re afraid to think outside the box, then you’re only doing yourself and your community a disservice.”