Editor-at-large for MTV Style and a contributing editor for Allure, Mary H.K. Choi likes to call herself a “ruthless assimilation ninja.” She originally hails from Korea but has spent much of her life in British Hong Kong, Texas, and New York, and speaks four languages (not including a well-refined southern accent).
Mary got her start in magazines as an editor at Mass Appeal. She moved on to XXL magazine and Hip Hop Soul, and then landed her dream job, editing the Brooklyn-based alternative young women’s magazine Missbehave, which folded in 2009. Mary H.K. has written for the New York Times, The Awl, and the Atlantic, among many other publications, covering topics ranging from Rihanna’s 777 Plane Tour and Soul Cycling to the difficulties of growing up as an expat in Hong Kong. Her writing often speaks unabashedly and unapologetically about her life, her family, and current events with a kind of witty cynicism that spares little, yet proves hard not to like. Here, Das Racist’s Ashok Kondabolu delves head-first into a flurry of questions with Mary at Kinfolk—a two-storied cafe/restaurant/lounge in Brooklyn. What ensues is a conversation about chapstick and racism, fashion and family. You have been duly warned. Since the time of this interview, Mary has gone and moved to Los Angeles.
Ashok Kondabolu: We’re sitting here in Kinfolk. Kitty-cornered or catty-cornered from the très chic Wythe Hotel.
Mary H.K. Choi: Kitty-cornered. I have no idea. That’s one of those, like, this-is-not-my-native-tongue terms.
Right, Right. I only heard that for the first time like, five years ago. Ok. Uh—Do you use chapstick? It’s very cold.
What kind—Burt’s Bees?
No. I use that really annoying one that comes in like a little ball.
The round ball? I use the same one.
Because it’s easy to find. And for no reason whatsoever, I feel like you can’t get addicted to it. I wear lipstick. I think that if you wear lipstick, you need like a base layer.
You put it over the lipstick.
Under, and then lipstick over the top.
So what do you do? You put on the chapstick, and…
I wait a while
Is this what people who wear chapstick and lipstick do? For the most part?
I don’t know actually. I haven’t really asked. But you know that… did you ever read that Onion headline, “Girlfriend ODs on Lotion”?
No, that’s mad funny.
But it’s kinda like that, it’s like when I’m doing my emollient situation, I just do it all, and then I wait. Whilst I’m drying. And then I’ll put the lipstick on once it’s dried a bit.
Alright. So where do you work?
I work anywhere. It’s like doing your kegel exercises.
Which you’re doing right now.
I’m doing right now… and also no. I don’t go to an office. I’m not good at that.
What about it?
I can’t tolerate the commute. I can’t tolerate the fact that people think it’s well within their rights to talk to you all the time. And I don’t do meetings very well. I feel like every meeting can be done in five minutes if everyone weren’t 10 minutes late and bullshitting for half an hour. And I just can’t get down with that. I like Skype meetings because nobody’s really kinda just hanging out together. I only want intense, concise meetings.
You ever notice how when you hang up from one of those Skype meetings and that nine seconds afterwards you’re afraid that there still might be some sort of recording device on?
It’s like “The Lawnmower Man”. Is the portal still open?
And then you go, “Oh my god!”
Or you start breathing heavily. So like, I work for a number of different people though.
You’re a freelancer.
I’m a freelancer. I’m a contributing editor at Allure magazine, and so I worked there a little bit. And I also freelance for… just everyone, you know. I write for InStyle, Cosmo.
I have an InStyle with Salma Hayek on the cover from the 1990s that I used to… frequently consult. It was always around in some other room in my house for like nine years.
It’s amazing, I feel like that magazine is always around. Like someone always reads it like eight months after it comes out.
And Salma Hayek’s been on the cover for 23 years.
It’s kinda like how Gwen Stefani’s been on the cover of Elle for 22 years.
Is Fashion Week a heavy hitting week for you?
It has historically been heavier in its hitting-ness, but I think with the onset of technology it’s like I can’t be fucking bothered. I think that’s the professional term for it. Well, also, it’s not as native to my interests as it once was. It feels like Comic Con. I used to go to Comic Con a lot. I’d go to San Diego and it’d be really cool. You see all the fans. Everyone’s really into it. And you get to hang out. I feel like Fashion Week is like that in that it’s also basically cosplay and a lot of posturing and waiting around and stuff like that and I just I derive less pleasure from it as time moves on.
What was your first Fashion Week experience?
It wasn’t like Fashion Week in the sense of… “I went to fashion week” and I was wearing a trench coat and it was special and I was wearing pumps. I do remember one of my first fashiony experiences where I was a little geeked out by what was happening. I went to a shoe release that Heatherette was doing.
I have no idea what that is.
Heatherette were these New York club kids that started a clothing line and it was very sort of bright and candy coated. And a lot of the early stuff was literal glue gun. I wanna say it was like the American version of the lemon club kid scene. Richie Rich, who was one of the two guys (along with Traver Rains), was doing their shoe thing—it was on Lafayette and whatever. It was at Irregular Choice which I believe isn’t there anymore. You know where Triple Five Soul used to be?
So he left his own shoe release party and brought me to Marc Jacobs’s Christmas party, which was at the Rainbow Room. It was one of those things where I thought, “This is so intoxicating. I feel so special. I’ve never been seen like this before.” So we went to Marc Jacobs’s party and we partied with all those people at the Rainbow Room with the sort of gravitas surrounding Christmas time. So that was fun. And I was impressed by it. But I don’t think, since then, there’s been a lot of moments where I felt like it was anything other than just high school cafeteria politics.
So it devolved into every other experience. I’ve only been to friend’s fashion week showings, or whatever they’re called. What are they normally like? So you go to a thing, and you have some sort of assigned seat? And then you sit down and then they walk for 10 minutes?
You check in, and then they tell you where you’re sitting. What’s really nice now is that you can do that online a lot of the time and get your seat assignment in advance.
Like when you get a seat on an airline? Do they have a virtual representation?
No, a lot of the times they hand you a piece of colored paper with marker on it that tells you what it is. And then you go in. And then you’re always taken aback by how quickly it goes. You know a lot of the time it’s really fun to see who is there and who’s hobnobbing. Everyone’s obviously dressed to the nines. Some real peacocking shit. That part’s fun. But the actual show goes by very quickly. It always reminded me of herds of cattle. You’re herded into an area, you wait, you’re herded into another area, you wait, and then you see something very quickly and then you wait to get out. And then it’s over. I do think there’s a lot of merit if you’re a buyer or a stylist or if you need to see a certain thing behave versus a still image in the way it moves. I think that stuff is very important. Like online and in still pictures a lot of the colors are different. Or the weight of the fabric is a little misleading. But I’m not either of those things, so I don’t—
—you just go for the spectacle and for work.
I go to cover it and the vibe and the experience aspect of it, but unless I’m literally doing that I see no reason in my being there.
So you were born in Korea and moved to Hong Kong. Do you remember Hong Kong well? How long were you there?
I was there from when I was 11 months old, to the time of just before my 14th birthday, so I remember it very, very well.
That’s like, act one.
Yeah, totally. And the weird thing about act one is that, until you’re midway through act two you think that act one was going on for much longer. I very much identified with that part of my life for a lot longer than I was there for, in proportion with the rest of my life. I still don’t identify necessarily as an American and I’ve lived here for a very long time and I think it’s just because I was was somewhere else for those act one years. I think if I were to get married here and have a family maybe that would change, but there’s always going to be an impermanence to my feeling about America.
A just hanging out kinda thing?
Yeah…or more like a, I’m gonna see how this goes…but I’m like 34 years old.
Were there other Koreans in Hong Kong that you interacted with?
Yeah, there was one who was called my brother… No, my family was obviously there, but there was a larger Korean community and a sort of cabal with Korea insofar as how much they were in my life. There were the church Koreans and Korean school Koreans. I went to Korean school every Saturday. It was a fucking buzzkill. And then I’m Catholic, so I went to Sunday school as well.
And then you moved to Austin, Texas?
I moved to a suburb of San Antonio, Texas, and I went to a high school in—I’m actually writing something about this now so it’s very vivid—but there were 4,000 kids in my high school, which is this Texas thing. It was a 5A high school, which is the largest category. It’s like a football classification to talk about how big the population is vis-a-vis the size of your football conference. Basically 5A schools compete with other 5A schools. And I think it’s a given that you’re pulling from a larger pool of athletes, I guess. I have no idea. But it was the biggest high school you could have.
My high school had 3,200 people and I’ve literally never met anyone in America who went to a high school with more people than me.
Oh. 4,000 kids. Two campuses with buses that would shuttle you back and forth. It was really fun though. It was really easy to skip class.
Do you have any sort of cowboy racism you can use? I have an obviously terrible conception of Texas based on a couple of stereotypes.
I find there’s many, many types of racism. So you have shit like genteel racism, which is this very complicated sort of silk glove sly racism like, “So, I love your skin. You’ve got chinadoll skin,” and it’s coming from some leatherface white woman who’s genetically not as blessed as anyone with, you know, more rigorous melanin. They suffer a little bit in the face especially in the sun. So they have no qualms about touching me.
We have a hair touch-like situation.
Yeah, it’s hair touch-esque, except face. There’s something instinctively sort of predatory and cannibalistic, where they’re gonna use my hide for something.
Absolutely, a little absorb-y through the hand type thing.
I do also remember this woman who was 65… no like 75 years old, a little blue-haired grandma. The type that wears a leotard to the gym and you’re like ‘do you, grandma’ and it’s like whatever and…
Spunky. Totally spunky. I had little Reeboks. High-top Reeboks. I had headphones in. And I was stretching or doing something, and she said, “I really, really liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and I said “Thank you, we’re all very proud.”
I remember being on the bus in 7th grade, in Flushing of all places, taking the 17 bus and it was late and a few people were in the back but I was sitting in the front because I like sitting in the front of buses (which is not the cool thing to do ever). It was me and an old white woman who came on and she just sat there and was staring at me and—this didn’t happen very much but it happened more when I was younger because Queens had a lot more white people who are dead now who were very angry that I was there, especially when my parents were there—and she was like, “How do you like it in America? It’s good, right?” and I just remember being like, “Yeah, I love it.” But… that woman was being malicious.
My woman wasn’t being malicious. My woman is like, “Oh, my only frame of reference for your slanty pie face is that I’ve seen your kind.” And the thing is because she interrupted me, immediately my adrenaline was up and I was like “What’s happening?” And so she said something nice and… she’s dead, the onus of informing her as to the nuance of why she said what she said being a little bit racially insensitive wasn’t worth it. I don’t know this woman’s life. Maybe I was the sole interaction she’d had all day and I wasn’t just gonna shit down her throat about it. So there’s that.
Very old people should get a pass for non-malicious encroachment.
I don’t know. Racism is really weird in America. Racism in a colony that’s British where they actually said we are now your sovereign nation—it’s a lot more surface. The racism is just life.
And gates, and clubs and things like that.
There isn’t so much of that “OH!” It’s more just outwardly hostile, which is kind of sort of nice.
What year did you move to NY?
I moved to New York 11 years ago. So 2002, actually.
Where did you live?
I’ve lived on the Upper East Side, I’ve lived off of FDR, I’ve lived on Lafayette between Spring and Prince. I’ve lived in 13 apartments in New York. I’ve lived in Queens, I’ve lived everywhere in Brooklyn. But when I first moved here I lived on the Upper East Side. And I commuted to Red Hook.
Can you talk about how New York’s racism is really under the surface in a weird way?
It depends. I feel like NY1 racism is pretty surface. It’s sort of like, “You fucking Koreans and your fucking uncharming ways about money.” You know, that whole you pay first Korean shit. That’s like NY1 racism to me. But the other New York racism is different.
What do you mean?
I guess it’s like hipster racism versus just racism. Because I’m a little bit fine with just racism. As long as people aren’t getting shot for wearing hoodies.
Like I bumped into this Mexican man on the 7 train, so now I know everything about Mexicans.
[Laughs] It’s like old people racism versus young people racism. I’m always going to be madder about young people racism because its really class based.
I remember when I was younger we had, in terms of race models, Apu from The Simpsons, there was that guy from the Sprint commercial counting dimes, there was a guy on the Rice Krispies commercial—who I think might be the Fiber One guy which is a huge step up for that dude now that I think about it—and there was brown face Bishop Stevens. What Koreans were doing it for you when you came here, if you thought about it that way? I can’t imagine it’s too dissimilar.
I don’t think you got to have a Korean until Lost. Until then you had to imprint on Lucy Liu. Its like, there was no one for you. I guess Margaret Cho for sure. I mean like All-American Girl—she did have a show. She was friends with Quentin Tarantino, that was huge. She was always super pro gay rights—also huge.
She was hip. 90’s hip.
She was hip—remember when she enacted that Chanel commercial in her stand up? She zeitgeisted sufficiently so that I could have her.
So for the 19-year-old girl listening to this later—you started Missbehave magazine. That’s the thing you started.
Yes. I want to say that was 2007.
And what was involved, very briefly, in starting a magazine?
It is so funny to me that we started a magazine, because it was like starting a ‘zine. It’s like you just do it. And it never occurred to us that we couldn’t do it. So we just started it and then it existed. And it was always really awesome. Because we had no money, it was almost like having an outdoor flea market, and letting people come in and set up little shops.
We’d have a feature that was styled by someone, photographed by someone, and it would always come in to us, at least the first two or so issues, it would come to us sort of pre-existing as this thing that really fit our aesthetic that we loved and so we would run that. You know what I mean? So it was like a ‘zine within a ‘zine within a ‘zine. And the really nice thing about that is that we realized that we had a lot of really fucking dope friends who didn’t necessarily have an outlet that jived with what they wanted to do either. So it was like a meeting of like sentiments and aesthetics and being like, “Oh yeah I love that. Yeah, yeah we’ll do it,” and then it was just existing.
It was really hard. I worked a lot, and it was infinitely rewarding, and in a lot of ways for me it was the hardest thing to do. It’s like the girlfriend, like the love affair that grew into me. After that I’ve never been able to have a regular boss or a regular job. Because I built something out of nothing. And I started it from nothing and then it existed and then it died, you know? And so it’s this thing where it all feels like happenstance anyway. You can’t tell me that you deciding that this deadline, beyond like when I need to go to print, is the real thing. You know?
You’ve been the person telling you what to do.
No, not only is it that I’ve been the person telling people what to do, but it’s like everything feels really fake. Any boss telling me that something has to get done by a certain time, unless they show me how it relates to the calendar in a topical way where like past this date we don’t get any money, I literally can’t do anything you ask me to.
Because it’s arbitrary.
Because it’s like I don’t believe you. And that really informs how I am to work with. That’s garbage and no human being would ever put up with that.
Would you run that magazine if it was in print now?
It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. There’s no day where I haven’t gone, “Oh thats such a perfect Missbehave cover” or “Oh my God this would be a perfect story.” Or when I see something I’m like “Hahaha that’s so Missbehave”. That happens all the time. I will say though that I don’t know that I would ask people to go into battle with me without having money. It’s just, you can do that with interns, whatever, whatever, but psychologically it costs so much. It is heartbreaking. Doing an indie, it’s just always heartbreaking.
Would you consider doing that again at some point? If you could raise money. If it were Internet only or something? Would you still want to do it?
I wouldn’t, and this is what’s fucked up about it. I’m supposed to say, “Of course,” there is no hierarchy any more in terms of media, but I’m never going to get over—and this is the way in which I’m a dinosaur and I’m calcified and I’m going to die—the tactile sort of thing of like owning a collection.
I want to see someone reading it on public transportation, or I want to touch it or I want to lend it to someone, or I want it back. Like I love that. I just wouldn’t do it again knowing what I know now. Like there’s no fucking way this is going to fail.
Right. So what is H.K.?
Those are my middle initials. Its actually my Korean name, its Hyun Kyung. H-Y-U-N K-Y-U-N-G. And there’s a couple reasons why I started incorporating it. One is that I sort of like the acronym aspect of it, because everyone is like “Does that mean Hong Kong?”
Yeah thats pretty cool.
Yeah its cool, but also Mary Choi feels like it’s very Jane Smith. Mary is such a throwaway. It’s like a middle name for a white girl. The way that naming in my family goes is that—you know that the last name goes first, right? So my name is “Chwei” HyunKyung, which is like “Choi” HyunKyung. Everyone in my family on my father’s side has Hyun starting their name. And it means different things. And it’s written the same in Korean, but it’s written differently in Chinese, so there’s like different meanings to it. I started doing H.K. up after I left XXL magazine. I was Mary Choi up until XXL and then Mary H.K. after.