With his lacerating wit, pop culture savvy and equal fluency with humor and pathos, the Emmy-nominated screenwriter, playwright and producer Jason Kim is one of the most dynamic young voices in the entertainment world. He has written for Girls and Love and is a producer on HBO’s Barry. He also wrote the book for KPOP, an off-Broadway show that won Outstanding Musical at the 2018 Lucille Lortel awards. Currently, he’s developing a series for Amazon called Neon Machine, starring Korean hip-hop star Tablo. Born in Seoul, Jason immigrated with his family to St. Louis, MO when he was ten. He talks to Catherine and Juliana about fleeing the midwest for NYC immediately after high school, his quarter-life crisis as a young staffer at The New Yorker, his decade-long process of coming out to his parents, his grandmother who encouraged him to be a writer and — last but not least – his devotion to his dermatologist.
Catherine Hong: Today, we are thrilled to be interviewing screenwriter, playwright, and producer, Jason Kim, and we’re doing it from Juliana’s apartment, the first in-person K-Pod interview we have done in a year. Yay! Juliana and I have been trying to talk to Jason Kim for probably more than two years now. His best-known credits include writing for Girls and Barry, for which he’s won a WGA award and been nominated for an Emmy. He also wrote the book for KPOP, an award-winning, off-Broadway musical that opened in 2017 and was clearly ahead of its time. We’ll talk more about it later.
Currently, he’s developing a film based on a New York Times story about a group of grandmothers in South Korea going to elementary school to learn to read. And we just heard that he’s developing a comedy series for Amazon called Neon Machine, starring Korean hip-hop star Tablo. Aside from this obviously impressive body of work, another reason we wanted to interview Jason is that we heard him interviewed on the LGBTQ podcast, Nancy, where he told a very moving story about his relationship with his father. We were both in tears, so we knew we had to meet this incredibly talented, funny, and deep-feeling human being with the most luminescent skin. Thank you, Jason, for coming today.
Jason Kim:This is the best intro I’ve ever gotten. Thank you so much for having me.
Juliana Sohn: We have so much we want to talk to you about, but we thought we would start with when you landed in New York.
Juliana Sohn: When you came here, you came here to go to college at Columbia University and you majored in-
Jason Kim: English.
Juliana Sohn: ... English. Can you tell us how you chose English and how you landed here?
Jason Kim: That’s a really great question. I think of my life sort of in three parts. The first part being in Seoul. I was born and raised there until I was 10, and I think in Korean age I was 11 at the time or maybe even Korean age I was 10 at the time. It gets confusing.
Juliana Sohn: What grade is that?
Jason Kim: Third grade. Then, I moved to St. Louis, Missouri with my parents, which was not fun. I spent about eight, nine, years there. Then, as soon as I turned 18, I begged my mom to let me go to New York. I was like, “You have to let me go to New York. I can’t go to college anywhere else. You have to let me go there. I don’t care that it’s not Harvard, I don’t care that it’s not Yale, I don’t care that it’s not Stanford, I’m going there.”
Juliana Sohn: This is when you were having a conversation about where to apply for college?
Jason Kim: Yeah. My mother at the time I think was a little bit in shock because she, of course, gave up her entire life so that we could move to the States. She was like, “Wait a minute. I give up my entire life, and you, you little twat, want to go to New York and prance around. What are you talking about?” I guess I got my way and I moved to New York in 2004 to go to Columbia, but I really moved to be in New York. I was out at the time, and I really wanted to be very gay all over New York.
Juliana Sohn: Had you visited New York before?
Jason Kim: I had with my dad three years prior, and I fell in love with it.
Catherine Hong: What were some of the cultural touchstones, like magazines or movies or shows that formed your idea of New York and the life you were going to live?
Jason Kim: When Harry Met Sally. I was like, I’m going to go there and meet my Harry! I was determined. Sex and the City, and really, all the books I grew up reading, they touched on New York in one way or another. I always was really attracted to it, I think.
Juliana Sohn: When people come to New York for college, the first year they kind of freak out and just indulge. Is that what you ended up doing?
Jason Kim: Oh, yeah. It’s a miracle that I’m still alive, I think.
Catherine Hong: I think I heard you say in a podcast that your roommate OD’d. Is that right?
Jason Kim: Yes. It’s really not funny. He’s okay. He’s now-
Catherine Hong: Freshman year?
Jason Kim: Freshman year.
Jason Kim: During finals, I think, he OD’d because I think he was on acid and on cocaine I think at the same time. He called me from the hospital at 4:00 in the morning and he was like a really fun, lovable guy, but he went out a lot, so sometimes he would call me, and I wouldn’t answer because I was like, “You’re drunk or high or whatever and I’m asleep,” which is what I did when he called me.
Catherine Hong: He was at St. Luke’s?
Jason Kim: He was at St. Luke’s Hospital.
Catherine Hong: Freshman year, that’s crazy. Well, tell us a little bit more about your parents and what did they think that you were going to Columbia to become.
Jason Kim: Columbia University to them represented, I guess, the apotheosis of their immigration and of their suffering and of their… all of the wonderful things that all the Korean parents have gone through, so I think they really imagined one of three things, law, medicine, which would have been preferable, or business. I really went into none of the above. To them, Columbia was a way to get to that place.
Catherine Hong: You got an MFA in drama at the New School. Did you go right into graduate school? How did you decide on doing that, and when you told your parents, did they pay for graduate school?
Jason Kim: No, they didn’t. They very much did not pay for graduate school. I graduated in 2008 and, I don’t know if you remember what New York was like in 2008, but there was-
Juliana Sohn: Collapse.
Jason Kim: Yeah. It was devastating, and I think my class graduated thinking we will never have a job. I very luckily got hired at the New Yorker, which was like a dream job at the time for an English major.
Juliana Sohn: Doing what?
Jason Kim: I was a researcher there and I worked on the New Yorker Festival, but there was nothing that I could research on behalf of David Remnick that he didn’t know already. There was nothing that I could tell Alex Ross about classical music.
Catherine Hong: That’s a great first job.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I mean, it was one of those places where you’re like, oh, you’re kind of at the epicenter of culture, but looking back on it, it was very much white culture. It was NPR culture.
Juliana Sohn: It was very much male culture as well.
Jason Kim: Yes, and it was very male.
Catherine Hong: How long did you work there?
Jason Kim: I worked there for about a year and a half, two years.
Catherine Hong: Then, you went to graduate school after that?
Jason Kim: I did. I was working at the New Yorker and was sort of leading this fantasy life as an English major, but I really wasn’t liking it because I am not suited to be a journalist, I am a very bad investigative anything, and I don’t like writing assignments, so any kind of future in journalist just seemed very bleak for me from right off the start. I had a total nervous breakdown when I was 21 or 22 where I was like, what am I doing, everybody is losing their job, there are people in suits on the street begging for food and money, what am I doing?
Jason Kim: I quit during the middle of the recession, which was a psychotic thing to do, and I went on the government scholarship, unemployment, I decided to start writing something.
Catherine Hong: Had you been writing on the side when you were at the New Yorker, like thinking I want to write this screenplay?
Jason Kim: No.I was always kind of a closeted writer, but in my head. I would form stories in my head, but I never put pen to paper. Then, I had this crisis, and I spent I think two to three months just in my apartment writing things. During that time, I was like, “Oh, this is really hard.”
Catherine Hong: That’s crazy that you quit your job and you weren’t even writing yet. That’s a real breakdown, yeah. Your parents, did you tell your parents what you were doing?
Jason Kim: Not really. I kept telling my mom that I was okay. Parents always call and they’re like “Gwenchana(Are you OK?”. You say, “Gwenchana (I’m OK)” That was it. I wasn’t going to say I had quit my job during the middle of the recession, and I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow. I kind of kept them at bay a little bit and I wrote like crazy. I thought, “Okay, well, what is one way that I can ease my parents into this? I’m going to apply to school.” I applied to MFA programs after having written for, I don’t know, like three months, and I was lucky enough to get accepted, and they were foolish enough to accept me. I went, and that’s how it all started.
Catherine Hong: It actually sounds straight out of Girls what happened to you.
Jason Kim: It is a little bit.
Catherine Hong: Because it’s about a breakdown, kind of having this nice, privileged background, but then going out into the world and having no prospects, self-destructive behavior. While we’re on Girls, tell us a little bit about your experience on Girls.
Jason Kim: It was sort of a dream really because I became a writer watching that show and I really didn’t think that I wanted to write for TV until I started watching shows like Girls. I-
Juliana Sohn: Can I ask you what you thought you were going to do? Were you going to be a novelist?
Jason Kim: I thought I was going to be a playwright. I thought that I would write an American… you know, like the next great American play, whatever that means, and do it in a black box and 30 people will come see it. Then, I will feel satisfied. That’s what I thought my future was going to be. As I was graduating, I told myself, I’m going to give myself five years to make money somehow and write plays. During that time, I got hired on Girls. I think Lena and Jenni and Judd read a play of mine that I wrote, and they liked it. We met and a week or so later, I had a job there.
Catherine Hong: What seasons did you join?
Jason Kim: Four through six.
Juliana Sohn: What was this play that you wrote about? What is a school production or what was it?
Jason Kim: I couldn’t tell you. Somebody else asked me this question the other day and they were like, “What was it called?” I was like, “I don’t know.”
Catherine Hong: You were also, you were, aside from writing for Girls, you were on a few episodes.
Jason Kim: That’s right.
Catherine Hong: It was the Iowa’s Writer Workshop you were cast as one of her bitchy classmates. How did they decide to put you on-screen? How did that come about?
Jason Kim: I think Lena thought it was fun. I think she sort of envisioned the character to be similar to me, which is a bitchy writing student, so I fit the mold perfectly, I guess. I thought they were crazy, and at first, they came in and we were talking about the characters. I think Lena or Jenni said, “We’re really thinking of Jason for this.” In my head, I was like, “Who’s Jason.” I was like, “Jason Sudeikis? Like Jason Statham? What are you talking about?” They’re like, “We want you to do it.” At first, I was like, “No, this is a terrible idea,” because I come from theater, so to me, acting is Shakespearean. You train for it, you get ready for it, there’s like two hours of relaxation that needs to happen before. I was sort of looking around thinking, “You guys are crazy.” Then, I ended up having a lot of fun.
Catherine Hong: That’s great, but now you’ve no interest in doing a little more acting here and there?
Jason Kim: No, I think I respect actors too much.
Juliana Sohn: We wanted to ask you about some of the current projects that you have working on because you’re working on several at the same time. Correct?
Jason Kim: I am.
Juliana Sohn: Firstly, we wanted to ask you about K-Town because we read about that ages ago, and we’ve been through a pandemic, and what now? We wanted to know if we could get an update on how that’s progressing.
Catherine Hong: Or what it is —
Jason Kim: Well, so it was one of those situations where we had a great start, I think, on the project. Where the team was assembled, and it was magical when we started and the idea just kind of fluttered out. I ended up leaving that project I would say over a year and a half ago now. After I left, I was very depressed because I had been working on it for several years, and I was doing it at HBO, which was sort of my creative center at the time. Then, the pandemic started. Then, I wrote another script and that ended up being Neon Machine, and that’s what I’m doing now.
Catherine Hong: Okay, so tell us more about that.
Jason Kim: Neon Machine is a half hour show for Amazon that we just started developing. I’m doing it with my very good friend, Tablo, who is a wonderful human being and a trailblazer. It’s a story about this young K-pop star on the come up in 2002 Korea. Very loosely based on Tablo’s life, who has had I think all of the things that we have gone through as a Korean American, parents, church, wanting to be creative, but not being able to, all of those things.
Juliana Sohn: Where is it set? Is it in Korea?
Jason Kim: It’s largely in Seoul, but it will take place also, I hope, and I assume, in the states in some capacity.
Juliana Sohn: So interesting. How did you meet Tablo and… because he’s… I’ve never heard of him until-
Catherine Hong: Yeah. Explain who he is.
Jason Kim: Tablo to me is like the Jay-Z of Korea. I mean, he is his own person. Just thinking of timeline wise, really, he was one of the very first breakout artists in K-pop, as K-pop was emerging and forming in the early 2000s. He was the lead of this… he still is, of this trio called Epik High. K-pop at the time was very nascent and he was like Seo Taiji, it was just like very sort of bubbling up in the culture. He really introduced this new sound in K-pop. He was very inspired by hip-hop artists, he’s a rapper, so he would go into audition rooms and freestyle. People were like, “What are you doing? What is this?” He broke open the genre.
Jason Kim: He’s, I think, one of the only K-pop stars who’s had a career for several decades. His influence reaches everybody from CL to BTS. He’s a pretty phenomenal guy and he’s been around for a long time. It’s funny that he’s only like 30-something, 40 maybe. He’s considered like the grandfather in some ways of K-pop.
Catherine Hong: Then, what about the film you’re working on, the adaptation of that New York Times story about the grandmothers, the halmeonis learning to read in Korea.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I’m working on a film now that’s based on a New York Times article about a group of Korean grandmothers who are illiterate, who go to first grade to learn how to read. This project bubbled up right after my grandmother died. She and I were super close. I would say she’s the reason why I am a writer and she lived until she was almost 102, a month shy of 102. This is probably the first year since her death that I could talk about her without bursting into tears, still reserve the right to cry, and she was a phenomenal person, and she was literate and very educated. It was rare for a woman of her generation.
Juliana Sohn: When you say the reason you’re a writer is your grandma, can you explain that?
Jason Kim: My grandma was really a remarkable person, and she raised me. We were roommates growing up. She’s my mom’s mother and she escaped Pyongyang from the Korean War. She raised three girls as a single mother. Her husband died shortly after she escaped and she is the one who kind of always encouraged me to just be my weird self, if that makes sense.
Jason Kim: When I was young, I didn’t really like toys and I didn’t play with a lot of toys, but I played with rice. I played with raw, uncooked rice.
Juliana Sohn: What did you do with it?
Jason Kim: You know how Korean parents have the barrels? I would throw the barrel onto the ground and have just rice all over the floor. I would just play with it with my hands. It mortified my parents. It was the worst thing you could do as a Korean person is to just really degrade your rice in that way. My grandma was always like, “What are you making over there?”
Catherine Hong: For her generation, I mean, that’s unthinkable to treat food like that.
Jason Kim: She loved reading. She would read a book every week, every other week, and we would share a lot of stories and she told me a lot of stories growing up. She really is the reason I think I subconsciously wanted to become a storyteller because I wanted to emulate her in some way. Then, when she died, I was deeply depressed and I had this moment, I think, in my life and also in my career where I could luckily step back a little bit and ask myself what I wanted. What ended up emerging was this idea that I want to put her on screen. I never see people like my grandma on screen and it’s a shame because she’s the most entertaining… she was the most entertaining person and surprising and complex and you don’t see people like her. I thought, okay, if I could just muster up one one-millionth of the courage that she had being a single mother, escaping during the war, maybe I could do this. That’s what emerged.
Juliana Sohn: The New York Times project, the one with the grandmothers, is that something you pitched as well or is that a production that was in the works?
Jason Kim: That was sort of in the works and it was brought to me actually right after my grandmother passed. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because I was like, “Oh, man, I want to write about my grandma, but I don’t really want to because it’s too sad and I’m all cried out. I can only afford so many tissues.” These two producers who read the article and optioned it from the New York Times called me up and said, “Would you want to work on this?” I was like, “Yeah, of course.”
Catherine Hong: Both of these productions will be in Korean language?
Jason Kim: Yeah, primarily.
Catherine Hong: Wow. That’s the first time you’re doing something primarily in Korean.
Jason Kim: Yes.
Catherine Hong: It’s great that you can… you’re truly bilingual?
Jason Kim: No, I’m not. No, I’m not. I won’t be doing the writing in Korean I don’t think. I’m doing most of the writing in English and then, I have a sense of Korean, how the dialogue will go, and I sort of have to weirdly write it in Korean first in my head and then write it in English. Then, make sure that the English sounds like English and not like Korean translated into English. Probably we will, if this every gets made, knock on wood, we will hopefully have a team of very Korean speaking, Korean, Korean writers.
Catherine Hong: That will be made in Korea, right? It will be shot there?
Jason Kim: I think, I mean, I hope so. They shoot things all over the world now. They shoot something in Canada, and they’re like, “Oh, we’re in Morocco.” You’re like, “What are you talking about?”
Juliana Sohn: Have you spent time in Korea , like long periods of time?
Jason Kim: As an adult, yes and no. I heard Michelle on your podcast talk about her time in Korea. I mean, that is such a fantasy of mine. I was just telling a friend of mine earlier today, actually, it would be great if I could spend half the year there, but I haven’t been able to. I did grow up there, so my memory of Seoul is very much from the 1990s. Every time I go back, which is every couple of years now, I’m in shock. I’m completely shocked at how much the city has changed.
Juliana Sohn: Korea is going through a real rapid transformation. I mean, just reinventing, rebuilding the city, too. Just so many architecture wise.
Jason Kim: Yeah. The art there is pretty incredible, and I find the gay culture there really remarkable, too, because it’s genuinely underground still. Queerness is not even acknowledged there.
Catherine Hong: Margaret Cho was telling us about how they have a gay pride parade, but they’re all wearing a mask to hide their identity.
Jason Kim: Yeah, which is deeply sad and problematic. I hope the Korean culture and society catches up in so many ways, but it’s going to take a real huge shift because in that regard, Korea is very conservative to the point where it’s not even acknowledged. I think what that creates is this real subculture in the way that I would imagine being gay in New York in the 70s was like, or the 60s. There’s really fascinating queer art going on there, I think the queer community is connecting in a really genuinely fascinating way, the drag there is really amazing. Some of it’s really bad, but a lot of it is really amazing. Yeah.
Juliana Sohn: I also think there’s this weird blend because the Korean male, how they touch, hold hands, walk arm in arm, there’s just such a real sense of kinship that’s physical for straight men. There was a story in Korean American Story about an American Korean gay man who went to Korea, and he felt that he could be more free because he felt that he could be more open and it wasn’t stigmatized because nobody thought twice about this physical affection that he had with his gay partner because nobody expected them to be gay.
Jason Kim: Yeah. It’s fascinating. Yeah, on the one hand, sensuality, male to male sensuality is very much the standard there, but also, it never goes beyond platonic, the platonic level. There’s a lot of gay people in Korea.They exist. It’s not like they’re not there, but it is fascinating.
Juliana Sohn: It’s come out with some of our interviews as well with Margaret Cho, she’s learning Korean, Michelle Zauner, she would like to spend a year there to perfect her Korean. I think there’s a moment going on right now with the Korean diaspora. Korean Americans who go to Korea, there was this exceptionalism. We’re the wealthy component, but now that Korea is… they’re so rich and they’ve got so much to offer, it’s much more of an exchange that we can go and expect to learn so much. I think it’s really exciting.
Catherine Hong: Right. I think a lot of creative Korean Americans, especially of your generation, are going there for inspiration, going to learn.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I think it’s remarkable, and I think people are realizing now that we have so much to learn from contemporary Korea because I think when we were all growing up, the go-to, the first step in your coping mechanism, strategy, was to assimilate and to almost be embarrassed of and hide the fact that you are Korean. Now, we’re having this moment where we’re taking a giant leap forward, also a giant leap back because of all the horrible things that are going on in the community, now we find ourselves I think in this interesting moment.
Jason Kim: Just, even listening to the interviews that you guys have done, people who came before, people like Margaret Cho, Chang-Rae Lee, they’ve been pushing this rock forward all alone for years, for years and years and years. Now, it’s finally going somewhere, I think. Yes.
Juliana Sohn: It feels like there’s momentum. I wouldn’t say that we’re going downhill, but it’s almost like we’ve reached a plateau where there is more people pushing that rock.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I really notice this when I’m going through auditions with actors because I’m noticing that a lot of the younger actors that are coming in are so confident, and they are… they have zero sense of shame about who they are. At first, I was like, what is wrong with you? Like, be ashamed. You know? They’re incredible.
Jason Kim: It’s like Cathy Park Hong says, they’re the Asian 2.0. I’m just so inspired by them because they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I’m Korean. Who cares? I’m amazing.” I’m like, “Whoa.”
Catherine Hong: Let’s go back and talk more about your childhood in Seoul. Tell us a little bit about your parents. Your dad was an architect.
Jason Kim: My dad was a… he had his own construction company and he sort of was a chameleon in terms of his work life because he grew up on a farm and he left his parents when he was 16 to support his family. He supported not only his parents, but his four siblings. He did that by dabbling in various businesses. For about 15-16 years, he was a jeweler. He had a 금방, geum bang and he was sort of this like… I don’t want to say renegade, but kind of, where he had his own jewelry business, and he was just a cool guy. He wore leather jackets. Then, he got into a motorcycle accident, and then he and my mom, who were dating at the time, got married. Luckily, he was okay. He had to, I think, pay back a lot of his medical debt, so he had to sell and shutdown his jewelry business and he I think asked himself, “What do I want to do?” He got a real estate license and started flipping apartments. Eventually, formed his own company and started building office buildings.
Juliana Sohn: Wow. I mean, that’s a big…From flipping apartments to building office buildings.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I mean, so he really is sort of like a self-made man in many ways.
Juliana Sohn: Did he go to college?
Jason Kim: No. No college. He just is a very hardworking, kind of curious, metropolitan-country boy if that makes sense.
Catherine Hong: What about your mom?
Jason Kim: My mom, she really is I think like a poet at heart because she’s very philosophical, and she is deeply, deeply emotional and cries all the time, which is great because that means I can cry all the time. She worked until she met my dad and then became a mom when she had me, but they got married very late and my dad had me when he was 40, in 1985, which is really late at that time because my mom was 37, I think, or 36.
Juliana Sohn: Wow. That is quite late for Koreans.
Jason Kim: Very, very late. I think people around them were like, “What is this? What are you doing?” They were both kind of independent thinkers who got together I think later in life, so I think they work and connect on that level.
Catherine Hong: They’re not religious it sounds like, or are they?
Jason Kim: They are. I have a very complicated relationship with their religiosity. My best friend is a priest, but she’s queer and she’s Episcopal, so I have my own sort of… my personal dabblings, interest in religion, but they went to a very conservative Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. There was a period, about 10 years, where my dad kept trying to give me the Bible. At some point it became funny to me. Like, I would go to the bathroom during dinner, and then I’d come back and there was the Bible. It was like every kind of Bible. It was the one with the leather binding and the gold zipper. Then, it was like the pocket Bible. I was like, “How many Bibles do you have? Do you have a Bible store that you’re not telling me about?”
Then, eventually, I think they both identify as religious still, but I think their understanding of religion shifted because they knew I was gay and they knew that I was leading this sinful life, trying to write plays. I think I eventually kind of wore them down, but also, my dad got sick six, seven years ago, and he really softened in a way, in a way that I think a lot of men do of that generation late in life. He, I think, because he had reformed his life and was a self-made person, was very, very supportive of what I wanted to do with my career and my life. He was the first person to support me really, even before my mom. It’s usually the other way around. I’m finding this out after the fact, he would kind of tell her like, “Just let him go write this stupid play and roll around on the floor.”
Juliana Sohn: Play with the rice.
Jason Kim: Yeah. Just let him do whatever he wants, which is incredible. I was like a real daddy’s boy growing up, and we had this phase in my early life where I really veered away from my parents in many ways, but now, we’re all super, super close. They live about 45 minutes away from me now in New Jersey.
Catherine Hong: Can you tell us a little bit more about how your parents found out that you were gay? It sounds like they kind of were in denial about it, but a certain point, your mom came across some posters.
Jason Kim: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh. When I was at Columbia, I had a seizure because I had viral meningitis, and nobody knew what was going on with me, so I had a seizure. I was rushed into St. Luke’s, the emergency room, which at the time, not a good emergency room to go to. When I woke up, they just assumed that I was a drug addict because I’m a college kid. You know? There was a doctor hovering over me, and she was like, “What are you on?” I was like, “I don’t know. Advil?” I wasn’t being treated for several days because they didn’t want to give me drugs when I was clearly a Korean student/drug addict to them.
Jason Kim: My mom came because my friends called her, and they were like, “Your son is in the hospital.” I remember kind of blinking awake and seeing my mom in the hospital. I was in the ICU for weeks. I just remember thinking, “Oh, this is bad. This is bad.” Then, at a certain point, I was discharged after they determined that I had viral meningitis and couldn’t do anything. I went back to my dorm room with my mom, and there was just like posters of naked men there everywhere. I just remember like I’m so ill I can barely… I haven’t eaten really in weeks, and I’m so frail, and all I want to do is just sleep. I just remember being in this tiny dorm room, as big as this dining table. My mom is there, and there’s all these naked men on the wall. I’m looking at her and I’m looking at the naked men and I’m looking at her and I’m looking at David Beckham, and I’m like, “Okay.” I was like, “Okay, I don’t know what to do now.”
Jason Kim: They always knew. I didn’t make it a secret really because I couldn’t, and I think that sort of began this long process of “coming out” for a decade because it took a really long time for them to come around to it. It really happened when my dad got sick. I sort of had this conversation with my mom where I was like, “You have to take the people that I love seriously. You can not take me seriously, that’s fine, but you have to take the people that I love, you have to treat them with some sort of respect.” Not that she hadn’t before.
Juliana Sohn: Does this mean that you were bringing boyfriends to meet them?
Jason Kim: I was about to introduce them to my current husband.
Catherine Hong: Had they met previous men?
Jason Kim: No, they hadn’t. I always kept them away, so I knew that I was introducing them to Jeremy soon or I wanted to, so I kind of had to set the table and have this very serious conversation with my parents. I said that to my mom, and I remember, I was like, very nervous. She had this really amazing response, which was, “I was at church the other day and the pastor in his sermon was encouraging us to go march in the anti-gay parade. I knew in the bottom of my heart that that was really wrong.” I was like, “Whoa.” I was like, “Can you say that again? What are you talking about?” She really, in the time that we were not apart, but like avoided the topic, kind of came across this revelation.
Catherine Hong: What do you think opened her mind? Does she have any Korean friends who have kids who are gay, too, and she’s not the only one?
Jason Kim: I’m sure she does.
Juliana Sohn: Yeah, but she probably does, and she may not even know about it-
Jason Kim: She just doesn’t know.
Juliana Sohn: Parents don’t talk about that… Tell the story about how you chose your name.
Jason Kim: When I first moved to the US, I didn’t speak any English. You know the thing that they make you do on your first day as a new student, the most mortifying thing ever, which is you go up in front of the whole class and they introduce you and you introduce yourself. You’re like, I can barely walk, what are you talking about? They did that.
Catherine Hong: What is your Korean name?
Jason Kim: Junhyuk, Kim Junhyuk. I had no idea what the teacher was saying to me because I didn’t speak any English, but somehow, I cobbled together that she wanted me to introduce myself and my name. I kind of said my name out loud, and she asked me, “Do you have an American name? What’s your American name,” which is a terrible thing to say? At the time, I’m in third grade and I’m like, “Oh, I guess I have to pick an American name now.” The only two names that I knew at the time were Aladdin from the movie, the masterpiece, the Disney masterpiece, and Jason from the Power Rangers.
Juliana Sohn: Red ranger.
Jason Kim: Yeah. The red ranger. Really, in retrospect, I should have picked Aladdin.
Juliana Sohn: Aladdin Kim.
Jason Kim: Yeah.
Catherine Hong: Did you pick it on the spur of the moment or …
Jason Kim: Yeah, I was just like “Jason!” I don’t know. Now, I’m called that by everybody, which is …
Juliana Sohn: Is it legal?
Jason Kim: Yeah, it’s legal. I put it in my middle name. You know why? Because I couldn’t pick up packages.
Juliana Sohn: What do you mean?
Jason Kim: You know like you get your mail delivered and it says Jason Kim … and you go pick it up at UPS, and they’re like, “Your ID does not say Jason.” I was like, I’m going to go through this turmoil, so that I could pick up my Sephora packages.
Catherine Hong: Your husband is Jeremy Beiler … who’s also a comedy writer. Right?
Jason Kim: That’s right.
Catherine Hong: How long ago did you guys get married?
Jason Kim: Almost like two and a half years ago, and it was because it was the year that my grandma died, and they met earlier that year and she loved him. I mean, there are all these photos of her hugging him and kissing him and he’s giving her flowers.
Catherine Hong: That’s what’s amazing-
Jason Kim: It’s incredible.
Catherine Hong: … is she’s from a totally different generation and she was so accepting.
Jason Kim: Yeah. She was incredible. He was like, “Can I take you to dinner?” She’s like 101 and change at the time, so she’s like, “No, I can’t really go to dinner.”
Catherine Hong: She could speak English, sounds like.
Jason Kim: No, she doesn’t. No. I’m just translating the whole time. He was like, “What would you like for dinner? Can I bring you something?” She said, “I would really Burger King, but I want the crown.” We got her Burger King with a crown. There’s all these photos of them hugging and eating Burger King fries together. Before we left, she said to him and me, “I want you guys to get married while I’m alive.” I was like, “Well, that’s a lot of pressure.” I just forgot about it, and then, she passed a couple months later. He proposed a couple months after that. That whole summer was wild because it was also the summer that my dad received a kidney, and we decided to just go to City Hall, and it was great.
Catherine Hong: How were your parents about it, making it official? What was their-
Jason Kim: They were thrilled. I mean, my dad really knows like two words in English, and they’re no and Jeremy. Jeremy’s very good with tools and building things and fixing things and I can’t even hold my hammer. My dad was in construction, obviously, so he’s like he could build a house from scratch. Now, he finally has the son that he always wished for. I knew that my dad was really kind of “enlightened” as a Korean dad when he gave all of his tools that he had been collecting for years to Jeremy. I was like, wow.
Catherine Hong: They are enlightened, they are cool parents. They are officially cool, Korean parents, I think.
Jason Kim: I’m extremely lucky.
Juliana Sohn: I know we have alluded to the Nancy podcast and how incredibly fantastic that episode was, but maybe we could go over the story for our listeners, so that … they can get a sense that they should definitely go and listen to that episode.
Jason Kim: My dad got sick several years ago, and you know how Korean parents do the thing where they hide everything from you until the very last possible minute?
Catherine Hong: They often won’t even tell you someone died.
Jason Kim: Yeah.
Juliana Sohn: I mean, The Farewell is like so absolutely spot on.
Jason Kim: I mean, imagine my dad has kidney failure after all these years and they had been trying to get him treated for it for many years prior to that.
Juliana Sohn: Years.
Jason Kim: I think so, I think two years, and I had no idea. He called me and my dad sort of has this serious voice he goes into. This soft, sweet voice, and every time he gets into that mode, I’m like, “Oh, something catastrophic has happened.” He called me and he said, “My kidneys don’t work anymore.” I was eating dinner. I think I was eating takeout at the time in New York, and I was like, “What are you talking about?” He was like, “My kidneys have failed.” I was like, “What do you mean? Did that happen this morning or what?” Then, he kind of revealed, “No, I’ve been struggling with it for a while and we thought maybe it was going to be okay, but I can’t hide it from you anymore and my kidneys don’t work, so I have to go on dialysis.” I was stunned.
Jason Kim: The next couple of months we scrambled to get him on dialysis, he has to get a port installed, which requires a minor surgery which has to happen, and we were dealing with all these sort of quick moving health concerns. Then, he was on dialysis for several years for hours and hours a day. He was very, very sick, and I remember begging him to leave St. Louis and come visit me in LA when I was working there at the time because my dream was, at the time, was to move them out to Los Angeles where there’s a big Korean population. He came and I shouldn’t show him around because he kept feeling nauseated, he would throw up, he was so weak.
Jason Kim: When I met Jeremy, we were going through all of this, and I remember telling him, “I don’t know if my dad’s going to make it. I don’t know if he’s going to be alive by the end of this year.”
Juliana Sohn: Oh, my gosh.
Jason Kim: During that time, I learned all about kidney donations and I decided to get tested. It was sort of not unlikely, but not a sure bet that I would be a match because fathers and sons, it’s usually people siblings that are matches. Then, I got the call from the hospital saying that I was as perfect of a match as you could be without being somebody’s twin.
I mean, I remember being overjoyed and crying and my dad had been very sick at this point. I called him, and I was like, “I’m going to give you my kidney and you’re going to be fine.” Like, “Let’s do this tomorrow. I’ll fly to St. Louis,” blah, blah, blah. He was very quiet. I was like, “What’s wrong.” He was like, “Let me think about it.” That began this process of us fighting about this for the subsequent two years where I would just be enraged at my dad that he wouldn’t accept this, and he would be mad at me for trying to make him accept it. I mean, it got very complicated.
Catherine Hong: Why did he say he didn’t want to accept it?
Jason Kim: Well, I think he had this idea in his head that what if, you never know.
Catherine Hong: That you’d need it. Right. He doesn’t want to endanger your own health.
Jason Kim: Yeah, what if it is… yeah. What if it is genetic? What if something goes wrong in the OR? It’s not a hundred percent guarantee that you come out of it okay.
Juliana Sohn: You need your spare.
Jason Kim: Yeah. He was like… exactly. He wanted me to have my spare tire. I was furious. I was just so mad about it. We sort of reached a point… and my mom got involved. I was like, “Mom, you need to help me change his mind.” She’d be like, “I’m not a part of this.” Then, she’s like, “Okay, I am a part of it.” I mean, it just got really, really sticky. At one point, I was like, “Maybe you don’t want to accept my kidney because I’m gay. Does it have something to do with the fact that I’m gay?” Which is partly what the Nancy episode is about.
Juliana Sohn: Did you actually say that to him?
Jason Kim: I did. Yeah. He was like, “What are you talking about? Of course not.” We kind of was in this irresolvable corner and we couldn’t get out of this impasse, the three of us. It was causing I would say as much grief as the illness itself in some ways because, to me, there was a solution, and he wouldn’t take it. I kept saying to him, “You’re killing yourself and this is selfish because I want you to live for another 10 years.”
Catherine Hong: It almost seems like God made you a perfect match. You were such a perfect match, and he was disregarding that.
Jason Kim: Yeah.
Juliana Sohn: Yeah. You should have brought the God thing into it.
Jason Kim: Yeah, I should have brought… I think I did at one point. I mean, and also as a Korean American son, you have all these thoughts in your head of how do I pay my parents back. All the things. I was thinking through all of them, constantly, on a daily basis and just feeling so frustrated. Eventually, we got to a point where I was like, “Okay, you’re not going to do it. Okay, you’re not going to do it, and I will just have to work out my feelings about this somehow.” Really, I thought he wasn’t going to make it for very long, and my grandmother died, and we went to the service, Jeremy and I. I flew back to LA where I was working at the time, and I was so depressed and tired. I remember being in the living room of the sublet and ordering so much sushi and turning on the TV, and saying to myself, “I’m just going to just zone out for 10 days.”
I kept getting this phone call, and do you know how Postmates calls you sometimes when they’re at your door? I thought it was Postmates calling, so I kept silencing the call. I was like, “Just deliver it.” You know, “Just please.” I just kept thinking in my head this is Postmates calling to torture me in my time of grieving, and I will not give in to Postmates. Then, I got a text message from the same number that said, “You need to answer the phone. I am a kidney coordinator and I have a kidney for your dad.”
I was just like…
Catherine Hong: Oh, my God.
Jason Kim: I think I was on the phone at the time with somebody and I was like, “I’ve got to go.” This had happened before, about a year before, where my dad went in. They call in the primary and then they call in a backup. My dad went in as the backup and he didn’t get it. I had been through this before, so in the back of my head I was like, “Okay, is he the primary?” She said, “He’s not.” I said, “Okay.” I call and tell my parents, and I tell them, “You have to get to the ER within the hour and you know the drill.” My mom just very calmly said… What did she say? She said, “Oh, we’ll just think of it as a little vacation in the hospital.”
Jason Kim: They go to the hospital and I’m just waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, and I’m going to fly out there, but also, he’s going to be in the OR at the time possibly. The doctor says, “Don’t fly out. I need you to translate possibly, so you need to be available.” I’m just kind of in LA freaking out. I get a call at about one in the morning from the coordinator that said, “It didn’t work out with the primary. We’re going to test your dad.”
I was like, “Okay. Okay, here we go.” Then, I get a call several hours later that said, “Okay, it worked out. He’s going to go to the OR.” He’s, I think at the time, he was… How old was he? He was 72-73, and usually, if you seek a kidney above the age of 70, they don’t even allow you to be operated on, but for some miracle, by some miracle, these doctors were like, “Let’s do it.” I was like, “Okay, he’s getting wheeled into the OR and I don’t know if he’s going to make it.” Then, he goes to the OR and I’m just thinking, “Oh, my God. Have I made a huge mistake?”
Juliana Sohn: Oh, no.
Jason Kim: You know? Because he’s — he’s in his 70s, I’m like, “Is he going to make it out of this surgery?” Then, I’m waiting and waiting and waiting.
Juliana Sohn: You’re stuck in LA because you need to stay put.
Jason Kim: Yeah, sorry. I’m going to start crying. I actually go to work because I tell myself I can’t stick around in this sublet. I’ve got to do something. I drive to work and I’m just… obviously, I’m not paying attention and I’m just staring at my phone the whole time. I didn’t tell anybody what was going on. Then, I get the call, so I run out of the room, and I answer the call. It’s the surgeon calling me, and he says, “The operation went well.”
I start crying. He also says, “Also, I’m not really supposed to tell you this, but the kidney’s a really good kidney.” I was like, “I don’t know what that means, but great.” I was like, “Great, I’m glad it’s a good one.” Then, my mom’s been waiting there the whole time, so he says, “I’m going to give your mom the phone.” This guy is calling me on his cell phone, this wonderful Chinese doctor, and he gives my mom the phone. She’s like, this is the part that really makes me cry, she’s like a hero during all this because she’s so strong and not showing an ounce of weakness at all. I tell her, “Mom, it went great.” She bursts into tears, and she goes, “I think your grandma did this.” Then, I went back to the room and people were like, “What’s wrong with you?” They’re like, “What happened?” I was like, “I’ve got to go home.” Yeah.
Catherine Hong: How’s his health now?
Jason Kim: He’s doing great.
Catherine Hong: He’s out, he’s walking, not tethered to a machine?
Jason Kim: He just cut down a tree the other day. I have to beg him to stop doing housework. I mean, he’s like a new person. We’re so, so incredibly lucky. Yeah.
Juliana Sohn: What’s your relationship been like with him and your whole family with the recovery. Now they’re so close by.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I think we all kind of recognize mutually that we were given a miraculous second chance, so we are super… we hold onto each other pretty tight. It really is a miracle in so many ways. The fact that he received a kidney statistically at his age, his blood type, so we kind of recognize, I think, that we have this magical second opportunity. I mean, they still drive me crazy, but I keep thinking to myself there will be a day where they won’t be driving me crazy, so appreciate the crazy.
Catherine Hong: All in all, they had an unusual life. I mean, really … not just your dad getting sick and getting better, but seeing their son become such a huge success.
Jason Kim: Oh, you’re so sweet.
Catherine Hong: Really, are they now so proud of you? Come on.
Jason Kim: They are pretty proud of me, but I think they still have this understanding of my career that I’m going to write Phantom of the Opera II or something, and I have to tell them that was already written. Yeah, they’re very supportive and very proud.
Catherine Hong: Great. On a totally different topic-
Juliana Sohn: Yeah, totally different topic.
Juliana Sohn: I love your posts on Dr. Dan.
Catherine Hong: Your dermatologist.
Jason Kim: Shout out to Dr. Dan, Dr. Dan Belkin.
Juliana Sohn: I know that you’re pretty serious about your skincare and your routine.
Jason Kim: I am.
Juliana Sohn: I wondered if you could share some of your routine and recommendations.
Jason Kim: Again, how much time do you have?
Juliana Sohn: Tell us about your relationship with Dr. Dan. How did you find him?
Jason Kim: He was introduced to me by our mutual friend named David, and I joke that Dan is the only white person that I allow to touch my face aside from my husband. He’s just a really sweet guy and he’s become a friend of mine. Now, he treats everybody from famous makeup artists from Martha Stewart.
Juliana Sohn: He does Martha Stewart?
Jason Kim: Yeah.
Catherine Hong: He recommended Dr. Dan to Michelle Zauner. Right?
Jason Kim: That’s right. I can’t believe I’m talking about my dermatologist, but the thing about my skincare is that I only use grocery store brands.
Juliana Sohn: Well, wait a minute. What about all those tubes of stuff? What is that?
Jason Kim: The tubes are all prescriptions that Dr. Dan gives me sometimes because I am very allergic to things, and I break out in hives all the time. I have every single kind of steroid cream imaginable to spread all over my face in case of hives, but I use grocery store brands.
Catherine Hong: My theory is that if you had gone to medical school, you would have been a dermatologist.
Jason Kim: I should do that now. Yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Hong: Here’s another question. When Juliana and I were researching you, we found so many Jason Kim’s who were famous, but like funny ones. Like, the Korean high-end dental ceramicist, Jason Kim.
Jason Kim: I’m obsessed with the dentist.
Catherine Hong: I thought you might be, yeah.
Catherine Hong: Yeah, because he has lunches with beauty editors, so you would get in with him.
Jason Kim: Yeah.
Catherine Hong: Then, there is another South Korean director and he’s a writer, Jason Kim. Then, there’s the Jason Kim who is an art director. Right?
Jason Kim: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and a photographer.
Juliana Sohn: He was also named after the Power Ranger.
Jason Kim: He was?
Catherine Hong: His bio he said that he chose his name based on the Power Ranger.
Jason Kim: You’re kidding.
Catherine Hong: And there’s a Goldman Sachs managing director named Jason Kim.
Juliana Sohn: There’s the architect who I think is using your picture in his bio.
Catherine Hong: Yes. There is, like, a speaker’s bureau, one of those agencies where-
Juliana Sohn: You can hire people to come and speak, and there’s a Jason Kim, who’s an architect. He has a whole bio.
Catherine Hong: It is your picture.
Jason Kim: That’s hilarious.
Catherine Hong: I think maybe the company put the wrong picture. He probably doesn’t even know.
Jason Kim: Of course. Of course. Of course. I get tagged for the wrong Jason Kim constantly.
Catherine Hong: Which one are you most mistaken for?
Jason Kim: I wish the dentist, but it’s usually the director in South Korea, which makes sense, but when I told my mom that I might not have children, she grabbed my hands, and she said, “Who’s going to carry on the family name?” In this moment, if you Google Jason Kim, there’s maybe one trillion of us in the universe.
Juliana Sohn: We didn’t ask you this, but I wonder what was it like growing up in Korea for you because I mean, I was five when I moved here and I have these glimmers of memories, but you were old enough to really have experienced life there.
Jason Kim: It was pretty magical in my head, but my very Korean therapist, who’s great, says-
Juliana Sohn: You have a Korean therapist?
Jason Kim: I do. She’s like sort of those… one of those ageless Korean women and she is so Korean, and we do a lot of our sessions in Korean. It’s changed my life I have to say.
Juliana Sohn: Oh, I might need her number.
Jason Kim: We need mental healthcare representation, and we don’t have it. It took me so long to find her, and it was only because during the pandemic, somebody started like an Asian mental health directory or something that also I couldn’t find until I researched. I think it’s important. I’ve only had mostly white, male therapist, yeah.
Juliana Sohn: It’s made a huge difference.
Jason Kim: It’s made a tremendous difference to be able to talk about my family without having to explain my family for 10 sessions is remarkable. It’s remarkable and it makes you feel understood in a way that is pretty profound.
Juliana Sohn: I wonder, what makes you do some of your sessions in Korean and some in English?
Jason Kim: You just kind of… I don’t know. It just sometimes some sessions are I just spill out in Korean and other sessions I speak primarily in English. I don’t know. That’s a great question. I’m not sure, but she responds a lot in Korean and also, what is kind of wonderful is that her explanations of things or her response to things in Korean, it makes you think in a very different way.
It sort of is like going to a psychological chiropractor or something where you’re just like, “Oh, no. Wait. Here’s this other way of standing and being and thinking.” My therapist and I talked about the phrase “Gwenchana” the other day and what it feels like to say that to yourself in Korean as opposed to just the simple, English phrase, it’s okay. There’s just so many layers of meaning behind “Gwenchana”. It’s like, you can tolerate it. You can accept it. It just means so many different things.
Juliana Sohn: That’s so interesting. Do you say to yourself?
Jason Kim: Now, I have a little Post-it Note on my computer screen that says “Gwenchana” because I have this complex where I just try to write perfectly from the beginning, and you can’t. You have to set out wanting to write the worst thing. If you’ll allow yourself to do that, then hopefully, something decent will emerge, but the only way you can do that is by telling yourself “Gwenchana.” You know?
Juliana Sohn: That’s so interesting because I only say that to my parents. You know, so that they don’t worry.
Jason Kim: Yeah, you don’t say it to yourself ever.
Juliana Sohn: Never.
Jason Kim: Yeah, yeah. She was like, “What if you say ‘gwenchana’ to yourself?” I was like, “What are you talking about? Why would I do that?” Yeah.
Catherine Hong: Kind of genius.
Jason Kim: It’s different than self-acceptance. You know? It’s self-tolerance, which is very different, I think. Self-acceptance for Korean Americans can be difficult, but if you begin with self-tolerance, hopefully, you will get to self-acceptance.
Juliana Sohn: One other thing I’d like to talk to you about is I really enjoy your posts and I have re-posted some of your posts. A lot of it is because I am very political. All the different things that we’ve gone through in the past few years, I’ve become such an activist ever since Trump got elected and he was President, but it really made me feel I need to take a stand, I need to say something, we need to go out and make noise. For Black Lives Matter and everything, all that stuff, it was all just a no-brainer. Then, came AAPI and all of the violence that was going on. It was really hard for me.
Jason Kim: It is, yeah.
Juliana Sohn: A lot of it is I’m trying to figure out, I know how I feel, but I don’t know how to exactly express how I feel. I have been sitting there sitting with a lot of what’s going on and just grateful that there are people out there who are being vocal and making noise. Like, all of the big name celebrities who are putting themselves out there. While I read it and I appreciate it, I feel like I’m still sitting with a lot of it. It’s not because I don’t have strong feelings about it, but it’s amazing how much it’s taking me to really process so much of it.
Jason Kim: Yeah. I’m so glad you’re bringing this up because I’ve been thinking about this a lot during the past year, and one of the things that I’ve realized is that the model minority myth, it’s a prison that a white person invented to keep us at bay really. One of the things that’s kind of so horrible about this prison is that we’re not given the language or the toolbox really to be able to express how we experience our racism, so if you rob somebody of the language and the toolbox to be able to process and express that, then they don’t say anything, which is what I think a lot of Asian people do. We don’t say anything. It feels so counterintuitive to say something. They expect you to be perfect, they instill this idea that you have to be completely perfect. You don’t allow yourselves to be imperfect in your expression of all the horribly violent racist things that you experience.
Jason Kim: I think a part of it is just allowing ourselves to be imperfect in our expression of it, but also supporting each other because I think a lot of the times, you get into these kind of frenzies online especially and I find myself thinking like, hey, we’re on the same side. Why are you targeting me? As long as we don’t present a unified force in some way, we’ll be completely silent to the majority. We will still be invisible. I think we contribute to our erasure because we follow this pattern, but it’s so impossible, like you were saying, to break. I mean, it’s so, so, so difficult and I think little by little you have to start breaking it. It’s kind of incredible that in the past year, that people have started breaking it. It doesn’t mean that your activism has to be visible to the greater world. I think you could be an activist in whatever way you want. Now, I think a lot of the Asian American population has been slapped awake and we have to keep remaining awake.
Catherine Hong: Let’s say our thank yous.
Juliana Sohn: Thank you.
Jason Kim: Sorry I cried! I’m not actually sorry.
Juliana Sohn: I’m not sorry either.
Catherine Hong: Thank you, Jason Kim, for joining us on K-Pod.
Catherine Hong: You were well worth the wait!
Juliana Sohn: You were well worth the wait!
Jason Kim: Oh, thank you. That’s so sweet. Thank you so much. I’m going to make you guys call my mom and tell her to be proud of me. I’m just kidding.
Juliana Sohn: Hi, it’s Juliana. Since our conversation, we’ve gotten a few updates about Jason’s upcoming projects that we wanted to share. Season three of HBO’s Barry, which was stalled by the pandemic, is on the way, and the musical, K-pop is getting a second life. There are plans for a run in Washington DC at the Anthem this winter, followed by a Broadway run to be announced. The film about Korean grandmothers learning to read, is on hold. You can see my photos of Jason, shot at his home in Brooklyn, on our Instagram, @KPodPod. You can follow Jason on Instagram @DeepKimpact.