For the past year, I have been privileged to contribute a regular bi-weekly column to The Korea Times called ``Notes from Harvard.’’ Now that I have graduated and moved to Washington D.C. to begin my new job, we thought that the column could use a new name. And since Washington D.C. is the capital city of the U.S., we thought that ``Letter from America’’ would be appropriate, if not altogether imaginative.
The contents of the column will also make a significant shift. If ``Notes from Harvard’’ consisted of my thoughts on various topics that I encountered while at Harvard, ``Letter from America’’ will focus mainly on exploring the leadership journeys of various people who have a significant effect on how we live together in the pluralistic society that is the U.S. These are the everyday _ usually unsung _ heroes that inspire, organize, and create situations that break new ground in how people interact with one another in the spirit of common humanity.
These are the very special people who lead through their words and actions. They share three things that make them true leaders. One, they lead without expectations of personal entitlement. Two, they lead by living out what they preach; in short, they walk the talk. Three, and most importantly, they lead because they create change for the betterment of all of us. And that’s what leadership is all about: creating change.
Although I won’t be discriminatory, my choice of ``leaders’’ is based on ethnicity. I will tend to focus on those people who are leading changes in Asian-American communities in the U.S. As such, my first choice for this inaugural edition of ``Letter from America’’ is Yul Kwon, the Korean-American winner of the 13th season of ``Survivor,’’ the blockbuster reality show that has become a pop?culture phenomenon in the U.S.
Yul shares the same name as that of a famous general in Korean history. In fact, you can easily picture Yul in the traditional fish-scale Korean body armor waving his sword aloft as he leads a headlong charge against the invading armies of Hideyoshi, as did his ancient namesake. However, Yul is not a leader because he is a warrior. Nor is he a leader because he was the first Asian to win Survivor. He is not even a leader because he won 1 million U.S. dollars as the prize. He is not a leader because he went to Stanford and graduated from Yale Law School. And he certainly is not a leader because People Magazine listed him as one of the ``200 Sexiest Men Alive.’’
Yul is a leader because he is trying to change things, not just for himself but also for the larger community that he belongs to. More specifically, he is trying to change how the American media portrays Asian men in news stories, TV dramas, movies, etc.
Growing up in the U.S., the most prominent role models in the media had been limited to the impossibly wise but comic Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid, mysterious but ridiculously baffling fighting monk Shao Lin in Kung Foo (who wasn’t even an Asian), or Long Duk Dong, the nerdy foreign exchange student in Sixteen Candles. In short, as an Asian man, you are either an enlightened fighting machine or a studious nerd with the inevitable coke?bottle glasses. These stereotypes are dangerous not only because they plant false images of Asians in the larger American society but because they actually limit what Asian kids think they can achieve. Stereotypes are insidious because they create a glass ceiling in our minds, telling us to be less than what we can become.
Yul is a leader because he is using his celebrity to tackle these issues head-on. Last month, he helped produce and hosted a series of exposes on Asian males in America that aired on CNN. The issues they tackled included: The changing image of Asian-American men in film and television; the glass ceiling for Asian-Americans in corporate America; and affirmative action in education.
Although this is just the beginning, it’s a beginning that was possible only because Yul committed himself to create change that he wanted to see in American society. Creating change that affects more than just you. That’s what leadership is all about.
Jason Lim is a fellow at Harvard Korea Institute researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at email@example.com.