Back in the early 2000s, SuChin Pak had what seemed like the most coveted job. She was an on-air journalist for MTV, a network that practically every young person was glued to and worshiped. She got to interview A-list stars like Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani. She also had the talent to deliver harder news whenever the moment called for it, like during the presidential elections.
On TV, she seemed cool, confident and genuinely happy. And amid a sea of white, mostly male faces across the network, it was refreshing to finally see a woman of color. But, as she proves in the introduction of “My Life: Growing Up Asian in America,” a book of personal essays by prominent Asian Americans, you really never know what’s going on in someone else’s life.
“No, especially in front of a camera,” she told me with a smile.
That’s why it was so arresting to read her write so vulnerably about some of the racist experiences she had at the channel — cameramen who advised her to “open my eyes” more, a colleague who said that she looked like a “me sucky sucky love you long time whore.” The fetishization of Asian women, rampant microaggressions and other forms of unfair treatment were the norm there.
Pak writes in the book: “Like most Asian American women, I had a lot of training to appear less Asian and more white.” It’s with this understanding that she delves more deeply into her experiences growing up as a first-generation Korean American who was taught to make herself smaller in the face of racism and whose “aunties” would praise how beautiful her fair skin was. Eventually, she experimented with tape to fold her eyelids into a rounder shape.
This all resulted in a perpetual state of fear, then rage, and ultimately, disgust at the version of herself that she became in order “to fit into a society dominated by white supremacy,” she writes.
But it’s Pak’s silence about these demoralizing truths that ultimately filled her with the most outrage. “Does that make me a coward?” she pondered in retrospect during our conversation.
It’s that question that also spurred a reflection on her broader experiences, the oppressive isolation she felt and the empowering release of detailing her story in “My Life.” Here, the mother and podcaster talks about the process of unlearning, redefining cowardice and what she’s gained from the #StopAsianHate and #BlackLivesMatter movements.
You wrote that in all your years in the media, you’ve never heard so many Asian American people speak out against anti-Asian violence and voice their fears as much as last year. Why do you think there has been such silence?
I mean, I would think that maybe if you talk to someone that was involved in the civil rights movement, they may have different opinions. But that just wasn’t the generation that I grew up in. I think that the silence comes from probably a lot of different reasons. I would say one is probably a bit cultural … And these are sweeping generalizations — as you know, the diaspora is so vast and from so many different languages and cultures.
But I think there is the feeling that when our parents’ generation or our grandparents’ generation came, their place here was tenuous, that we were foreigners in a foreign land, and how we survived is to comply, to fade into the shadows and do the best we could in silence.
So, I think that there is a lot of that survival mentality with even first-generation Americans like myself. I always say, I think with the Asian American experience, there are other communities of color where it feels like there’s over-visibility in the sense that it’s the only story you hear and you hear it all the time.
You get that type of societal trauma, and then you get the type on the other [end of the] spectrum of just complete invisibility, where you never see yourself. You don’t see versions of yourself, you don’t see versions of yourself angry, you don’t see versions of yourself upset, you don’t see versions of yourself in positions of power. It is a complete lack of visibility.
So I think that that creates a sense that you don’t really exist. It is a ghostlike feeling where you’re observing things, but you’re not really part of things. And I think that, even as I have very little grasp of the Korean language, as American as I am — having worked on MTV, center of youth pop culture — when people see me, most people will assume that I am foreign.
I catch myself sometimes when I’m with my mom. Like, nowadays in a grocery store or someplace where I feel a bit uncomfortable, speaking my English very loudly and very correctly just to make sure everyone knows I am American: I don’t know what’s happening here. The vibe is weird, but I just want to let you know that I’m American. I say it’s like a silence by 1,000 cuts… That analogy does not work, but you know what I mean?
It’s the habitual internalizing that really breaks you down, I’d imagine.
It’s the constant, it’s the small, it’s the microaggression. And I think this is the first time that we’ve seen the type of violence that other communities of color have experienced for decades in the public eye for the first time. And so I think that that silence is something that is changing.
At the book’s virtual 92NY event earlier this month, you recalled when you were talking to your mom about anti-Asian violence and her advice was something like, “Be nicer.”
Yeah. Well, it’s really interesting because I said that, and there was someone on the panel who was like, “Oh my God, that is so sweet.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, it is.” When [my mom] said that to me, the first thing I felt was just rage. You just black out. You’re so protective of this viewpoint, this person that’s so vulnerable. And I was like, “No, that’s not the answer, to be nicer.”
We’re done with being nice. But that’s my mom’s generation, and that’s how she survived, and that has to be honored and has to have a place in our history and in our identity. But it can’t be the only thing. I mean, any immigrant child will tell you — it doesn’t matter if they’re Asian or not. Going into a utility office and trying to explain a late fee or into a bank for your mom or dad when you were 6 or 7, trying to understand as some person looks at you with whatever disdain, dismissal or outright hatred. You experience that as a kid: that the world is really scary, that your parents can’t do anything to protect you, that they themselves need protection.
So, that changes the way you move in the world. I think that for my mother, it was to just keep your head down and be nice and don’t fight back, don’t provoke. But that’s not what this generation is anymore. I think we’re past that.
It’s heartbreaking, too. I’ve said this on the podcast and when [the mass shooting] happened in Atlanta, that our parents and our grandparents are elderly, the most vulnerable in our community. [They] move through the world trying not to make any footprint, trying to move so small and be as tiny as they can be, leave as little behind as they can.
And here we are. It’s crazy to me; the very folks who are like, “No, no, don’t notice me. Pretend I’m not here,” are suddenly the targets. And yeah, it makes sense. I mean, it is really easy to attack people that aren’t going to fight back. I think that that’s the perception of a lot of us in the Asian American community.
I can see how it could be generational. But you also wrote about making yourself smaller, going “numb” or trying to overperform as a way to respond to the racism at MTV. Do you recognize that as something you picked up from your mom and her generation?
Yeah. Well, just recently I learned about, when we’re in survival mode, we all know about fight or flight. But the other F that I didn’t know was fawn. And I thought that was such an interesting concept. One of the reactions to your very being being threatened is to fawn over the perpetrator in hopes that you survive the moment. And I think as women, we understand that. As people of color, we understand that. As young people, we understand that.
That’s the place that I was. I mean, 25, never lived in New York City — young, female person of color. So how I survived was not by fight. Lots of flight, which is just what we do. We ignore, we leave the room, psychically, stay in bed for a long time.
And then the fawn, which is what I did because I had to perform. So for me, that was a skill that I really leaned heavily on. And it’s a big part of what I do. That serves me well. But there’s the other part of it, which is you do it when there’s an uncomfortable joke made or when someone dismisses you or humiliates you in public. You can, in that moment, choose a lot of ways. And often, I chose to make the other person feel comfortable so that the moment would pass and I would just get through it.
Then I could go home and cry and be humiliated in private, not in public. Thinking about that now in the light of how I feel and what I know and how different I am, but also the same, right? I think about, OK, so if so many people relate to that experience, and certainly that is my experience, then does that make me a coward? Where do I sit in this conversation where we’re so enraged and we want change and things aren’t happening fast enough?
So, I had to redefine the definition of courage for myself. Because that just didn’t feel correct, to think of myself back then as a coward and to think of myself now when I don’t speak up as a coward.
I mean, there is a lot of internalization and fear that is wrapped up in the idea that you could overperform racism without actually confronting white supremacy. But I think telling your story in this book is the very opposite of cowardice.
Yeah. I mean, I have to say it began with the podcast that we launched. I didn’t know that that experience was going to be so personal and vulnerable. I really thought we were doing a podcast about shopping. That’s what I wanted to do and I had hoped to do, but it has taken lots of pivots and turns. So I think that experience has been extremely uncomfortable.
But at the same time, I’m finding myself in a way that I’ve never found myself in the traditional television medium. So having that experience [in] the last two years I think gave me the courage. I don’t think I would’ve written that introduction in the way that I had, had not the last two or three years, I think, happened.
If they had come to me before, I think I would’ve written a totally different version. But it was what I was feeling at the moment last summer as I was feeling scared and crying all the time. And then also being so, so angry all the time.
So, I was like, What is this? This does not feel like cowardice. I don’t know what this is, but this feels like something powerful. And then all the memories and stuff.
You were a teen journalist before MTV, where you got to cover major celebrity events as well as political news that mattered to young people. But you were the only woman there, who was also of color. Did you have anyone that you could confide in or an ally?
I mean, yes. Even the word “allies” — you can’t even use that for that back then. That’s a new word. The vocabulary that we’re using today is not the vocabulary that we had back then. We didn’t have Me Too. We didn’t have Black Lives Matter, we didn’t have the vocabulary. So, for me, it was like, Did I have friends? Yes. Sway [Calloway] was from the Bay Area. He was the one I had grown up listening to on the radio. So, he was my guiding light there. We both, especially him, knew exactly what was going on at all times — all the subtext and all of the bullshit.
So, just to have him there and know that I could look across the room and roll my eyes and he’s like, “Yeah, this is insane.” I think that that was an incredible stroke of luck. But, like you said, in a male-dominated, white-dominated [space], you find the folks that work behind the scenes — the stage managers, my makeup artist, the wardrobe team. All of those people can generally be women. Because they’re probably not “positions of power” in the way that we traditionally see them.
So, I always had friends and a real connection to the people that I worked with, to a certain degree. But I also knew that was work. I was never one of those folks that felt like it was my life. MTV is a place where a lot of people, you call them “lifers,” start out in their first job as an intern and they are running a network.
There’s something great about just always never graduating college. It is a really fun environment for a young person. But for me, I just always knew that this was going to be a stop somewhere, but not my only place, so to speak.
I was actually surprised to learn that this was published by MTV Books, because it’s not a particularly flattering portrait of them. What went behind that decision? Was there any hesitation?
No hesitation whatsoever. I mean, I still have a fantastic relationship with MTV. I’m doing the voiceover for “[MTV] Cribs” again. I mean, it’s so bizarre. It’s like time is moving in a circle. The folks at MTV that are in charge of making decisions [are] a whole new regime. It’s a whole new place. I think the editor who is in charge of MTV Books, Christian Trimmer, is also an AAPI.
Yes, there is the corporate culture, but it’s the experiences of individuals that really make up the tenor of what your experience is like. I always said that I may not love this institution, but I really love working with the people that I’m working with. That does make a difference. So, I think you can find your people and your spots, and you can align yourself very consciously in that way.
I think I’ve been able to do that. I think that those in power at MTV also find that alignment with myself. I don’t think I would’ve got the call if the person who’s in charge of MTV now and I didn’t have a great relationship, and now I have this great relationship with the editor. That wasn’t always the case with me.
As things change, you hope that the person making those decisions is listening to what the employees want or what the audience wants. I think my experience with MTV will always be complex. There’s no like, “This happened and so I will never,” or “This happened and so I will always.” It just isn’t that straightforward, and I think that that’s the [same with] our relationship with our work, our relationship with our communities, our relationship with ourselves.
It felt like the right place. I also think because the audience is so young, it forces you to look at the world on the outer edges. Meaning you have to push it a little bit farther than the mainstream conversation or you lose your audience. It’s just like a business. That was amazing about it.
People are always like, “Did you always feel like you were never heard?” It was like, yes and no, because yeah, I wanted to do more. But we were doing way more than any traditional news outlet. When I would cover the presidential elections, I was looking for young, diverse faces in the audience to interview and be like, “What are you feeling? Why are you here? What is it about this candidate?”
So I think MTV has always had the permission from its audience, but really just the demand from its audience to be more diverse, more young, more provocative.
Yeah, though it often feels like even though the young audience is constantly evolving, the people who are creating the content for them are not. It doesn’t always mean that the inside is changing. So, it’s good to hear you say that MTV does have a new regime.
At the 92Y event, Trung Le Nguyen said that in 2020, he felt compelled to align in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the year before the anti-Asian violence in 2021. What was your experience processing those two movements?
I mean, I can’t speak obviously for everyone, but I agree with Trung. There is an essay [in the book] by Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence titled, “On Being Black and Asian in America.” There are stories in here that are beautifully nostalgic and then there are stories like this where you’re like, “Oh no, this is May 26, 2022, 10:00 a.m. This is now. This is happening at the moment that we’re speaking.”
Being 46 and from the generation that I grew up in, I would not have the awareness, the language, the visceral reaction had I not seen what had happened with Black lives in the last two or three years. For me, the connection was so clear. I had never understood white supremacy as clearly as I saw in the last two years, ever. The white supremacy conversation, the Asian proximity to whiteness — those are new sentences. My tongue is still getting used to those words.
I think that when we talk about allyship and all of that, that’s really important. But to me, it’s also the same. We can talk about our different experiences, absolutely. But under this umbrella of — what are we talking about? White supremacy. We’re all here. We have different experiences, but this is the experience of being a person of color in a culture where white supremacy in the last few years has been honored, celebrated and supported by people of power in ways that I have never seen so publicly.
I think Trung said, “That awareness is new to me.” I read Kimiko’s piece, and she even says, “I’ve never gotten a call to speak about my Asian experience.” Every sentence that she writes, I’m like, “This is new programming.” I don’t even understand how this was not so clear to me. But at the same time, I don’t think that this book would’ve been written in the way that it was had the last two years not happened.
I don’t think there would’ve been an audience for it. I don’t think there would’ve been a language for it. If Kimiko had written this a few years ago, I’d be like, “Wow, this is crazy. It’s not my experience but wow, this is really good for me intellectually.” Let me bookmark but not feel it, not sit in it and not understand it in a way that I’m just beginning to understand.
The next phase, to me, of this conversation isn’t about Asian American identity. It is about how we form an identity under white supremacy in a way that’s powerful and meaningful. We all need this. We need the basic groundwork. So there’s a part of me that’s like, “This is for our community as well,” because I think we’re finding words for the very first time just within ourselves looking inward.
I think once that grounding has been established. It’s like, OK, how do we look out? And what does that now look like? How do we have conversations outside of our community, right?
[Conversations] that reflect what we’ve learned about ourselves and our compliance, but also our victimization. I think a lot of times, the silence that you talked about in the very beginning of our conversation. I think Ellen K. Pao, who’s the ex-CEO of Reddit, also wrote a really powerful essay. Her theme is, meritocracy is a sham that we’ve all bought into, and it’s harming everyone. And that I’m no longer going to carry [it]. It’s systemic, right? Injustice as my own failing.
I think a lot of times, as people of color, as women, it’s like, well, maybe I did something wrong. If I try hard, if I work harder, if I get up earlier — all of that fake positivity that makes me gag — maybe then I’ll be a girl boss. It’s not all our fault. There’s nothing that you could have done. And that’s something I never really considered before.
That’s what I wanted to write about. Maybe if I would’ve spoken up, maybe if I would’ve pushed harder and pitched harder, maybe if I would’ve sat in more meetings that I could have gotten more done, I could have made more. I’m done carrying that around for somebody else. That’s not my problem to solve.