At the age of 22, I graduated from a top U.S. university and was about to start a career in a coveted industry of management consulting in New York. On top of that, I won millions of dollars at the main event of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. By all accounts, I had “made it”, and was living out the “American dream”. But why wasn’t I happy? Was it in fact, my dream?
I grew up in what the media sees as the stereotypical Asian American experience as a model minority, a Korean American family bent on academic success above all else. My parents, children born in the aftermath of the Korean War, were conditioned to value survival and prosperity, moving over to America for these ideals. The New York metropolitan area is probably the collection of some of the fiercest academic crucibles of the country, especially for Asian Americans, and seemed to be the perfect spot for my parents to raise a family.
As much as America paints itself as the land of opportunity, life has never been easy for any immigrant group. As a kid, I wasn’t the most outgoing or sociable person, and was the typical definition of a nerd. My parents, uneducated in American social dynamics, found it hard to “help” me socially. Though they meant well, and ingrained in me the idea that it was only important to keep your head down, work hard, get ahead, and everything would work itself out in my adult life.
My escape was in storytelling, in any consumable format that I could handle, comic books, novels, TV, movies, video games. I escaped because my adolescent reality wasn’t very appealing, working towards an amorphous goal of “making it” as an adult. While I didn’t abandon those goals and pursued studies (somewhat) diligently, it was here where my love of storytelling began.
As early as I began seeking out these narratives to populate my imagination, I became acutely aware that the storytelling in America rarely includes Asians as anything more than caricatures or backdrop dressing for the “American” (read: White) hero to prevail. But while I enjoyed Jackie Chan’s movies, I related more with actors like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams because I identified as an American, and I felt their stories on a much more personal level. But I wasn’t an idiot, I knew that I was Asian, and that my chances of being a Carrey or Williams was infinitesimal.
But as I became an adolescent angsty teen, some of my more nascent theatrical attributes started to manifest. I became somewhat of a class clown and gained popularity, but I also loved performing music. I found creative outlets for myself in performance art despite my continued focus on academic success. Ultimately however, I felt discouraged because as much as a career in entertainment seemed like a pipe dream, it seemed like a pipe dreamers pipe dream for an Asian American.
In college, I found another outlet for my talents — poker. I started playing as a freshman, addicted to its allure and its foundational ties to mathematics and logical analysis, something I had trained my entire life for. What attracted to me about poker wasn’t just the fun and the money that came from it, but was that it in some ways is as pure of a meritocracy. Your success was as directly proportional to your talent and work that you put into the game, and although of course there’s a lot of luck involved, it ironically gave validation to values instilled in me by my parents, hard work gets you to the top.
However, it wasn’t even millions of dollars I had won that convinced me to take the leap of faith, but rather the financial crisis of 2008, when I was laid off from my job as a consultant. I decided to take a step back and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. One of the movies that inspired me was “Harold and Kumar”, one of the first movies I had seen with characters I could relate with (I drove to the movie in my silver Toyota Camry with my Indian best friend who was in med school at the time, while I was doing a finance internship, it was very surreal). It was the first time I saw that maybe, JUST MAYBE, it was possible to pursue a career in entertainment as an Asian American. I had put my head to the grindstone for everything and it worked out in the past, why would it be different for entertainment?
Coming from a background where I thought work put in was directly proportional to your success, this was a lesson that took me much too long to figure out. I had done training at a conservatory and came to LA fully expecting to start working relatively quickly. It didn’t pan out as I planned. Part of my problem was not knowing how exactly to focus my efforts and how to build a platform for myself, but this is a fundamental disadvantage that Asian Americans have in this industry, they have few people who can connect them who’ve been there before for support and guidance.
I won’t say that I’m the best actor in the world and was just down on my luck, because that wouldn’t be true. I think looking back I could have definitely done some things differently, but a few years ago, transitioning into my 30s, my “Asian” career-oriented side started gnawing at me. Did I make a terrible mistake in pursuing this career? Were my parents right to question my life decisions? I even started questioning my own romantic life, thinking that if I had just towed the line and been a “good little Asian”, I might have started a family by now. Who the hell wants to date a 30+ year old unknown actor with little accomplished in his life?
It was out of this desperation that I drew inspiration. After watching shows like Girls and Togetherness, I realized that more than ever, we individually had the power to be content creators of personal stories. The blueprint for Asian American content creation was laid out by content creators like Wong Fu Productions, JK Films, and Fung Bros. on platforms such as YouTube. They proved that there’s a demand for storytelling where people feel like they’re being represented that they’ve fulfilled by building an a noticeable audience that regularly support their content.
As a result, I feverishly started working on a web series for myself, writing stories about Asian American life that wasn’t being told in Hollywood. This web series morphed into a short film, which then morphed into a pilot TV show. As my ambitions grew, so did my project’s scale. Over the course of a few years, I spent all my energy, time and personal finances building what I believe is the genesis of genuine Asian American storytelling.
My show, called “Just Doug” is a semi-autobiographical show on Facebook Watch. It’s about my life as an Asian American actor in Los Angeles, and at the heart of the show it’s a show about what life looks like for an Asian American trying to insert themselves into the conversation of American culture. It’s a show about the compromises marginalized people might have to make for greater acceptance into society. It’s almost like X-Men, except instead of mutants, we’re Asian, and instead of Professor X… you have me. It’s my submission to hope that people will view it and realize that Asian Americans are people, humans, Americans, that just happen to be another ethnicity.
I made the show to really accurately portray the Asian American experience and what it looks like for us, the 2nd generation that knows what it’s like to come from an immigrant family but also identify with many American ideals and desires. To that end, I assembled a mostly Asian American cast, with a writer, director, DP, music director and many other crew members to be Asian American, to prove that we have what it takes to tell a good story without Matt Damon coming in to save the day.
“Just Doug” is now available on Facebook.
About the Author: Douglas Kim is a Korean-American poker player and 2006 economics graduate of Duke University.