KP: The president’s record speaks for itself. The Asian-American, Pacific Islander community is widely diverse — 60-plus subgroups and languages of origin. You’ve got economic diversity: Indian Americans who came in the post-’65 immigration wave … might be very well off, some of our highest-earning groups. Juxtapose that with Hmong Americans or Cambodian Americans, who have been struggling. They’ve come as refugees in the ’80s, and it’s very different.
One of the things the president did was set up the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which has a community as well as a federal-agency component so that it could bridge the gap between all the services that were falling through the cracks for these communities.
About a third of the fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are Vietnamese American, so after the BP oil spill, they were being handed documents by BP in English that they couldn’t understand, and essentially being told that they had to “sign this.” We were able to deploy folks to go down there to help translate, to mediate some of these conflicts in some underserved communities. Their livelihood might have been destroyed, not just by the spill but by these corporate interests.
TR: And your parents are … ?
KP: … Obama supporters. That makes dinnertime conversation a lot easier.
TR: You’ve gone back and forth between acting and public service. Why did you choose that path?
KP: [When I joined] the campaign in 2007… I was supposed to be in Iowa for about three days on a volunteer-surrogate swing and ended up staying for three months. I had friends in Iraq; I had friends who were discharged because of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”; I had a buddy in college who had to decide whether he was going to get eyeglasses to see the board or buy textbooks that semester. He didn’t have health care and he didn’t have enough financial aid, so he had to choose between the two.
In the White House you have hundreds of people who have taken a leave from their private-sector careers. They were doctors or professors or law partners or whatever it was, and they’re all working there for next to nothing for one or two or four or hopefully eight years. It was really inspiring to be around those folks. I know that there is some undue attention because I am an actor, but that’s not an uncommon story at all.
TR: While working in the White House, you used your given name, “Kalpen Suresh Modi,” but you use “Kal Penn” as a stage name. Why?
KP: When I started acting, talking to agents and folks, I [heard that] something like just over 50 percent of actors have stage names or screen names, so I adopted one and it seemed to work out. When I worked at the White House, because of all the background and security checks, you’ve got to go by your birth name, the name on your passport. All my friends have always called me Kal since I was little.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post’s “She the People” blog, The Root, Fox News Charlotte and Creative Loafing, and has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.