In celebration of AAPI month, TCB will be sharing stories by PAVE NC, a local volunteer-run organization that highlights the stories of Asian-Americans in the South, for the month of May. To learn more about PAVE NC, visit their site here or read TCB‘s profile of the co-founders, Tina Firesheets and Christie Soper here. This story was originally published by PAVE NC here.
Story by Tina Firesheets, photos by Scott Muthersbaugh, Perfecta Visuals, digital production by Dave from Maunaleo Ventures
Meet Paul Byun, a Korean-American videographer and co-owner of GlasBear Video Productions.
He’s based in Greensboro, but his interest in other cultures and passion for traveling takes him all over the world.
The impact of travel influenced him early on. By the time he was 13, he’d already lived in three countries. He was born in Hong Kong, where his family lived while his father worked at Dow Chemicals. When he was 5, Byun’s family returned to South Korea. But his parents eventually grew dissatisfied with the traffic and congestion in Seoul. They were always drawn to the U.S., where they already had family established. So when Byun was 13, he moved to North Carolina.
How did your family end up in North Carolina?
They picked Greensboro because my brother was in Chapel Hill. And then my sister-in-law, which was his girlfriend at the time, got accepted to UNCG. So they found a business in Greensboro sold by another Korean guy. It was a fast food Japanese place. They picked whatever they could afford and whatever was closest to my brother.
What was it like for you?
So I came here before they bought the restaurant. I lived with my aunt for one year just to be somewhere in America and learn English. And then after that, there was this gray period of my my parents being in Korea. So I went to a boarding school near Hickory in North Carolina for one year. That’s where I learned English again. And then they bought the restaurant and then we settled here.
You were in Hickory? There aren’t a lot of Asian there.
Yeah, exactly. Not even Hickory, the nowhere of Hickory. It used to be a big, beautiful private school kind of like you see in Hollywood movies, but it went downhill. There was more teachers than students. It’s only like 10 kids living in the whole school. And they’re all troublemakers, spoiled troublemakers that came there. And so it was weird, but they taught me English and then they taught me all the things I shouldn’t have learned, but I learned it.
What was that like for you having come from Korea to land in a place where you are the only Korean?
I think all Asian kids in America go through a lot of insecurity and lack of confidence. And also we grew up in a society where white people are idolized. So I’ve already idolized white people in a different way. I listened to KoRn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, I was like, ‘Ooh, Hollywood movies and USA music’s better.’ And everybody wants to wear Adidas. Everybody wants to wear Nike and girls are trying to look more white and making their eyes bigger.
So the ideology was already there. And then of course you have to go through all these jokes. There’s so many jokes. If a French accent is beautiful. People are like, ‘Ooh, what a beautiful accent.’ Then you see a Korean accent or a Chinese accent, and it’s funny. And everybody’s laughing at it. Even South Park makes fun of it. Long story short, I was pretty insecure until I was, like, in my early 20s. And then I started becoming strong. You learn to fight back and make bigger jokes when the jokes come.
How did that happen?
Going to college and seeing more diversity. I think diversity is celebrated in a lot of universities. So I think cities with a lot of universities seem to be the most liberal, more laid back and
more open. Cities with fewer universities seem to be segregated and more closed-minded on diversity and inclusivity. And that was it. And then I started just opening up.
Has the popularity of Korean culture — Korean TV, music and food surprised you?
Oh, yeah. Korea is the new cool kid of Asia. And I’m proud of my people. Squid Game’s cool. And every girl seems to dig K-pop. Korea is also doing well with economy.
Asians are cool, now that Asians are finding their voice. But it takes time for the one culture to come. So for me, I saw the culture of sushi come to the USA. When I first came here, sushi was still gross. And now people are like, ‘sushi is so cool.’ And then now I think pho is making the move, ramen already made the move.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a creative and that you wanted to make videos and film?
Yeah. I knew I would be a creative. At first, I wanted to be a musician. So I was in a metal band and then my mom said, ‘No, you have to go to college because we came to America to pay for college.’ So I respected that. Anyway, music was my first passion. Then I was like, ‘Okay, I have to find something else that I like.’ That’s photography. But then, as you know, photography is going down because everybody can take really beautiful photos and photographers are so cheap. So video resulted in me being more unique, and it’s more profitable.
It’s a great time to be a videographer because the equipment’s cheap and you can make money fast, and then it’s the worst time to be musicians. So if we were in the 70s or 80s, it would be so hard to be a videographer because the cameras were big and you have to be rich to start a video company. But I think, back in the day, you are a musician, nobody can steal your music. There’s no Spotify. So everybody bought tapes and CDs and actually went to concerts. So I’m glad I’m not a musician right now.
How did you learn your craft?
I didn’t learn much in college, but mostly it was just me making what I want to make. So I learned from myself more than anything else and YouTube.
You also did video work for a furniture company in High Point, right?
It was a studio that specialized and only did furniture work. So there’s whole bunch of studios in High Point that photographs for furniture companies. So they are like giant warehouses, and they have little sets and each set becomes a different room every week.
There’s carpenters, painters, people who move stuff, people who install floors. So they literally build a room that looks like a real room, like a movie set, and then photograph it, videograph it. And then just destroy it, and then move on.
How long did you do that?
That sounds like it was a good opportunity to just learn.
Yes, absolutely. That was a way to learn lighting and how to talk to big clients. And also most importantly, just like how commercial videography works. So it was like, I see that as post-college that also paid me. I learned almost everything there.
Is there a lot of diversity in this field?
I think so. I mean, like, I have clients of all races and, of course, we film all different races, but I do still see some things that need to change. For example, a lot of companies, when they say we need diverse models, somehow they get stuck in this idea that there must be two white couples, one black couple and one Latino couple or maybe one Asian couple. Like, no interracial couples, I think favoritism exists quite a bit.
I also just see so much separation between white and Black folks. There’s so much tension between those two race in this country. It makes me sad.
There’s the sentiment that Asians are often left out of conversations when it comes to diversity and race, especially in the southeast. What are your thoughts?
I remember having an Asian teacher in high school. And he always yelled, like ‘Why are the Asians the quiet ones?’ Asians are always the quiet ones. And that’s what made me not quiet. So I’m usually the one vocal, and I’m known to be feisty. I’m known to speak my mind. My brother’s the same way. He’ll say what he wants. We’re not talkative, but we’re not the quiet Asians. So if somebody drops a joke, then I can drop some jokes to reverse that situation to show that I’m powerful.
There’s a lot of jokes that poke at insecurities of Asians, right? Asian guys, I think, get it more. I used to not wear shorts in high school because everybody said my legs look like girls’ legs because I don’t have hair. But look now you see a bunch of white guys shave and now smooth skin’s cool. Girls like smooth skin now. And there’s things like we eat dogs, and it hurts your feelings.
So I will drop a redneck joke because you’re joking about my race. And then it’s funny. And most of the time that ends up melting the ice in the room. And you become even close friends because you roast each other a bit.
You’ve traveled a lot, what have you observed about other cultures?
Paying for people’s meals—I think that’s a very Asian thing. And that’s not in American culture. It’s not part of their culture. The more I travel the world, I realize it is the United States that’s a weirdo.
Everybody and most of the world is more similar. Double dipping’s cool in most countries. Most countries want to pay for each other’s food and do family meal style and there’s a sense of like, ‘Hey neighbor, I’m cooking. Want to come over and eat together?’
Anyways, that’s why I travel more.
How has your Asian American identity evolved?
Now I just embrace being Asian. For example, when me and my dad were walking in Morocco where no tourists go and it was scary. And they all just made Kung Fu jokes. They called me Jackie Chan, but I wasn’t angry, because they’re so innocent. I’m like, ‘Wow, these people just really haven’t seen any Asians other than in some movies.’
I embrace it now. Everywhere I go, people say I look like Jackie Chan. And I’m like, ‘Yeah that’s my uncle.’
I think confidence is key. And I think we need to make sure all the Asian kids grow up with confidence. I used to be insecure about my round face and my little eyes. But now I think I’m sexy, like whatever. You got to love yourself first. That’s so important. And I think Asians lose that confidence when they live as a super minority. So that’s where I’m at. I think Asians just need more confidence.
Follow Paul on Instagram @glasbear or see more of his creative work at glasbear.com
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