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Mary H.K. Choi doesn’t drink coffee. “It makes my eye twitch and it makes me doubt myself faster,” she says, cradling a mug of tea between her hands. A plaid trapper hat tops her two thick pigtails — the kind of look that inspires hashtags like “hygge.” We’re sitting near the window inside Cafe Grumpy, with a perfect view of Brooklyn getting smothered by a fluke March snowstorm.
Laptops aren’t allowed, so we’re doing what two people do when there’s zero WiFi: talk.
She’s good these days. Really good.
“I tweeted about this recently. I was like, ‘I’m really, really happy to be Asian, writing about Asians moving around the world, looking out of Asian eyeholes,’” says Choi. “Because it took me a long time to get home.”
The 38-year-old culture correspondent at Vice News Tonight and podcast host of "Hey, Cool Job” is finally comfortable sitting with her feelings these days. “I hate myself a lot less and very infrequently. … It’s really great because your sense of forgiveness is through the roof.”
Getting older suits her. Five years ago, she wrote a widely circulated piece about loving her mom a “not-normal amount,” which was shared, liked and hearted by almost every Asian American in my social media circle. Phone calls from her mother gave her indigestion, she described. We could all relate.
Some books slowly win you over, others have you at hello. The latter group — rare as they are — belong to the same club as “Emergency Contact.” Choi’s debut tackles questions of race, gender and cultural responsibility without pounding you over the head about it.
Because, really, “Emergency Contact” is about love — mother love, first love, friend love, self love — and all the delightful, painful anxieties that come with it.
The book begins with a clash between Penny, an intense 18-year-old Korean American, and her carefree mom, Celeste. Penny later heads off to her first year of college in Austin, carrying her emergency bag and a whip-smart brain for words. She wants to be a science-fiction writer.
A scary incident propels Sam, a wannabe filmmaker, to start texting Penny, a relative stranger. It’s complicated: He’s poor, sleeps in the coffee shop where he works and still has this thing with his ex-girlfriend. When Penny and Sam start texting, they start becoming intertwined through dots and bubbles on their screens, and Penny’s life is jolted into an unlikely direction.
She suddenly finds herself having “emoji hearts” for a 21-year-old tattooed man, while simultaneously dealing with a fraught relationship with her single mother. At the same time, she’s finding both solace and torture through her budding creativity.
The responsibility of being a writer is one that Choi explores through Penny’s character. It’s a nuanced conversation that we’re having here, at Cafe Grumpy, and one that Penny’s black writing professor poses to her entire writing class at one point.
The professor later continues: “Create diverse characters because you can. Especially ones that aren’t easy to write. A character that scares you is worth exploring. Yet if you breathe life into a character and it comes to you too easily — say you’re writing from the viewpoint of a black man in America and you’re not one? Think hard about where your inspiration is coming from. Are you writing stereotypes? Tropes? Are you fetishizing the otherness? Whose ideas are you spreading? Really consider how you transmit certain optics over others. Think about how much power that is.”
The real writer, Choi — the one who’s really asking those questions — is messing with her tea bag as she thinks out loud. “I think those conversations have to happen,” she says. “There are a lot of different movements that try to recognize the privilege inherent in being East Asian versus South Asian, or Asian versus black versus trans versus anything else. Those conversations are really important.”
Sure, “Emergency Contact” is one flavor of the minority experience, but it’s also a perspective that isn’t told a lot. Choi’s novel blows up Asian female stereotypes and prods readers to question their own cultural biases about women of color. For instance: Not all Asian moms are like Lane Kim’s in “Gilmore Girls.” Not all of them own antique shops or dry cleaners, care singularly about grades and won’t let their baby tiger cubs date until they’ve finished graduate school.
Some, like Celeste, are achingly hip and don’t need ESL tips from their daughters.
What Choi has done is capture the mother-daughter assimilation story of the 2010s — a far cry from the Amy Tan era and those “Joy Luck Club” days — and she does it all with a voice that’s relatable and lyrical.
Arguably, her best moments are epitomized in the text messages between Penny and Sam. Like this heated one about the American health-care system:
Sam quickly learns that Penny isn’t a wilting flower, but a passionate woman in her own right. Terrified, yes. But also brilliant, headstrong and armed with ironic humor and a wardrobe of black T-shirts.
These are the qualities that draw him to Penny via text. It’s technology that helps them fall in love, and it’s technology that lurks in the background of “Emergency Contact.” Choi deftly navigates tech’s powerful grip over us and its leakage into our most private, personal spaces.
It’s a difficult balancing act — steering through the assimilation experience without contributing to cliché narratives — and she did it in such a way that Asian Americans can hold this book and say, “This one’s ours.”
For Choi, though, this book is for her mom. She dedicated it to her.
Choi’s phone lights up, next to her empty cup. Her mother is calling, probably because of the snowstorm. Or maybe just to check up, like she usually does, two or three times a week.
“It’s like she knows,” says Choi.
These are some picks that Choi finds worthy, including a few she’s recently finished. They’re in no particular order, and they’re all written by women.
One: "Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
Two: "Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi
Three: "Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado
Four: "All Grown Up” by Jami Attenberg
Five: "The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas