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A UNC senior's one-man show explores experiences as a second-generation Korean American

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UNC senior Ethan Kim rehearses his one man show based on his life on Friday, Mar. 22 in Swain Hall.

Every December, Ivy League-hopeful high school seniors open their laptops, shakily type in their usernames and passwords and click a button that will determine the next four years of their lives.

Many will see a rejection, others a confetti-decorated screen — and some, like UNC senior Ethan Kim, are notified that their application will be held for further review.

Four years ago, Kim, a Charlottean, decided to respond to his deferral from Harvard University with a rap titled “Harvard Please Let Me In.” The video gained over 1.5 million views on YouTube.

“But the reality was I didn't even want to get in that bad,” Kim said.

It wasn't the first time he used rap in an academic setting. In high school, he was one of the few underclassmen who helped make a diss track against a rival school to raise awareness for a canned food drive.

“I think he's always been a performer at his heart, whether it's social groups or when we met through speech and debate,” UNC senior Hunter Kouchi, Kim’s friend and roommate, said.

A second-generation Korean American, Kim said his parents encouraged him and his brother to pursue what they loved as they were growing up. He said he felt like he was able to escape some of the traditional immigrant pressure to be a doctor or a lawyer because of his parents' support. 

For his performance studies senior honors thesis, Kim will perform a one-man show titled “The Dishwasher: soap, sponge, scrub," which explores the Asian American experience through his and his parents’ eyes.

Performance dates include March 25, 26 and April 2 at Swain Hall Black Box Theater.

Although Kim has dabbled in stand-up comedy under the moniker “Kurvy Korean,” this performance will be different from his past work as it will combine comedic and heavy themes in a longer set. 

The play, a 37-page script written and produced by Kim, will touch on themes of generational trauma and what it means to do work with one’s own hands as an immigrant without generational wealth. He said the title references how many Asian families don't use the dishwasher, explaining that immigrants are taught that everything they build needs to be by their own hands.

Joseph Megel, the director and faculty advisor for Kim’s honors thesis, described his performance style as likable, vulnerable and authentic.

“He has that gift that he can hold you in a way and then take you to places you don't expect to go,” Megel said.

Kim said he has always felt the urge to be creative, which he does through stand-up and rap. But after being formally rejected by Harvard, he said that he internally connected his creative side with failure.

Spurred by encouragement from his peers in his performance class, Kim began writing a script for his upcoming show on a whim.

However, what truly pushed Kim to pursue the script as a performance was attending the celebration of life of his close friend Carson Philbin, who died earlier this year. Philbin was the cinematographer for Kim’s Harvard deferral video.

Being reminded of Philbin’s passion for pursuing creativity inspired Kim to get back on his feet as a performer.

“I like doing stand-up and it's really fun, but I want to show everyone that I'm an actor, a writer and more than just someone who can be humorous,” Kim said. “I'm a performer and that's what I want people to see.”

Kouchi, who has been Kim's roommate for the past four years, said he was fortunate enough to get a show every single day since their first year at UNC. Kim's friends, Kouchi said, are extremely proud of him and the show he's created.

Kim said he likes material that makes audience members laugh and cry, and interwove both aspects into his show. His director, he said, reminds him that laughter after tears comes from the gut and feels more necessary in order to overcome sadness.

Now a college senior, Kim said the performance feels like “throwing up another Hail Mary” — just like his Harvard video as a high school senior. 

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But, four years since then, when asked if Kim would trade his UNC experience for Harvard, knowing what he knows now, he said:

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no.”

Tickets for the April 2 show are available via this form.

@preethikaratnam

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com