The ICAS Lectures


Paving the Way for the Next Generation of Korean American Community- Building and Leadership

Kyung B. Yoon

ICAS Summer Symposium

The Korean Diaspora
Challenges facing the Korean-American Community (KAC)
August 2, 2008 Saturday 9:30 AM
Montgomery County Community College Science Center room 214
340 DeKalb Pike, Blu Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Kyung B. Yoon

Paving the Way for the Next Generation of Korean American Community- Building and Leadership

Kyung B. Yoon

I came to America when I was six years old and grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC. Throughout elementary school, I remember being the only Asian kid in my classroom and one of the first things I did was to change my name, "Kyung Bok", to "Karen". This was after being on the receiving end of lots of taunts and teasing from my classmates about my "weird" name. There was nothing official about my name change-I simply started calling myself "Karen Yoon"-a name that stuck with me all the way through high school. Many years later, when I got my first break on television as a news reporter, I thought long and hard before finally deciding to call myself by my Korean name: "Kyung Yoon", against the advice of people who told me that "Karen Yoon" would be a much more "TV-friendly" name. I figured that when I was growing up, if I had seen someone on TV with a name like "Kyung", not only would it have given me more confidence and pride in my name, but it would also have had some impact on those mean kids who would have to accept that the name can't be that weird if they're hearing it on television!

Becoming a TV reporter was a longtime dream of mine, but it was a dream that my parents did not encourage me to pursue. Like many Korean parents, they pushed me to go into a field that was "safer" and more secure. And I did, initially. I put my dreams of journalism on hold and pursued a Masters Degree in international economics because as a Korean, I was also very interested in economic development. I had witnessed the dramatic transformation of Korea in my own lifetime, and wanted to help other countries move from poverty to a better standard of living for their citizens. After graduation, I got a good job at the World Bank in Washington, DC, making loans to developing countries. But while the work was interesting, I could not forget my nagging desire to pursue television journalism.

Finally in 1987, I took the leap to pursue my dream: scraped together my savings, quit my secure Bank job and moved to New York to take an unpaid job in the Fox Channel 5 newsroom. I was lucky to have landed at Fox which at the time was a new and growing network, and was able to give someone like me opportunities to advance. Within a couple years, I worked my way up from fetching coffee and taking phone messages to being a news writer and producer, and ultimately on-air correspondent. It wasn't easy and the hardest part of it all was convincing my newsroom managers that as a petite Asian woman, I could still be tough and aggressive enough to be a good reporter. After several years of being a television reporter and covering many high profile news stories including the first World Trade Center bombing and the Lockerbie air disaster, I eventually went back to the World Bank, but this time as the executive producer and host of a new television series on development issues that was broadcast all over the world. It was an exciting opportunity to merge both of my passions in TV and economic development, and taught me the value of not being afraid to follow your passions and that it can lead to unexpected and amazing opportunities.

In my career, I've had my share of memorable experiences. Certainly the funniest has to be one that took place more than a decade ago during the infamous Woody Allen-Mia Farrow scandal. For those of you too young to remember this story, the media in New York and around the world were thrown into a frenzy when the movie star Mia Farrow accused her longtime boyfriend and famous film director, Woody Allen, of luring her adopted Korean-born daughter, Soon Yi, into an inappropriate relationship. Soon Yi and Woody eventually got married but at that time, this unexpected airing of celebrity dirty laundry sparked a wild media circus, with reporters and photographers actually camping out in front of Woody Allen's apartment building on one side of Manhattan's Central Park, and Mia Farrow's apartment on the other, hoping to get a photo or a soundbite. At the height of this scandal, I was assigned to cover this story and dispatched to Woody Allen's location. When I arrived there, fully expecting to join the media circus, I didn't know at first what was happening to me. Pop, pop, pop, all I could see was an endless explosion of bright lights blinding my eyes. It took me a few seconds to realize that all the paparazzi thought that I was Soon Yi! The more I protested and said I was not Soon Yi, the more pictures they shot. It wasn't until I finally pulled out my press pass and waved it in front of the paparazzi that they stopped.

This story is funny but it also reminds us how easy it is for Asian Americans to get mistaken for each other, and how uncomfortable that can make us feel. My friend, Jeff Yang, a Harvard graduate and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle once told me a story of how, when he was living in New York City, he rode his bike on a beautiful spring day to a friend's apartment. His good mood was ruined when the doorman at the apartment building kept motioning him to a back elevator at which point it dawned on him that the doorman assumed he was a Chinese restaurant delivery boy. Attorney and author Phoebe Eng writes in her book "Warrior Lessons" about the time she was on a business trip to Bangkok when she realized she had forgotten to wear her watch. She spotted a fellow business traveler, a Caucasian man in a suit and tie, on the street and asked him what time it was. He just turned away and said "no thanks"-it was then she realized that he thought she was a Thai prostitute.

These are the kinds of experiences that rattle us to our core. The shocking realization that the larger society can view us so differently from what we know ourselves to be. And that this has everything to do with our physical appearance and the stereotypes that other people may hold about us. These experiences can be funny like my Soon Yi story, or not so funny when we encounter racist attitudes or even deliberate policies, such as the internment of Americans of Japanese descent in this county during World War II. We think "oh that could never happen again", yet some of the same dynamics were disturbingly in play during the more recent Los Alamos spy scandal when a Chinese-American scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was falsely accused of leaking nuclear secrets to the Chinese government.

The unfortunate consequence of Asians being stereotyped, of course is that it can, quite naturally, bring out our defensive need to differentiate and distance ourselves from each other. As Koreans, we can say: "the Los Alamos scandal has nothing to do with me, I'm not Chinese". And even among Korean Americans, the second generation professional can resent being mistaken for a recent immigrant, bristling at such back-handed compliments as "oh, you speak English so well!!" The overriding reaction such experiences can provoke in us is one that divides us as Asian Americans: we look at each other and say "I'm different-I'm not like you. You are not part of my experience".

Now that I have also become a mother of two boys, I understand better where my parents were coming from. We all want to protect our children, stack the odds so that they will have financially secure futures. But what I also realize is that it's not enough for me to want my sons to do well individually without also considering-- and working to help tackle --larger questions and issues facing our community in this country. I could encourage my son to become a scientist, for instance, but I also need to help ensure that my American-born son will not face ridiculous questions about his patriotism if he applies for a high- security job, or gives a campaign donation, just because of his Asian ancestry. Or consider the reality that among men and women of my 1.5 or second generation in this country, who have gone to top colleges and amassed impressive work experience, so many are talking about the frustrations of facing the glass ceiling at work, wondering why they are not getting the management promotions they feel they deserve. Could this have to do with perceptions of Asians as excellent worker bees, but not leadership material? Or the reality of the Korean shop owners in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots who never thought it important to engage in community relations until their shops were destroyed in racially motivated attacks during the riots of 1992. What this teaches us is that it's not enough to just go about our daily business and avoid getting involved in the larger issues confronting us as a community. America is our home and the opportunity to shape our future as active participants and leaders, means putting ourselves in the driver's seat of our journey in this country, not just being passive passengers. It also means building more bridges to other communities- Asian, African, Latino--focusing less on our differences and more on the common experiences that unite us, and make us strong, forging new partnerships and working together to common goals that will benefit all of us.

And we are seeing real progress, beginning with events like todays. Organizations like the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS) are playing a significant role in promoting mentoring, educational and development opportunities for new generations of leaders in our community. We also now have better networks and organizations, and new technology is making it easier for us to link up with each other and share information and support. You see more Asian faces in mainstream ads which indicates that advertisers are sitting up and taking notice of our purchasing power. More of us are considering careers that may not be as secure and lucrative personally, but have a larger social impact: in the media, politics, entertainment and social activism. More of us are donating our time and financial resources in our communities, supporting important work like what ICAS has been doing for decades.

America has changed a lot since my childhood. I am thankful that my children do not have to be the only Asian kids in their classes, but even if they were, they are still growing up in an America where they and their classmates are seeing more people who look like you and me on television, from news to sitcoms to political debates to rock concerts. We have a long way to go, but I believe we are all part of a powerful wave of change that's transforming the face of America; how we see ourselves and how others see us. And I know that it's going to be harder and harder for people to stereotype us and lump us all together when we are getting out there in all our vibrant, confounding and human complexity, and we can stand up to ignorance and stereotypes and say proudly: yes, we are Korean Americans and we do speak English, some of us very well and yes, we have a sense of humor, some of us are even comedians, and we can be athletic, some of us are champions in our sports, and yes, some of us are even lousy at math! Above all, we are contributors, leaders, movers and shakers-and we deserve to become an active and influential voice in America.

This page last updated 8/6/2008 jdb

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