This echoes the idea of Ahn carrying this image with him, one of the nice, quiet, nerdy Asian kid. The image conjures comments like Vesko Varbanov’s on his “I Dreamed A Dream” cover:
“OMG I have a total crush on Jun Sung... he’s so sweeeet and so talented. AWESOME!!!” - Vesko Varbanov
Or this one from Meaghanne Mack on his rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”:
“Anyone else get the feels when he looks straight at the camera? Like he is sharing his emotions with us through the screen??” - Meaghanne Mack
This is the image that Jun Sung Ahn carries with him. This is the image that he’s trying to replace.
“I’m 10 times weirder than [people on YouTube] think I am,” he says. “There’s an expression in Korean, ‘You’re craziness.’ I’m just craziness.”
Ahn lists his fandoms as evidence of his craziness.
“I’m a huge [Lord of the Rings] fan. That’s the number-one movie in my life,” Ahn says. “I love Pillow Pets—have a crap ton of them at my house. I don’t know, I’m just weird.”
But that’s not all that troubles Jun Sung Ahn. Beyond his self-prescribed weirdness, the YouTube star claims that, well, he’s sort of awkward.
“Actually, though,” he says. “An awkward, sometimes nerdy, Korean Asian kid who can play the violin pretty well.”
He recalls an instance from one of his classes just a week earlier. “In my econ class last week, someone came up to me and asked me for a signature, and asked me for a picture, but that was pretty awkward,” he says. “That was in front of all my friends, and they were just laughing.”
Ahn’s world is one of constant recognition and catching up. Most encounters he has with peers put him at a disadvantage: He doesn’t know much about them, but they know a ton about him. He has to gain ground, reach that same level of familiarity and pull himself up to that social plane. The Northwestern RTVF community posed itself as a particularly challenging environment.
“Now, I look back. I look at my senior class. I know everyone – kind of – but I’m definitely not in the ‘in group’ with the film majors, when I wish I was,” Ahn says. “I’m either doing school, dancing or YouTube, and film didn’t have a place in there. It’s just so time-consuming. You decide to do one set and it’s two weekends out of your quarter.” He hesitates. “I know if I had spent more time with them I would’ve definitely learned a lot.”
Perhaps the situation was almost unfair to Ahn. When he came to Northwestern from New Jersey, his environment was one of extreme novelty. He wasn’t used to being independent. He wasn’t used to doing things alone.
“Coming here, I was just thrown,” he says. “At home, I think I depended on my family quite a lot. I think it’s just my personality. I didn’t know what to do. I had to struggle through everything on my own. Even film, I didn’t have time to build that community, so even going through my major it was kind of a struggle. I went to classes, I kind of knew people there, but I couldn’t really feel comfortable in that home, so I just had to crawl through everything.”
At this point, it seems natural to recall how he stopped this interview, how he confessed that he’s struggling, how he says he’s bad with people.
This comment hangs briefly. But then something in Ahn’s face seems to shift. He reconsiders. He speaks again.
“But, freshman year, if this happened, I probably would’ve said about one-fourth of what I said today .... I think even though I wasn’t at the status I am right now, I think it got to my head a little more back then. I wasn’t being openly arrogant about something, but I would definitely watch what I say. I would be more careful – not myself – which is why I think it made it a little harder for me to really open up and have people get to know me.”
The truth is, Ahn feels like most of his encounters at Northwestern involved himself having to reach through a screen. That was challenging for him, but it also indicates a lack of effort from the other side. Most of his audience just holds him at arm’s length, but reaching who this man is requires delving past the glossy, silver-screened surface. For those who do, a different person emerges.
“When I first started working with him, he wasn’t too big, as he is now,” said Kim. “I feel like I’ve worked with him for so long that I don’t have the conceptions that most people have of him.”
Even Ahn notices when people treat him differently, when people treat him, well, normally.
“My friends back home, they love making fun of my YouTube channel,” he says. “On some of my videos, if you look closely, there’s usually a stream of comments at one point where it’s all my high school friends just saying crap about me.” He laughs.
Now, as a senior, the man who says he had to “crawl through everything” can look back and take it all in, from the very first video the summer before his freshman year, all the way to filming his “Shake It Off” cover with a range of NU student groups. Ahn sees that shy, uncomfortable person he was, and he considers his arc. He recalls something his parents told him when he was just a kid.
“You have to leave an impact, right? My parents always stressed this, that once I graduate, I can’t just be another person who graduated. They said that to me when I was pretty young,” he says. “That really hit me. That was my biggest stress and paranoia when I came to college was, ‘How am I going to leave my impact here?’ I just always want to know: Did I do a good job? Did I leave an impact? Did I leave a footprint at Northwestern? I don’t know. That’s just a theoretical question.”
There’s silence for a while.
“Do you know how you would answer it?” I ask.
“No. That’s the thing. That’s a question I just want to throw out there. I always ask myself that, and I don’t know if I did or not.”
Another stretch of silence. Ahn looks down and away.
“What would be your ideal answer?”
Jun Sung Ahn looks up again. This time, his gaze holds firm. This time, he speaks with confidence.
“I did enough. That would be my best answer, the answer I want to give.”