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Mary H.K. Choi is an inspiration for Asian-American Creatives

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Jul. 30 2019, Updated 9:13 p.m. ET

Mary H.K. Choi is a Korean-American author and journalist that has lived in Hong Kong, Texas, New York, and Los Angeles. She is paving the way for Asian-American women trying to make it in the creative industry. She was the culture correspondent on Vice News Tonight on HBO and has previously written columns for Wired and Allure magazines. Not only that, she is also a writer for The New York Times, GQ, Wired, and The Atlantic. She’s also written numerous comics, namely Marvel‘s Lady Deadpool #1 and Shanna the She-Devil.

With a resume like that, it’s only natural that we over here at Bombshell by Bleu HQ wanted to chat with Mary H.K. Choi and pick her brain about a variety of things. Starting with her youth, we asked her about her younger self’s expectations and what she would think of her success now. Like anyone else in college, she had unrealistic expectations of what success meant for an adult woman. Young Her used to think that at her age now, she’d own a condo, have expensive art on the walls, and sport some highfalutin perpetual Swiss timepiece with all the complications on my wrist.” Highly relatable. But to much of our relief, she spoke to us of a very important revelation of hers:

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“[College me] would be stunned by how successful I am in certain regards and stunted in others… It would never occur to me that you could be a New York Times bestselling author without having your standard of living be affected that much. I thought it meant instant riches and prizes and I can tell you this is not the case. It also doesn’t mean you’re excused from anxiety, impostor syndrome, or terror around making new work.”

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“[College me] would be stunned by how successful I am in certain regards and stunted in others… It would never occur to me that you could be a New York Times bestselling author without having your standard of living be affected that much. I thought it meant instant riches and prizes and I can tell you this is not the case. It also doesn’t mean you’re excused from anxiety, impostor syndrome, or terror around making new work.”

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Still, she does think that Young Her would be blown away by the risks she’s taken to get to where she is now. Since college, Mary has held and quit a lot of jobs, including ones in retail and restaurants – and she’s proud of that. She believes that people with a service industry background tend to have an incredible pain threshold with a high-level of respect for streamlined processes.

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“Show me someone who has worked fast fashion or high-end retail at Christmas and I will show you someone with an unwavering poker face and the ability to crisis manage on granular levels in record time.”

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“Show me someone who has worked fast fashion or high-end retail at Christmas and I will show you someone with an unwavering poker face and the ability to crisis manage on granular levels in record time.”

And we’re all for it. It actually makes a lot of sense, especially after she told Bombshell about the weird sh*t she’d done in college in order to make ends meet. She did three rounds of medical testing for money, and two of which was that she had to get her wisdom teeth pulled as various painkillers and sleeping aids were tested. To this day, she’s still not big of banana pudding because that was what they gave her to eat during those trials.

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“It was harrowing but I think I used that money for a trip to Australia.”

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“It was harrowing but I think I used that money for a trip to Australia.”

Okay, let’s move onto less scary and more motivational things. Mary’s first job when she moved to New York was as an editorial intern at Mass Appeal magazine in Brooklyn, where she eventually worked her way up to become an editor. Then, she worked at XXL and Hip Hop Soul before founding Missbehave, a Brooklyn-based alternative magazine for young women where she was also the editor-in-chief. And after that, her creative career officially thrived as she freelanced for a bunch of magazines, wrote comics for Marvel and DC, copyedited car magazines, copy-wrote for shoe ads, and even was on camera for red carpet reports at MTV. What a glo-up, right!?

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“It’s been a great privilege to be trusted by so many media organizations at various points in my life… I’ve done live news, award shows, field reporting for Vice News on HBO, but I can also do payroll for small businesses and deal with subscription drama. I’ve never been the type to stay in one institution or work long enough to have my shares vest and finding acceptance around that has been great for me. There are times when I feel like a colossal failure as a woman of color, that I have no ambitions of being a boss.”

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“It’s been a great privilege to be trusted by so many media organizations at various points in my life… I’ve done live news, award shows, field reporting for Vice News on HBO, but I can also do payroll for small businesses and deal with subscription drama. I’ve never been the type to stay in one institution or work long enough to have my shares vest and finding acceptance around that has been great for me. There are times when I feel like a colossal failure as a woman of color, that I have no ambitions of being a boss.”

Fortunately, she is fully aware of the fact that she is more of a solo assassin typeand that’s okay as long as I am reliable, communicative with colleagues, and stay curious about learning. On the other hand, every once in a while she would take a corporate job and hold it down for a year so that she could underwrite her more experimental freelance career.

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“I can’t live paycheck to paycheck. Again, that’s a privilege afforded me by all the people I know and the support I get and where I’m at in my career, but it’s also highly strategic. If I’m going to get wavy in my writing I need a decently feathered nest.”

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“I can’t live paycheck to paycheck. Again, that’s a privilege afforded me by all the people I know and the support I get and where I’m at in my career, but it’s also highly strategic. If I’m going to get wavy in my writing I need a decently feathered nest.”

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Yas girl. The level of consciousness here is the key to success as well as self-fulfillment, we believe. But Mary is only human, and she doesn’t always just know. At earlier points in her life, she revealed to us that she didn’t have enough faith in her work and inner fortitude to trust that her books would find their audience. For her, it’s taken a lot of therapy, 12-step work around various addictions, and a ton of reconciliation around what she actually wanted and what she thought she should want. During our conversation, she paraphrased Ira Glass about how when creatives are starting out, their output will never be as good as their tastes. It’s only normal, and it is a very universal phenomenon, but it can be extremely discouraging.

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“My best advice about writing is to acknowledge that writing honestly (which is the only writing worth doing in my estimation) is humiliating the whole time… The trick is to not stop. Never stop. Don’t stop until you get good.”

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“My best advice about writing is to acknowledge that writing honestly (which is the only writing worth doing in my estimation) is humiliating the whole time… The trick is to not stop. Never stop. Don’t stop until you get good.”

Back in 2014, she said that the fashion world didn’t feel like anything other than just high school cafeteria politics, but her view has changed since. To her, some might glamorize and romanticize those circles that feel completely inaccessible, but once they made it in the elite crowd, they can become so uncomfortable and filled with paranoia, that they eventually radiate hostility and resentment. But there’s this bell curve or arc that she’s discovered –

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“There’s a switch. You realize that the true fashion heads, the ones who have been covering the business and the artform for ages and ages tend to wear the same things from a handful of designers who they’re genuinely friends with. That’s when you realize it’s the same nerds. And I mean that so adoringly. If you truly look – if your eyes aren’t flitting to see who’s there and who’s not or whatever – you realize fashion is less high school cafeteria politics and more a bunch of LARP dorks at Comic Con… Also, I’m old. I don’t care anymore. I search for f-cks at this point.”

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“There’s a switch. You realize that the true fashion heads, the ones who have been covering the business and the artform for ages and ages tend to wear the same things from a handful of designers who they’re genuinely friends with. That’s when you realize it’s the same nerds. And I mean that so adoringly. If you truly look – if your eyes aren’t flitting to see who’s there and who’s not or whatever – you realize fashion is less high school cafeteria politics and more a bunch of LARP dorks at Comic Con… Also, I’m old. I don’t care anymore. I search for f-cks at this point.”

What a journey. As for her cultural identity, let’s get a little political here about her upbringing – her “Act One” in Hong Kong – where she immigrated to from South Korea before her first birthday. She told Bombshell that she was a nightmare” in Hong Kong and that she was so f-cked up by the colonialism of British rule and going to an ESL school while being an Asian expat from Korea back when Korea was really different.” But at the end of day –

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“I love Hong Kong. I will always be grateful to having access to public transportation at such a young age and being so independent in a fish bowl when it comes to crime statistics and I’m so proud of all the protests going on in Hong Kong about Chinese extradition laws. Especially when people tend to think of Hong Kong as being a shopping haven or a restaurant paradise but little else. I love that Hong Kong is becoming so much more.”

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“I love Hong Kong. I will always be grateful to having access to public transportation at such a young age and being so independent in a fish bowl when it comes to crime statistics and I’m so proud of all the protests going on in Hong Kong about Chinese extradition laws. Especially when people tend to think of Hong Kong as being a shopping haven or a restaurant paradise but little else. I love that Hong Kong is becoming so much more.”

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Just before Mary turned 14, she moved to Texas and resided there until she graduated. Then she moved to New York in 2002. We can’t help but wonder if she’s ever felt underrepresented or marginalized in the media as an Asian-American person – and to that, she said, this sounds reductive but there is a pre and post Crazy Rich Asians world as far as the Asian-American experience goes. She cites Awkwafina, Greta Lee, Sandra Oh, Bowen Yang, Joel Kim Booster, Hasan Minhaj, and Jenny Han as the Americans in the media that really excite her in terms of Asian representation. However, she still has a pervasive fear that “they” can just take it all away. What she truly worries about is that, as long as Asian art and media is still being touted and defined by its Asianness, there is a definite aspect to it that could feel like a trend. And trends die. This is why she’s so pumped about Jenny Han‘s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy —

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“While even Asian-American identity is hardly a monolith, I do think it’s important to make the distinction that the Asian-American experience as a part of the larger diaspora is its own thing. So yeah, I do feel underrepresented but I think our powers are growing and we’re finding deeply nuanced and tonally subversive ways to tell diverse stories without it solely being contextualized by race.”

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“While even Asian-American identity is hardly a monolith, I do think it’s important to make the distinction that the Asian-American experience as a part of the larger diaspora is its own thing. So yeah, I do feel underrepresented but I think our powers are growing and we’re finding deeply nuanced and tonally subversive ways to tell diverse stories without it solely being contextualized by race.”

Mary H.K. Choi‘s 2018 debut Emergency Contact is the smart and funny New York Times bestselling novel that vividly realizes Korean-American culture and explores microaggressions on a sharply recognizable level…weaving these experiences into a narrative rife with witty banter and steamy romantic chemistry,” as David Canfield reviewed for Entertainment Weekly. She also has a new book coming out titled Permanent Record, which comes out in September but you can read an excerpt here and pre-order it here.

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