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Daniel Dae Kim on ‘Asian-Americans’: Ugly History, Relevant Again

In late March, the actor Daniel Dae Kim posted a video on Instagram revealing that he had tested positive for Covid-19. Back then Kim, best known for memorable roles on “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-0,” was one of the early well-known carriers of the coronavirus, having potentially contracted it while filming his NBC medical drama “New Amsterdam” in New York City. He documented his recovery process online while most Americans were just beginning to comprehend the impact of the pandemic.

3月下旬,演员金大贤(Daniel Dae Kim)在Instagram上发布了一段视频,透露其Covid-19检测呈阳性。金大贤曾因在《迷失》(Lost)和《天堂执法者》(Hawaii Five-0)中扮演令人印象深刻的角色而闻名,他是较早染上新冠病毒的名人之一,可能是在纽约市拍摄NBC医疗剧《医院革命》(New Amsterdam)时感染的。当大多数美国人才刚刚开始了解疫情带来的影响时,他就已经在网上记录了他的康复过程。

Since then, Kim has felt close to normal, despite some lingering effects — the occasional disappearance of his senses of smell and taste, some issues with focus. He has continued to be active in the fight against the virus and its fallout, donating his plasma, raising money for health care professionals and condemning the anti-Asian xenophobia and attacks that have been on the rise in the age of the coronavirus.



“I don’t necessarily see my activity as a responsibility,” Kim said in an interview. “My only goal was to be informative and helpful for those who were fearful or had no reference point.”


Kim, though, was largely uninterested in talking about himself during a recent Zoom call. Instead, he wanted to discuss “Asian-Americans,” the new documentary series he narrates with the actress Tamlyn Tomita. Premiering Monday on PBS, the five-part special is the most ambitious documentary project ever to chronicle the history of the Asian-American community. It is arriving with an unanticipated relevance, amid the surge of racism toward Asian-Americans during the pandemic.


Beginning in the 1850s and continuing into the present, the series covers an expansive arc that has often been ignored within America’s self-concept: from Angel Island to the impact of the Filipino-American labor movement, from the radical third world movement to the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. It is a story of discrimination, marginalization and violence — and an affirmation of a community that persistently rose in the face of hardship.


Kim spoke about the documentary’s lessons for today, what it means to be considered “American” and what his fight with coronavirus revealed to him about the country. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.


A project of this scope has never really existed until now. Why is that?


That’s a very loaded question. I think it speaks to our place in American society and how we’ve been perceived up until today and including today. We have been a part of the fabric of this country, and yet we’ve been overlooked relative to other minorities. Though we have worked really hard to assimilate collectively, events that are depicted in this documentary, as well as in the news today, show us that we really aren’t considered as American as most others.


Do you see a parallel between the history that the series documents and what the Asian-American community is facing now as a result of the coronavirus?


One of the chapters that is most relevant right now is the story of Japanese internment in the 1940s, where American citizens born and raised in this country had their rights stripped away from them, their property taken from them, their businesses confiscated, and were put into essentially prison camps solely based on how they looked. What is amazing to me, whenever I talk about this particular part of our history, is how many people have never heard of it before. When I talk about the 442nd or the 100th battalion, people don’t know what that is. People don’t know that we had Asian-Americans fighting for this country as their families were interned.

This documentary chronicles our place in this country and how much a part of it we are, and in that way it’s also a celebration of how American we are. And when we have op-ed pieces about how “American” we should be, even today, it’s a reminder that we’ve been asking these questions throughout American history.


The episode on Japanese-American internment told the story of the Uno family. Some of them were soldiers fighting for America in World War II at the same time that America was putting their relatives in camps. Buddy Uno ultimately became a journalist and propagandist in and for Japan, and I felt a complex sense of empathy for him, given how his family was treated. How do you see him?

日裔美国人遭拘禁的那一集讲述了宇野一家的故事。他们家有几个人是第二次世界大战中为美国而战的士兵,与此同时,美国把他们的亲人关进了集中营。巴迪·宇野(Buddy Uno)最终成为为日本工作的记者和宣传者,看到他家人的遭遇,我对他有一种复杂的同理心。你怎么看他?

It’s understandable that one would take Buddy’s position. And yet not a single Japanese-American was convicted of espionage or treason against the United States. That says so much to me; what will it take for us to be considered American? I think that’s a central question of this documentary, as you see even today elderly Asian-Americans being beaten and taunted in the midst of this virus.


You mentioned op-eds about that central question. Andrew Yang was recently criticized for his column calling on Asian-Americans to show their “Americanness” amid the crisis. What’s your reaction to this idea?

你提到了关于这个中心问题的一些专栏文章。最近,杨安泽(Andrew Yang)因在专栏中呼吁亚裔美国人在危机中表现出“美国性”而受到批评。你对这个观点有什么看法?

It is important for every American to be proud of their country and to do whatever they can to be the best “American” that they can. But no one should have to prove that they’re American. The same standard should apply to everyone regardless of what color their skin is and what religion they follow.


Has the rise in anti-Asian racism made you think differently about the documentary’s potential impact?


It makes it all the more important that people understand and see that this has happened in the past. There’s that saying about those who forget history are condemned to repeat it — this is a way of hopefully preventing history from repeating itself. The one phrase that I always think about from “Hamilton” is: Are you going to be on the right side of history? As today’s chapter of our nation’s history is being written, which side will we be on? And which side will you be on?


If there’s a chance to scapegoat one another, it seems to be part of the daily playbook for some of our leaders. How can it be a surprise that the population feels that way when we see it in our leadership? It’s heartbreaking, and it’s tragic.


As someone who had the virus, how do you respond to the idea of being blamed, as an Asian-American, for the pandemic?


Thankfully I haven’t really experienced anything firsthand, person-to-person. But in sharing my experience with the virus, I exposed myself to the worst of online humanity. It was eye-opening and very discouraging. I firmly believe now that there’s a segment of the population that will forever consider anyone other than them outsiders.


We could use more emphasis on unity. This special is not a way of saying Asian-Americans are different and therefore special. It’s really saying, Asian-Americans are part of this country’s history and therefore are special.


In the series, moments of tragedy or persecution are, in fact, what repeatedly spurred political action and solidarity among Asian-Americans.


I think it’s true of every minority in this country. All of these movements were borne of tragedy. Pressure makes diamonds. All of these events have culminated in Asian-Americans being more galvanized then we ever have been. This special is the result of that galvanization.


What do you hope the impact of the series will be for viewers, Asian-American and not?


For Asian-Americans, I would hope that we can see that we belong here as much as anyone else, and that we can take pride in our contributions to this country’s history. We’ve contributed in positive ways toward this country’s growth, but some of the ways in which we’ve suffered have also contributed to this country’s growth. It is both a positive and a negative, but that is exactly what being a part of the fabric of America means.


We don’t want to be speaking just to ourselves. What’s really important is to have this history brought out to the general population so that people who have no idea of what our contributions might be or have been finally understand that they are significant and they are real. I would hope that it’s a celebration of what it means to be American. If we can redefine that word to be inclusive of every group that contributes to this country, then the documentary will have done a real service.

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