Is Kim your Korean name? Last name?
Yes, Kim Joonmin is my birth name. I’ve always had it in my name, but I have two middle names: Joel Alexander Kim Booster.
How do you connect to your Korean culture now? Through food? That’s how I’ve done it—lots of Korean barbecue.
Yeah. But when I go to Korean barbecue with a big group of people, the waiter will always turn to me and I’ll immediately be like, “I’m so sorry!” Everyone gets mad at me. Every Korean restaurant I’ve ever been to, there’s that turn when they realize. It’s always a fraught experience going into authentically Korean spaces like that, because I feel like, “Oh, fuck—I wish I did [speak Hangul].” To my parents’ credit, [when I was] growing up, they did give me the option. They were like, “Hey, we can take you to classes. If you want to learn about your culture, we’re open to that.” But when you’re a little kid, you already feel different. It’s just like, “No, no, no. I want to feel as normal as possible. I don’t want to be thinking even more about how I’m different.” I regret not doing that now, but it’s never too late. Once that initial wave of shame passes, it is nice to sit and just feel a part of it for a moment. And the food tastes amazing.
When you were younger, did you know any other adoptees?
Through church, I knew a handful. Starting around eighth grade, up through high school, I knew a couple. I’ve known a few more in adulthood too that I’ve met because there are a lot of us. Honestly after that first Conan set, when I talked about it, there was an outpouring of people who reached out and found me and talked to me about it. I meet them at my shows all the time.
In your time in the comedic community, have you met a lot of other Asian people—or specifically Korean people—that you connected culturally with? Or who helped you learn more about your culture and, in turn, yourself?
It’s definitely come up a little bit. I learned through osmosis, in dribs and drabs, about specifically Korean culture. But the weird thing about being adopted as an Asian person in America, especially growing up in a white community, is that I find I am so much more connected to the idea of an Asian American identity. More so than I feel connected to a specific ethnic diaspora. I am proud to be Korean, and I am interested in Korean culture. But for me, when I feel connected to other Asian people, it is because of the racial experience of being Asian in America, not because of any specific ties I have to my Korean heritage. That’s very personal to me. I feel an immediate kinship to Asian people. And I’m so interested in what the Asian American experience is.
There are a lot of stereotypes and Asian traits that I don’t connect with at all. I do love karaoke, but I think it’s just because I was in musical theater and not because I am Korean. I know nothing about anime and Pokémon. I was in the Facebook group called Subtle Asian Traits and a lot of it I didn’t understand, and I think that’s because I didn’t grow up with any Asian American friends. Was that the case for you?
Growing up in the Midwest in a largely white community, everything Asian was given to me and made to be mine. Anytime someone brought up karate, it was like, “Oh, Joel, that’s your thing.” Or “Anime, that’s your thing.” Everything, regardless of where it was coming from [in Asia], was attributed and handed to me as the Asian person in the group. I don’t think that a lot of white people separate us, so it was all given to me. And so then, as an adult, finding out like, “Oh, no, no, karate is not yours—that’s Chinese.” Or, “This food is not yours.” That specificity I didn’t grow up with. I feel very connected to broad Asian signifiers in a way that I’ve had to sort of separate myself from as an adult. It’s been a strange journey growing up and wanting to reject that stuff, and then wanting to embrace that stuff, and then finding out that I’m not allowed to embrace some of it. I’m only allowed to embrace part of it. It’s such a wild mix of experiences floating around in my head.