SuChin Pak Is Processing Everything

The groundbreaking news anchor is still making sense of her MTV experience.

Photo: Robyn Von Swank
Photo: Robyn Von Swank

“It was Connie Chung or kung fu,” SuChin Pak once said of the on-camera career options for Asian performers when she was a kid. And then along came Pak herself, MTV’s first Asian anchor, interviewing pop stars on TRL despite having grown up in a home in which the only TV shows available were rented VHS tapes of Korean soap operas.

Pak appeared on MTV from 2001 to 2013, an era whose regressive attitudes have become the subject of new scrutiny thanks to documentaries like Framing Britney Spears. And like many people, she has been reconsidering her own experiences as a woman of color during that time. In March, Pak revealed on Instagram that she had been harassed by a racist co-worker early on in her career — and that MTV had taken months to address the problem.

“I overheard a colleague of mine, while watching me do the news that evening, tell a room full of people that I looked like a ‘me sucky sucky love you long time’ whore,” she wrote. “I was young, afraid as usual to cause a fuss or be seen as difficult or too ‘sensitive,’ being the only female in the newsroom, so I didn’t say anything in the moment.” She battled to have the colleague, a white man, removed.

The incident happened decades ago, but Pak was compelled to bring it up following the Atlanta shootings and the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that has swept the world in the past year. During the spring, she talked to the Cut about her time at MTV, her struggle to own her own narrative, and what it means to be Asian American in this moment.

What made you decide to speak out now about what happened at MTV?
I would never have said anything. But the morning after the Atlanta shootings, I woke up and was on Instagram. A young Asian American woman shared her story, and she said, “Do you know how many times I walk across the street because someone is yelling something like ‘I love you long time?’” And up to that moment, I had not thought about what had happened to me. I don’t even know the last time it had crossed my mind. But there was that thread of, Wait, are we saying that a comment like that somehow related to the death of these women? Yes.

I never could have articulated or drawn the line between everyday microaggressions and such incredible violence. But I thought about my experience, and it was like one of those Matrix flashing moments. The dehumanization, the fetishization, the sexualization, the diminishing, the objectification — all of that, it came flooding. All those behaviors can lead to someone [being violent] so cavalierly, and having the reaction outside the community be so cavalier.

I wrote my Instagram post because of that. I hadn’t thought about my experience in such a long time. I never made the connection between how these small, everyday cuts can lead to something so violent and so big. But if we don’t make those connections, then none of this matters.

Or if we make the wrong connections. Like the narrative that suggests Asian women are desired in a positive way, rather than fetishized, in society. 
That is not what it is about. Also, it’s not about how you interpret what you say. You don’t get to decide that. I get to decide the impact of that on my life and then give meaning to it. Just because it means nothing to you doesn’t mean that it means nothing to me.

It’s also like the whole argument of “Well, [the Atlanta shooter] says he’s not a racist.” That’s not for him to decide. It’s actually for the women who can’t speak to decide. And then if they can’t speak, then it’s for us to decide. In the same way, you don’t get to decide that your comment is meant as a compliment.

I see so much shifting every day beneath headlines — with conversations like this — about who gets to decide, who gets to claim the pain, who gets to decide how to label it and tell the story.

Every day, I have a different understanding of it. Sometimes it contradicts what I understood the day before, which is why I’m happy to talk to you. I know the ground is shifting all the time.

Where do you stand today?
Since [the Atlanta shootings], I have been reading about Daunte Wright. Someone said a white man who murdered a bunch of people is safer than a Black person being pulled over for a traffic violation. What happened in Atlanta is directly linked to what is happening all over. There’s the same force there, which is white supremacy.

I think about how so much conversation has been controlled from a white center and how that impacts the narrative. In this moment in time, unless you’re on NextShark, you have no idea what’s happening in Asian American communities. There is no real estate anymore on the front pages of mainstream media. I’m sitting here trying to figure out how we don’t waste away into oblivion again.

News is subjective at every level, including what we cover. Forget how we cover it. The process of news coverage is exclusive by design, and it is very white-centric. On a personal level, I’ve been trying to understand how the Asian American narrative we learned over the years has not just been taught to us [in school] but also told to us [by the media].

Crazy Rich Asians opened the door to white-centric publishing and media outlets paying attention more to Asian voices. In the last few years, I’ve noticed writers, books I’ve never heard of before. For instance, [Cathy Park Hong’s book] Minor Feelings — there is nothing to say after that. After you read that, you’re like, Do you want to know how I’m doing in this moment? It is in one book. Literally.

There are all these beautiful articles and editorials. People like Chanel Miller, R.O. Kwon, who are so eloquent and intellectual with the way that they are processing it that it helps me beyond just watching videos of Asian people getting hurt. I can’t stop doing that, and I want to look away, but I can’t. How do we move the conversation forward? I have been joking that we are all in an Asian American–studies class, creating the syllabus.

I’ve been joking that it’s like group therapy. 
That is exactly what it is: if we’re in a collective group therapy. I processed what happened to me at MTV one way, and decades later, I am so angry in that reprocessing. I never felt that pain then. I feel it now, decades later. When we talk about things that happened to us in our past, we’re talking about it through this sort of new programming, and it’s so strange. Ultimately, now I understand it’s all violent. But back then, I was just like, This is so fucked up and unfair. 

What are you realizing with this “new programming”?
I, like many others, have always taken microaggressions, racist incidents that happened, with a grain of salt. You move on. But when you look back, all of that compounded over the years, creates a version of yourself that puts you into a tiny box that you don’t even realize that you’re in until something wakes you out of that.

I always talk about how powerful representation is. I remember sitting in a movie theater watching Better Luck Tomorrow, and I had never, ever seen a young all-Asian cast without accents, in a story that isn’t about them being from a different country. I will never forget that feeling. I never knew I was missing that. I had no idea what had been done to me and how silenced I was. The desire to be seen was never even a desire. I remember being like, This is one of those moments where I can’t go back to the version I was before. 

I feel some of that now. We’ve never shared our stories in a way that we are sharing now. We have never been so intimate with each other as a community. I had no idea that I was even missing this. [The idea of] representation gets thrown around a lot, but it impacts the way that we see ourselves, and the way that we develop as humans and as a community. It’s the genesis for everything, and without that, you cannot start. You can’t start, because you don’t even know that you didn’t start.

A lot of people saw you on MTV and had the same sort of reaction you had watching Better Luck Tomorrow. Were you aware of that?
Yes and no. The majority of my broadcast career was before social media. But at the same time, I knew personally how important it was that there was a young Asian American in the newsroom at MTV. We had Connie Chung, of course — the one Asian — so we knew we could do late-night news. But I was excited that someone who looked like us could be into fashion and music and have these opportunities.

But by nature, I am who I am, and so it was very important to me to put my best foot forward. I was like, I’m not going to fuck this up. They picked the right Asian. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. But part of the reason I was so reticent about sharing my MTV story is that, for other people’s sake, I wanted it to be as powerful and as beautiful, as fantastical, as it seemed. There is that double-edged sword: When you carry this feeling, you always want to put your best foot forward, so you keep quiet and are always fearful that you’re going to lose your job and then [the community] won’t have that one person.

What was it like bearing the weight of that responsibility?
People often say that working at MTV is like being in college, or a fraternity house. There were a lot of boys doing boy things. Many of the VPs were white and male, and by no means were they going to make it easy for the girl. It’s different there today, with a very different attitude about a lot of these things we’re talking about. But back then, I felt like every day was an audition. I never let go of that. To be fair, some of that is just my nature, but there’s such an impostor syndrome when you’re the only person that looks like you in the room.

I loved my time at MTV. My life wouldn’t be the way it is now without it, but I was never as unhappy in my life as when I was there. I think a lot of people can say that about their first jobs, but it takes time to find your voice in that setting. It’s really hard when you’ve got cameras. Everything is so heightened, and every move feels so big.

I was also mostly unhappy because I didn’t know why I was so unhappy. Like, I have this amazing job. I get to meet famous people. I get clothes for free! This is a fantasy life. l have nothing to complain about — not one thing. But it isn’t until years later that you break it down. I’m a perfectionist, and didn’t want to mess up, and always wanted to be liked, and was always trying to please. Now, I am the happiest I have ever been, and I do nothing. But back then, every day you’re on live TV, TRL, and there’s pop stars. It’s hard to feel good about yourself.

Also, I’m an average-attractive person. Serena Altschul was before me, and she was like a goddess. I was like, I’m not getting by on my looks. I have to be the smartest person in the room, the nicest person, so prepared and so smart. How does that create happiness?

And beauty standards back then were so western focused.
There’s western standards of beauty, but also Asian standards of beauty, which are also fucked up and unattainable. I remembered getting calls from my aunt after the VMAs, and she would be like, Oh my God, you look great. Your eyes look so big today! And not eating salt for a whole week, hoping that my puffy eyes would look more open that day. I’m so much more aware now that the standards of beauty were so unattainable. I was in front of an audience and watching tapes of myself, so I was confronting those things every day.

You did culturally groundbreaking content at MTV with shows like My Life (Translated). Was it difficult to get programming like that made? 
No. MTV has produced some of the most important pieces of media related to youth culture, and that has shaped us for the better. I was a part of a lot of those campaigns and shows. But a place can do really good work and still the people who work there can do pretty shitty things to each other. Racism, bias, misogyny is often a personal battleground — that’s why it’s so hard to “fix” it, because it’s in the moments that often go unnoticed or unacknowledged that the betrayal happens.

You obviously felt the weight of being the only Asian in the room. How much of the environment contributed to that?
For me, it was never overt racism. It was all subtle ways that we feel perceived, the subtle ways that we are ignored, the subtle ways that we don’t really have any real power at the table, and the subtle ways that we always have to justify why we’re there. It always felt like it was my fault and that I could change things. That is a dangerous narrative, and gaslighting. A lot of times, you have no power in that situation. It was hard to be a woman, a woman of color, and to be the only one of all those things for so long.

Had my executive [producer] immediately come to me and said, “What happened is unacceptable, and we are letting this person go,” I believe I would have been like, Wait, hold off. I know myself back then, and the weight of someone else’s livelihood would have weighed heavily on my mind. But they did not do that — they stood by him and dragged the entire process on. And the more they dragged it on, the angrier I got. I wasn’t angry in the beginning. I was scared, upset, ashamed, and mortified. The mortified anger came when there was no correct response.

How did MTV handle the incident? 
I remember the process being long, protracted, and painful. I said I wasn’t coming back in until it was resolved. I remember being at home and the pit in my stomach growing. They really did want me to somehow make the situation work. And the more that dragged on, the more I felt like, Oh, you don’t care. You don’t value me. You don’t understand. 

After that happened, I realized that I had to be okay with not having this job. I was 99.9 percent sure I was going to lose my job for speaking up. Nowhere in that process did I think that it was going to turn out well for me. I was prepared. I had the sinking feeling that I may never work again. During the whole time, I did not feel empowered.

This was early on in my career. I had just gotten the job of my life. It was the first time that I felt like I could make a living doing this. It wasn’t just a job; it was a whole ecosystem. [My brother and I] are the children of immigrants, and this job made me [and my family] financially secure. It was also years of working, praying, and hoping to get to that point where I felt like I can do this. To have that torn away really gutted me.

I want to say that the word courage can be very deceiving and self-defeating, because we often have just one image of what it means to stick up for yourself. There are many times, especially in the everyday moments of our lives, where courage looks like a quivering, shaking, crying mess. It takes courage to even recognize that what is happening to you is not right, that you deserve better, and that it can be beyond your own control. I’ve heard from so many women who say they wish they had yelled back at the guy in the bar who shouts racist slurs, or the co-worker who laughs at racist jokes, but in the moment they couldn’t, and they feel so much shame and guilt. Acknowledging that there is even a deep sense of injustice is courageous. It’s much easier to smile through it, and even belittle those feelings so life can feel “nice” and undisturbed.

Did you have any allies at work?
No. I never told anyone what was happening. All they knew was that something happened and now these two people are not showing up. Maybe someone would have reached out had I said something. But I didn’t tell anyone.

Since I posted, I have heard from everyone saying, “I’m sorry. I had no idea.” I have to assume that’s correct. But that’s also part of what we are talking about: that silence is part of the complicity, and I was complicit in that. It was a small room of people who heard the comments, and they’re the ones I carry this with. But I don’t remember us ever calling each other and being like, Are you okay? At that time, we didn’t have the language to do that. We just went into our caves, and closed the curtains, and dealt with it on our own.

There was also something about being humiliated in front of a group of people who cared about me. Because it was in a public setting, I couldn’t let that go or walk away from feeling that people would see me as someone who could not stand up for myself. I could see myself in their eyes.

When I got back into the newsroom, it felt like such a small, stingy victory. You can’t help but also feel like, Well, now I have to be extra-nice. So I doubled down on being the hero. Being more miserable. Eating more misery. And more pressure.

Did anyone at MTV reach out to you after your Instagram post? 
Yes, [an executive] who has a lot of influence there now. He didn’t have to; he certainly wasn’t in the news department when I was there. I was really surprised, mainly because at any huge corporation, the expected reaction is silence. The most important part of our conversation, for me, was that as a decision-maker, he felt personally responsible to try to heal some of this damage.

When you go to work every day with the same group of people, who you physically spend the most time with, and something like this happens, it does not feel like an HR violation; it feels deeply personal. I think it’s really easy for managers to hide behind policies or departments, but at the end of the day, you just want to turn to the person you’ve been working alongside day in and day out and have them stand by you. My phone conversation [with the MTV executive] was years after [the incident], but it still felt like that — like I had a human being that was acknowledging the wrong. It’s moments like that that give me hope, that we are in the midst of something beyond the rhetoric.

But the rhetoric of the past few years is not insignificant. Between Me Too and BLM and Protect Asian Lives and all of the ways that we have woken up, these conversations have laid the groundwork for something that feels very different this time around.

And you’re working on a new project with MTV?
I’m working with them on something about the conversation around Asian American identity. The timing is not lost on me. Do I think that they would’ve come to me with this project even if I hadn’t posted? I think so, but does it mean so much more since I did? I think so.

We’re often siloed into categories. But at the end of the day, the variance of being a person of color in this country is also the unifying experience. How do you honor the different experiences and speak to those needs? And how do you make sure that people of color are controlling that narrative and conversation versus outside forces?

In the isolation of our racial experiences, we have to be careful about who’s doing it and for what purpose we are using it — is it to speak to specific needs that very much need to be addressed? I come back to this feeling of scarcity. Whose table are we sitting at, trying to get the scraps? How can we just not sit at that table? Let’s sit at the table where there is no time limit or news cycle. How about we take our fucking time and tell every story, as long as we want to tell it, forever till the end of time?

SuChin Pak Is Processing Everything