Even with a successful career as one of the few Asian male leads in Hollywood, John Cho still remembers the pain and confusion he experienced immigrating the the U.S.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Cho recalled how terrifying it was to leave South Korea for a new country at 6 years old. The “Searching” actor told the outlet that it was “a great trauma to move countries and not speak the language and be made fun of for the way I looked and talked.”
The actor, whose family settled in Houston, reflected on the shame he felt during a particular show-and-tell activity in first grade. Cho said he was “very new” to the U.S. His father felt it would be a good time to expose his classmates to Korean culture.
“So he made a little book with a map and pictures, like a little photo album, and sent it off with me,” he told the outlet. “He didn’t realize people brought in their teddy bears, and I was deeply, deeply embarrassed, but what could I do? My teacher was so excited that she saw a teaching opportunity, and I remember the map going down.”
Nowadays, he’s doing his own version of show-and-tell. The actor narrates the upcoming documentary “Korea: The Never-Ending War” and explained that his life has been shaped by the Korean War, a conflict that began June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following several border disputes. The ensuing years were marked by a “time of great instability” and his parents decided to come to the U.S., the “land of opportunity.”
“I guess maybe, if you’re my therapist here, this is full-circle coming to terms with that early childhood trauma, and really I’m doing that show-and-tell all these years later,” he told the outlet.
While working on the documentary, Cho realized that he was aware of the “human side of the Korean people” in regards to the war, but was less knowledgeable about the military events.
“That was new to me. It’s fair to say that the Korean War is, compared to the Vietnam War, undertaught in the American school system,” he told PBS.
But Cho was especially enthusiastic when taking on the role of narrator in part, he told the outlet, because he “wanted to get a Korean American voice in there.”
“For a lot of reasons, I was thinking about all the documentaries I’ve seen over the years about the Vietnam War; sometimes they included an Asian perspective but usually they lacked voices,” he told the outlet. “Simple things like bad pronunciation used to really bother me. My father used to say things like, ‘In America, you say “small town,” but if it’s not in America, you say “small village.” Why it is a “village” there, but a “town” here?’”
He added: “It’s that kind of perspective that made me want to participate.”