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‘I just have great big emo feelings for New York, including the people who live here.’
Gems in this
The observant and tender take on the world by New York Times best-selling author Mary H K Choi is, in part, thanks to her global upbringing. From Seoul to Hong Kong as a child, then Texas as a teen, Mary’s worldly journey then wound up in New York.
This hunger to explore the nuances of the human experience is what gives edge and authenticity to Mary’s work. Now, as a seasoned New Yorker, Mary continues to dip into the creative wealth of the storied city. This is the storied foundation from which Mary has penned multiple young adult books, including Yolk and Permanent Record, has created a popular podcasts series Hey, Cool Job! and Hey, Cool Life!, has written for the likes of WIRED, ELLE and The Atlantic, and pumped out a couple of DC and Marvel comics, to boot. We chat to Mary about her global outlook on the world, her love affair with New York and her insider Travel Gems to explore in the city.
On being a human in New York
If I were to choose the best collective noun to describe the people of New York, I think — and this is not based on the show — but I actually think it’s ‘friends’. I feel a profound sense of fealty to the people who also live here. Humans are also nightmares, but I think if you are a New York person, I will unfurl a little tendril and extend it in the name of just traveling this really weird road together. This is the spirit that a lot of my favorite photographers also have. Like New York Nico, or my friend Daniel Arnold who is a street photographer, or even Humans of New York. I really do hope there is always going to be a kind of mutuality and I really do hope that there is going to be this constant exchange of help. There’s finite resources here and I don't know how we would get through it otherwise. I just feel great big emo feelings for New York, including the people who live here.
On learning to belong in the busy metropolis
Everybody moves to New York with expectation and fear and so much baggage around imposter syndrome — especially as a creator. I love living here because I think that naked ambition, and the feeling of wanting to create a new kind of family and community, is really attractive. Because as an immigrant I do always fear abandonment and not being accepted, so there is something nice and seemingly powerful about going to a place where literally very few people belong, and that’s just normal and how it is. I think I live in New York very much by design, because there are parts of it that so strongly resemble Hong Kong to me. It feels familiar and very sweet and safe.
On the city as a canvas
A friend of mine, Kenzo Digital, just opened an enormous installation called ‘Air’ on the top of this building called One Vanderbilt. It’s connected to Grand Central and it is just the most panoramic, reassuring view of New York. It makes the Chrysler building with its deco topper look really small. It is such a top-down reminder of how lucky I am to live here. How impressive it is, and how romantic it is, and how the reason why there have been so many Meg Ryan movies about New York is because it’s amazing. It really is so awe-inspiring.
On what you love to do in New York
Everything I would now do in New York has become very people-centric, or just soaking in things that have become quintessentially New York. Like Times Square — to just stand there and look at it and feel the thrum of all that LED light. I’d go to Union Square and just sit there and look at a bunch of kids. Or Washington Square Park and look at all the NYU students brimming with that energy of feeling like they're on the precipice of becoming some version of themselves that they’ve been promised. Also, Grand Central station. To go and look at the ceiling and all the constellations and think: I get to live in one of the most romanticized places in the world and I’ve been doing it for 20 years and it hasn’t kicked me out yet. I feel such a sense of tremendous triumph and accomplishment that I’m still here.
On your first creative interaction with New York
I never wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know that it was available to me as something to ‘do’. Growing up I was never the one who joined yearbook or newspaper or liked writing essays — anytime there was an essay portion to homework, that’s the part I would procrastinate the most. I hated writing so much. But I was really into magazines, and there was one that was particularly instrumental in my life called Jane [edited by Claudine Ko, Stephanie Trong and Tina Chadha, among others]. It was always this very cool, intimate, straightforward older sister to me — or even better, someone else’s older sister — who took you all under her wing. And the fact that Jane had so many non-white, South and East Asian writers and editors really felt so informative. I do think that’s where representation and intersectionality really matters because the tone at the time was so lad-based everywhere else. In Jane, the writers wrote about themselves in the first person so it really was a different ball game. It was like a cool, Asian woman living in New York was talking to me. That was such a signal.
‘Everything I now do in New York has become very people-centric, or just soaking in things that have become quintessentially New York. Like Times Square — to just stand there and look at it and feel the thrum of all that LED light.’
My work went from this one modality of interfacing with so many different people and needing to infiltrate in order to get answers, to this very insular work of inventing homework for myself every day by deciding to make a little universe where all these people talk to each other through the channel of my brain space. I’m such an indoor cat so I thought this was clearly well suited to me — like a three-year period of writing books and actually managing to catch my tea at the right moment, because in that context you’re so close to the tea at all times. But as these long-held defense mechanisms fall away I am really experiencing how expansive and infinite the world is, and it’s terrifying, but it’s showing me that you can’t look at anything as a net. Everything that’s happening — even having your debut novel auctioned between big competing publishing houses and making the New York Times best seller list — it’s so big, but it doesn't happen in a vacuum. There's so much other stuff happening in your life.
On the influence of New York
In this I am realizing that the reason I do live in New York is that I need to look at people, and I need them to look at me. To lock eyes and have that frisson of ‘ah, human to human, we are human-ing’. Or the mutuality of ’we are on a train and we’re both confident it’s going to be at least 11 to 14 minutes late,’ and we’re just looking at each other and we know that we’re here and we’re stuck together. I need that so much. During the pandemic I missed seeing all the people. I missed going on mass transit. I missed overhearing people. I think this lends itself to this sort of uncomfortable intimacy that I really like. That we’re all choosing to be in it here together. I like that I once got a nosebleed on the subway and somebody just rolled their eyes at me and handed me their napkin that was wrapped around their coffee travel mug like it was nothing at all.
On how your upbringing inspires your craft
I speak English, Korean, some Cantonese because I lived in Hong Kong from the time I was one until I was 14, and then I speak the sort of French where you can ask about whether or not Marie is in the library, or whether Eve can come to the phone. It’s not even just a notion of having familiarity around language, I think it’s a very particular thing to my experience: that Korean is my mother tongue, it is what my mother speaks, it is my country of origin, was my first language, but it is the one that I do not now speak with nearly as much nuance and breadth and depth of understanding. So there is always going to be this scraping yearning for acceptance and intimacy with not only my family, but my country of origin and Korean people. Which may be something that isn't ever going to be wholly satisfied. But I do get to make up stories about people who look like me, inviting more people in to see what differences people can bring, which feels important.
On the energy of New York’s creative community
You’re surrounded by people who do tremendous things constantly. After living in New York for a long time, you start seeing those friends on billboards. If you're not taking a picture of that billboard and feeling the giddiness of ‘Oh my god it’s you!’ and you cannot feel tremendous joy for people who are living their dreams, then this place is probably not for you. This is the essential New York that I love and that I choose to see. Celebrating. We all work hard, we’re all just a bunch of bozos on the bus, and if your number comes up, great! Great! Thank you for fueling my pipe dreams and keeping me going!
‘We all work hard in New York, we’re all just a bunch of bozos on the bus, and if your number comes up, great! Great! Thank you for fueling my pipe dreams and keeping me going!’
On seeking inspiration in the ordinary
I think that being here makes you more ambitious, more interesting, more curious, more competitive, and definitely more crazy. I think the FOMO inherent in always being one person away from some extremely rich or influential person, is really intoxicating. And I need the off-gassing of that in order to create.
On life informing fiction
The first book I had published [Emergency Contact] I had been writing for a while, but it really started to gel when I met my partner. He and I communicated so much over text and phone calls that I just found the tone of it with an exactitude that I’d only been sniffing around before. I think this way of connecting is something that is remarkably evergreen. Right now this is how everybody communicates, and I genuinely think there is an intimacy engendered from the ultimate safe space. There is a level of honesty that comes from that space when you are unencumbered by all the status signifiers around things like clothing, or accepted beauty modalities, or money, or brands. There is just something really pure about bubbles going back and forth.
On appreciating all facets of New York
If you can’t shit on New York with any kind of precision or exactitude it just means that either you haven’t spent enough time here, or maybe your parents are rich! It’s a pretty undeniable thing that we are all just scrabbling for purchase on this trash terra-dome, and everything about it is kind of old and hoary, but then so storied. I love it here. I have tried to quit New York so many times. But I love New York. I love the caliber of human being that you come across, casually. Even the most desultory conversation with someone makes me feel like ‘Oh! you have interests! You are opinionated about shit that doesn't even matter, and I really like that!’
On how you’d spend a day in New York
I’d head to Fort Tilden. There is something so abandoned about it, depending on the time of day and season. I would then take the train and go to East Broadway to eat. I’d go to a Malaysian bakery like Kuih Cafe on the weekend, have the dank-delicious Belachan wings at Kopitiam, hit up Ling Kee Beef Jerky for their sweet, sticky jerky that's less traditional jerky and more this chewy, confit-ish vibe, then head over to Golden Diner for their Korean wings and whatever special that Sam's cooking up. Maybe I'd pick up some fruit from the street stalls like mangosteens or persimmons or plums depending on the season and see about getting some roughage to work out the meat-sweats. I’d also go to the Met. It’s just such an amazing space and has the most awesome people watching. There are so many different tones in that place, so if you want to get a really good cross-section of New York people, go to the Met and look around.
‘New York is juicy. There’s just something organic and slightly damp about it. But it’s also just bursting with so much potential.’
On where to grab a bite
Recently I’ve spent a lot of time in both Chinatowns — either Taiwan Pork Chop House on Doyers Street or Chuan Tian Xia in Sunset Park. In times like these, you go to the places that will provide the most comfort I guess. When lockdown first happened I also started getting these very inconvenient, very specific hankerings of food that I really wanted to eat. I realized, ‘Oh my god, I’m never going to eat a Fay Da pineapple bun again! Or tagine from Mogador!’ It really made me nostalgic. This thing that I took for granted started this new relationship and newfound appreciation for so many things and so many places in New York.
On where to go after the after-party
Koreatown. K-town was the perfect place for the after-after-after-AFTER hours because it would be strictly zombie hours all the time, but since COVID some of those hours changed. Even still, if you're craving food really late, Koreatown's your best bet for something tasty and hot that's not cobbling together a struggle meal at the deli because the grill's closed for the night. Maybe some classic loud place, like Woorijip or Samwon Garden Korean BBQ that changed its name but I'll probably always call it Samwon. If it's winter, I'd definitely hit up BCD for a cauldron of spicy tofu seafood soup, which they give you an egg to crack in for morale. It’s funny, people always say New York never sleeps, but most restaurants close promptly at 10. I'd bet K-towns the world over go harder into the wee hours than most.
On a window or an aisle seat
Aisle, because I have a fear of small bladder. The fear of having to inconvenience people to get to the bathroom is just too terrifying. However, if my partner and I play the game of getting a three-fer for the two of us with a free middle seat, then I definitely want the window. Because then I have no problem accidentally kneeing him on the way out as many times as I want.
One New York in one word
There’s just something organic and slightly damp about it. But it’s also just bursting with so much potential.