Asian Americans: more than math geeks

'Survivor' winner shares personal experiences with Asian stereotypes

By Hannah Lentz | 2/5/14 6:11pm


Yul Kwon, a former contestant from the TV show “Survivor: Cook Islands, speaks as part of the Professionals of Color lecture series. GVL / Gabriella Patti

One man’s story reflects the goals of an entire population. Yul Kwon, the first Asian American to win the reality television show “Survivor,” shared his experiences about growing up and having to dealing with stereotypes.

More than 50 students, staff and community members attended the event on Tuesday, which is a part of the “Professionals of Color” lecture series hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

“It is important that we understand the cultural differences of the world, as members of the Grand Valley community, so that we can make everyone feel comfortable and welcome,” said Kate Harmon, a faculty member in attendance.

Presented by the Asian Student Union, “Beyond Math Geeks and China Dolls: Overcoming Stereotypes,” focused on Asian Americans trying to finding success in the U.S.

Kwon, the winner of the racially controversial 2006 season of the CBS reality show “Survivor: Cook Islands,” shared his personal experiences with racial persecution, which he said is something many Asian Americans face.

“I decided that I was going to be on the show to take off the stereotypes of Asian Americans and help people to be informed of racial differences and labels,” Kwon said.

Growing up, Kwon was tormented because of biases directed at the Asian population and was exposed to the extremities of ignorance displayed through physical bullying and verbal abuse. He suffered from social anxiety, sweating and panic attacks that made it hard for him to become involved and invested in his own growth, he said.

“I knew that if I didn’t start changing, I would never be happy and I would never be truly proud of myself,” Kwon said. “It was a change that helped form my lifestyle.”

Kwon spoke on the racial ignorance he faced during the interview process for the show. He revealed that out of all of the contestants asked to interview for the show, he was the only one asked to wear a suit and glasses, an appearance often associated with “Asian nerds.”

“These kinds of experiences show just how uninformed a community can be,” Kwon said. “It also gives an opportunity to help inform.”

Kwon hosted a PBS special, “America Revealed,” where he took an introspective look into the inner workings of America. He also currently serves as a correspondent for CNN and lectures at many universities telling his story.

“Everyone has the ability to grow beyond expectations and make a difference outside of just your ethnicity,” Kwon said.

The next lecture in the series will be hosted by the Seidman College of Business. “Effective Leadership and Service” will take place today from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the Cook-Dewitt Center. It will feature Patrick Miles, Jr., attorney for the Western District of Michigan in 2012.

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