Actor John Cho — famous for his role as Harold Lee in the “Harold and Kumar” films — discussed the intersection of acting and Asian-American identity Saturday evening.
Cho, who has also appeared in “Star Trek” and “American Pie,” said he has always practiced a policy of “not doing stereotypical parts” that typecast Asian-Americans. He told anecdotes from his childhood and talked about his Korean heritage in front of more than 200 students in the Berkeley College dining hall as part of the Asian American Cultural Center’s annual celebration of Asian Pacific-American Heritage Month.
Recounting his early acting days as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1990s, Cho said he did not expect to pursue acting, though he “really enjoyed” his time acting in student plays. Cho said those productions introduced him to Asian-American actors in the entertainment industry, which he said became important in shaping his own career.
“It’s so important to see someone who looks like you doing it,” Cho said. “It’s something our brain needs, to see someone who looks like us doing something to convince us that something is possible.”
Cho said he thinks he was “kind of preoccupied” with his racial identity in college, an attitude he said is less common among college students today. He said cultural identity has become “much more fluid” in recent years and that students now identify not just by their ethnicity, but also by other factors such as their extracurricular activities and gender. While Cho said his Korean background has given him a sense of resilience, he added that he thinks it is “healthy to jumble your identity.”
Since he began acting, Cho said the “demand” for Asian-American actors has changed as the entertainment industry has recognized the “purchasing power” of Asian-Americans. He added that he has noticed many more Asian-Americans on television — particularly in commercials — than before.
Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun said in his introduction that he “jumped” at the opportunity to invite Cho to Yale. Chun said after the talk that he was “impressed” by Cho’s ability to tie together his American and Korean identities.
Asian American Cultural Center Dean Saveena Dhall said Saturday’s event — the 10th annual dinner it has hosted to celebrate Asian Pacific-American Heritage Month — marked the first time the center has had to limit registration for a dinner to undergraduates. The center has also never had an event reach capacity just one day after registration opened, she added.
Kevin Chen ’14, who attended the event, said he was encouraged by Cho’s message that Asian-American students do not need to focus their careers on their identity in order to promote their cultural community.
Karmen Cheung ’13, head coordinator for the Asian American Cultural Center, said she was excited about Cho’s talk because he is a prominent figure in both the acting and Asian-American communities.
“[Cho] is not an Asian-American actor,” she said. “He’s an actor who’s also Asian-American.”
The event was organized by the Asian American Cultural Center and the Berkeley College Master’s Office.