Daniel Dae Kim opens up about 'self-hatred,' 'self-denial' he felt growing up: 'I was an outsider and an Other'

Kerry Justich
·4-min read

Daniel Dae Kim is opening up about his upbringing in Pennsylvania and how his experience as a minority made him want a different life for his own children.

"I don’t think this is necessarily just about race, but I grew up thinking I was really ugly because I did not look like the traditional standards of what was considered beautiful," he told Vulture. "I knew what my high-school prom king and queen looked like, I knew what all the popular kids looked like, and I knew that wasn’t me."

The 52-year-old actor and producer recalled asking himself "What's wrong with me?" and even shared that it wasn't a unique experience as a Korean American. "I don’t think it’s uncommon for people of Asian descent living in America to go through a period of self-hatred or self-denial. And it’s completely understandable given the space we occupy because we all have to figure out a way of coping with it."

While attending school in Easton, Pa., Kim said he coped with his struggles by being "very gregarious" in an effort to conceal them. "The way I presented was very much as one of the gang and someone who was easy to get along with. And I think there were some ways where I worked harder to prove myself as American by leading. I was class president. I’m sure that had a lot to do with my finding a place to fit in," he said. 

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Once he moved to Bethlehem, Pa., in sixth grade, his identity was seemingly no longer in his control.

"I was an outsider and an Other, and my entire experience changed. Nobody knew me, so I was easily labeled the 'chink.' Good at math, nerdy, not an athlete," he explained. "Those things had never applied to me before that point. And that’s the time when hormones start to rage, and you start looking at girls and then automatically you think about your appearance more. You think, Why am I not considered attractive?"

Kim ultimately participated in the Yonsei Program — a program in Seoul hosted by one of South Korea's most prestigious universities — after high school, which he said was "an inflection point" in his life. "It was that feeling of community that I'd never had before and that feeling that I’d met people who went through the same thing that I was going through," he said. "I was used to apologizing, and this was the first time I never had to. It's no coincidence that I met my wife there as well."

It was the culmination of these experiences that led him to pursue acting opportunities like Lost and Hawaii Five-O, which were both filmed in Hawaii. 

"One of my sons was in elementary school, one was about to enter high school, and I really wanted them to grow up with a continuity of experience. I also really appreciated what Hawaii had to offer an Asian American family," Kim said of signing onto Hawaii Five-O — a project that he ultimately left because of unresolved contract disputes. "I just didn’t want them to always feel like they were on the margins. I wanted them to feel like if they were going to succeed or fail, it wasn’t because of what they looked like. I wanted their personalities to grow in such a way that was free from the standards of beauty or standards of physicality that I grew up with that affected me in ways that I wish they didn’t."

Now, through both his own production company, 3AD, and his platform, Kim continues to be an advocate of the Asian American experience especially as violent attacks against the AAPI community increase— although he doesn't claim to be an expert. 

"Politics is not my full-time job. Advocacy is not my full-time job. There are much smarter people than I who have dedicated themselves to these efforts full-time. At my best, I can serve to be a mouthpiece for a lot of these issues that don’t often get noticed unless someone with a following on social media amplifies it," he said. "These attacks against Asian Americans shouldn’t be a political issue. These are human issues. And I feel much more comfortable speaking out regarding those issues than I do necessarily talking about liberal versus conservative politics."

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