July 2012 Issue: A Bigger Perspective on Little People

Standing Tall


The first thing many may notice about Diane Kawasaki and Samuel S. Kim is their dwarfism. But these two Korean American little people are making sure it won’t be the last.

story by KAY HWANGBO
photographs by LUKE INKI CHO

At 4-feet-tall, Samuel S. Kim doesn’t exactly blend into the SAT study academy for high school students. As a little person, the preferred term for individuals with dwarfism in the United States, he is easily a foot shorter than most of his peers. “Before I met Samuel, I thought dwarfs existed just in the Snow White stories,” admits Minjung Kim, 16, a classmate.

Soon, however, Samuel’s outgoing personality begins to fill the Buena Park, Calif., classroom. When I, the SAT teacher, ask him to write a sentence on the board and indicate the middle of the board, he complains loudly and says for laughs, “That’s too high for me!”

During a rest break at the Saturday school, the 17-year-old affectionately roughhouses with the other Korean American youths and pretends to tackle one of them. At a class party, he stretches his arm over his head to offer one of his new friends a bite of his pizza.

He is the first to enliven a quiet afternoon.

“Miss Kay, do you think I’m pedantic?” he asks in class one day, using an “SAT word.”

No, Samuel Kim is not “ostentatious in his learning,” but he is most certainly a stand-out, big on personality and heart. By the end of the eight-week program, he has been embraced by his peers, and his dwarfism, while obvious, has not defined his experience or his relationships in the class. His classmate Minjung says she realizes now that little people are “the same as us.”

Samuel does not let his medical condition stunt his youth or his enjoyment of life. And he’s most definitely not trying to hide it.

When I told him that I was interested in interviewing him for a story for this magazine, he responded with a victory fist pump and said, “That is so gangster!”

Samuel is among an estimated 30,000 people with dwarfism in the United States. Most adult little people are between 2-foot-8 and 4-foot-5. The most common type of dwarfism, achondroplasia, is caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation in the sperm cells before conception. It is believed that achondroplasia occurs at the same rate across all races and ethnicities, so factoring that rate based on the KoreanAmerican population in the U.S., one could extrapolate there are roughly 260 Korean American little people.

Most types of dwarfism are examples of skeletal dysplasias, or conditions of abnormal bone growth. People with short-limb dysplasia have an average-size trunk and shortened arms and legs, while people with short-trunk dysplasia have a shortened trunk and average-size limbs.

Achondroplasia is a short-limb dysplasia that occurs in one of every 26,000 to 40,000 infants. It cannot be treated medically.

The majority of little people have normal intelligence, normal life spans and reasonably good health. Their ability to lead “normal” lives, however, partly hinges on how they navigate a society that unfortunately still treats them like they are freaks and stigmatizes them.

Sadly, Koreans are among the worst offenders.

Samuel describes how some of the Korean Americans at his gym often point and stare at him.

“It’s really annoying,” he says, with a rare flash of anger. “It’s like, ‘Dude, what are you looking at? Don’t point. It’s not nice.’ Some Koreans look at you for the longest time. [I think to myself,] ‘I know you gotta look at me, but why do you have to look at me for so long?’”

Notably, approximately 100 of the 260 Korean American little people represent adoptees from Korea.

“A lot of the adopted LP (little people) Asian kids are either Korean, Chinese and Indian because those cultures are very intolerant of disabilities and differences,” says Irene Yuan, a Taiwanese American little person, who is an active member of the nonprofit Little People of America, in an email. Koreans in South Korea are reluctant to adopt dwarf children, said Yuan, who theorizes that such attitudes could also have something to do with Koreans’ emphasis on narrow notions of physical beauty.

Even well-meaning family members say some of the most hurtful things.

Diane Kawasaki, a Japanese Korean American little person who lives in Studio City, Calif., recalls how her Korean mother, in trying to prepare her daughter for possible disappointment, raised her to believe that she was conventionally unattractive and should resign herself to defective men.

Of course, Koreans aren’t the lone offenders.

When Kawasaki was shopping at an upscale L.A. mall three years ago, some children started yelling and pointing at her. “Wow, look at her, she’s so weird!” Kawasaki recalls them saying.

But Kawasaki, who stands 3-foot- 6, didn’t let them get away with it. She confronted the parents. “The [father] said, ‘I’m sorry, I had no idea.’” Kawasaki stuck to her guns. “You did so have an idea, you just watched your kids yelling at me,” she told them.

Another time, as she started down a set of stairs, a stranger picked her up and carried her down them. He thought he was being helpful.

The 28-year-old, who grew up in Honolulu, says she spent many years struggling with her dwarfism.

Years of therapy helped her realize that there was more to her than just being a little person. She had gumption, was funny and was good at writing. She parlayed these qualities into a stand-up comedy career that has included appearances at The Improv and the Comedy Store, both in Los Angeles, and even incorporates her dwarfism into the routine.

She often starts her set by saying, “I just want to throw this right out there, before things get awkward. The correct term is … Asian American.”

The young woman who was once afraid to share her vulnerabilities with friends began joking about her dwarfism every week with a room full of strangers.

“I try to stress the universal aspect of being a human being,” Kawasaki says. “I do try to educate people very subtly. I don’t want to be preachy.” She keeps at it, even though she acknowledges that audience members sometimes laugh at her, instead of with her.

By standing up and telling jokes in front of an audience, Kawasaki feels she is delivering her main message: that a little person can do the thing that many average-height people most fear.

Forcing herself to be open and honest with others has also made her more at ease with herself. “The more comfortable I am with myself, the more comfortable other people are,” she says.“People have come up to me after shows and told me they have learned something new, like what my life is like.

“Something we all need is to be understood,” she says. “It’s a very universal thing to be different. Everyone to some degree feels that way. We’re all human beings. We should be loving to each other or, at least, have respect for each other.”

* * *

Like Kawasaki, Samuel has learned to use humor to deal with people who may be uncomfortable with his dwarfism. He has also developed a thick skin. “I don’t get my feelings hurt that easily,” says the high school student, who lives with his parents and older brother in Garden Grove, a suburb of Orange County.

But even such resolve doesn’t guard against all pain.

The teen described an incident last year, when a junior at his school called him a “midget,” which little people consider to be an offensive term. She tauntingly asked, “Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“It hurt me,” Samuel says. “It was the same thing as if someone had punched me in the face.”

He told her to stop teasing him, but she wouldn’t. Finally he asked the girl’s boyfriend, with whom Samuel is “really chill,” to intervene. The teasing stopped, much to his relief.

The teenager credits his parents, in part, for teaching him how to defuse situations like this one. Chang-Hwan and Hannah Kim are the ones who suggested Samuel ask someone whom the taunting teen respected to intervene. “Growing up with a pastor has taught me that passive resistance is better than fighting,” says Samuel, referring to his father, who serves as the senior pastor at Foursquare Church of Love in Westminster. “As a PK (pastor’s kid), I’ve seen other people encounter problems. I think, ‘If that happens to me, I’ll know what to do.’”

His mother, Hannah, who works as a caregiver at a nursing home, is also very supportive, constantly telling Samuel “you can do it.” She says that his dwarfism was not a mistake, nor was it anyone’s fault. “God made you that way for a reason,” she tells him.

She once showed her son a videotape of a person without arms roller skating and a man with legs that extended only to the knee, who was happy and doing well. She also took him to an event sponsored by the Milal Mission, an international organization that spreads awareness about disabled people, at which a young woman with two fingers on each hand played the piano.

“There are so many people who have it worse than me,” Samuel says. “It’s taught me just to persevere through whatever difficulties I have.”

He and his family have also had to cope with other personal challenges. His older brother, Daniel, 21, was born autistic and deaf. Their younger sister, Joyce, died from an underdeveloped heart when she was eight months old.

“The fact that I’m the brother of an autistic person and a person with a bad heart has given me a perspective that not everyone is perfect and not everyone is created equal,” Samuel says. “And you have to live through it.”

That kind of mental toughness was challenged two-and-a-half years ago, when Samuel tried out for the JV basketball team at his high school.

The ninth-graders who didn’t know him didn’t take him seriously, recalls Juan Salgado, a friend of Samuel’s who was already on the JV squad and watched the try-outs. Samuel averaged four steals per 11-point scrimmage game. And he was always the first to get into a defensive position after his team scored.

“Samuel was the best player, the best shooter and one of the fastest players,” Salgado, 18, says. “On the defensive side, he was a little shaky. But when he was on offense, he’d play really well.”

Samuel was eventually cut from the team because his grades were too low. But he won the respect of many who tried out with him, says Salgado.

* * *

Societal attitudes toward dwarfs seem to be gradually improving, according to Samuel and Kawasaki.

Media images are also changing and showing little people in three-dimensional, humanizing roles. Chang-Hwan and Hannah say they have enjoyed watching The Little Couple, a reality show on TLC which chronicles the lives of Houston little couple, Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein, CEO of a sales consulting company.

“Sometimes it seems that little people have limits,” Hannah says. “But that TV show has encouraged me a lot. I see that little people can do well.”

Still, the most famous dwarf in popular culture today, Peter Dinklage, who won a Golden Globe in January for his acting in the critically-acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones, told the New York Times, that dwarfs remain the butt of jokes. “It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice,” he said.

Kawasaki agrees. That’s why she continues to combat ignorance toward little people through her stand-up, as well as her blog (DianeKawasaki.com), podcasts (NoPantscast.com) and corporate speaking engagements.

“People think it’s OK to ridicule us because we’re funny-looking,” she says. “Just treat us as human beings. It’s not okay to make fun of us. We have families, we pay taxes, we’re all the same.”

Meanwhile, she is trying to live her life to the fullest. In addition to being a comedian, she also works as a production assistant for a TV show website. Kawasaki admits she’s having a more difficult time with her love life because of insecurities she feels about her stature. But, after dating a string of questionable, mostly average-height, men, she says she would rather be alone than in a bad relationship.

“In the grander scheme of things, if they can’t accept you for what you are, then that person isn’t meant to be your life partner,” she says.

“I came into this world in a certain kind of a way, but I don’t have to live just through that,” says Kawasaki.

Samuel is not limiting himself, either.

“I wish I could be an engineer/ doctor/businessman/actor, but you can’t [be all of those things at once], so I’m still thinking,” says the charismatic youth, who incidentally now enjoys a 3.7 GPA. “I want to be a role model because I think I’ve been given a task. It’s not like God has spoken to me, but I’d like to be a good dwarf.

“It’s like when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I was given dwarfism, so I’m making dwarfonade.”


This article was published in the July 2012 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the July 2012 KoreAm, click below.


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