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Yul Kwon, most famous for winning Survivor: Cook Islands in 2006, has already had more than the average person’s share of life experiences. Still, he aspires to become a sort of modern Renaissance man, constantly seeking new career opportunities in varying industries.
Now, Yul, who admits to having “career ADD,” adds the title of “TV host” to his extensive resume with his new shows, LinkAsia and PBS’s America Revealed. Read on to hear Yul talk about his new projects, parenthood, and his thoughts on the role of Asian Americans in the media.
When we showcased your 2009 wedding in our KB Weddings series, your daughter was about to turn one. How has life changed since becoming a father? How do you balance parenthood with your active work schedule?
I guess the biggest change in my life is that I get a lot less sleep, but being a father is an amazing experience. Genevie is the apple of my eye even if she doesn’t seem to regard me as an authority so much as a means of transportation. I think she thinks I’m a glorified Sherpa. Balancing family with work is tough though. I started filming my PBS series, America Revealed, soon after she was born so I spent a lot of the first year of her life on the road. Every time I came back home, I’d be stunned at how much she’d grown. But on the bright side, when I’m home, I get to spend a lot of time with her. I’m hoping that the quality time we spend together makes up for the periodic absences.
You’ve practiced law, worked for Google, worked as Deputy Chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Bureau, and also appeared and won Survivor: Cook Islands back in 2006. What drives you to constantly search for positions in varying industries?
I’ve always felt that it was important to challenge myself by putting myself into different situations that would force me to grow. By nature, I tend to be more fearful of risk and uncertainty, and I’ve learned through the course of my life that I have to constantly keep on pushing myself out of my comfort zone or else I’ll withdraw into a shell. I also really believe in having diverse experiences in order to grow as a person and to broaden your skill sets. I’ve always admired the ideal of the polymath or Renaissance Man, which is a notion that seems to have fallen out of favor in today’s world of narrow specialization.
You’re now the host of LinkAsia and PBS’s America Revealed. What can you tell us about your new career path on television?
It’s still really kind of surprising to me that I ended up on television. I was the last person I’d ever imagine in the media given how shy and introverted I was growing up. I still don’t really think of myself as someone who is naturally suited for TV, but I feel lucky to have these opportunities that don’t come often to people in our community. I don’t feel a desire to be on television for its own sake, but mass media is still the most effective platform for engaging people and informing their views. As long as I keep finding opportunities to use media to make a difference, I’d love to continue in this path. Otherwise, I may have to give in to my parents by going back to school and getting my Ph.D. Although, I think that ship has already sailed.
Yul at La Tomatina en Reno, the largest tomato fight in the U.S.
America Revealedpremiered last Wednesday (4/11). What are some things that viewers can expect to learn from the show?
American Revealed is a new series that reveals America’s fascination with thongs, bikinis, and Speedos. Just kidding. It’s actually about the hidden systems and networks that we all depend on everyday but don’t really understand how they work as well as what happens when they don’t work. Over four weeks, we explore four different systems – food, transportation, energy, and manufacturing. It sounds like it could be dry, but believe me, it’s a fascinating and highly visual experience. We use some out-of-the-world aerial photography, computer animation, GPS technology, and other stunts to bring these topics to life in a way you’ve never seen before. It’s like visual eye-candy.
Are there any particular stories that really stood out during your journey?
My favorite story was about the urban farmer in Detroit named Will Gardner. He is a young African American man who decided to learn horticulture and plant crops in abandoned lots in his inner-city neighborhood. Detroit has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn, and many areas of the city have been abandoned. Many inner-city residents can’t get access to healthy foods because the major grocery chains and supermarkets won’t open in their neighborhoods. So there’s been a grass-roots revolution where people like Will are taking it upon themselves to grow the produce that their communities need. He’s an amazing guy and is someone who also tries to use gardening to teach kids in his community a better way to live.
America Revealed, Episode 1: Yul with urban farmer Will Gardner
Did your definition or perception of “America” or of an “American” change while filming the show?
It did. I spent most of my life in larger metropolitan areas on the coasts where there is typically a lot more diversity, especially in terms of Asian Americans. While filming America Revealed, we went to more than 25 states, many of which I’d never visited before, including the Deep South, the Midwest heartland, and parts of Alaska. Some of these areas don’t have many Asian Americans, and it was eye opening to meet people for whom talking to an Asian American (much less an Asian American TV host) was a relatively novel experience.
On one hand, it was inspiring to meet people from so many different walks of life and backgrounds who all held this abiding belief and pride in being American. On the other hand, it also underscored the fact that we still have a while to go in terms of overcoming the perpetual “foreigner” stereotype. Although everyone was friendly and welcoming, I still got a lot of questions like, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” A couple of times, I even got complimented on how well I spoke English. They were even more impressed when I told them that I’d only been studying English for a year.
For me, experiences like these reaffirmed my decision to host this show. One of the reasons I decided to take on this project is that, as far as I know, this is the first national series about America that will be hosted by an Asian American man, let alone a Korean American man. My hope is that by seeing someone like me hosting a show like America Revealed, more people outside our community will see us, first and foremost, as Americans rather than as foreigners.
Tell us a little about LinkAsia and how it differs from other news outlets.
LinkAsia tries to fill a gap that isn’t being met by commercial news organizations in America. Events and trends in Asia tend to receive only the most superficial news coverage, and it’s often filtered through a U.S.-centric lens. We cover Asia starting with the premise that Asia is and will increasingly become one of the most important regions of the world and a key driver of global developments. We try to provide more insightful coverage of Asia by offering unfiltered news from mainstream Asian news broadcasters as well as the latest buzz on social media. This is supplemented by original contributions from reporters out in the field as well as interviews with policy experts. All told, whatLinkAsia provides is a pulse into Asia that you couldn’t get anywhere else unless you lived there.
Asia consists of a very large number of nations that carry starkly different policies and perspectives. How does LinkAsia maintain a fair (re)presentation of incidents or issues that involve countries in Asia on opposite sides?
That’s always the challenge especially in the context of a weekly half-hour show. Our approach is to try to present both sides whenever possible so that the audience can see for itself how news outlets in different countries will report on the same issue. For example, in a dispute between China and Japan, we might show how the state-run Chinese broadcaster CCTV reports on the incident followed by a story by the Japanese broadcaster NHK.
Who are some guests you’d love to meet and interview? What are some issues you’d love to tackle on your show?
We’ve been able to bring on some great interviewees for the show including policy experts, reporters, activists, academics, and others. I’d love to eventually start interviewing the policymakers in these countries as well as some of our own. Interviewing someone like Aung San Suu Kyi or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be a dream. In terms of issues, we’ve covered the whole gamut, from politics and economics to culture and entertainment. At this point, there aren’t any specific issues I’m hoping to tackle since we usually cover the topics I think we should. But it would be great, I think, to have more in-depth discussions and roundtables and more long-form investigative reporting that allows us to go deeper into complex issues.
We wouldn’t be surprised to hear that in a couple years you’d be working on something new. What are some types of projects you’re interested in getting involved with?
Is it that obvious that I have career ADD? I hope my parents don’t read this. In terms of my future, I can’t really say for sure what I’ll be doing. As long as I keep finding opportunities to use media in a way that I feel is impactful and makes a difference, I’d love to continue along this trajectory. I’d also be keen to do something that I haven’t done before but have always wanted to do which is to start a company. But most of all, I’m hoping that within a couple of years, my biggest project will be taking care of Baby Number 2.