SuChin Pak broke barriers when, in 2001 at 25 years old, she became the first Asian American correspondent for MTV News.
For the next 12 years, she covered everything from celebrity red carpets to presidential elections for the network. Pak, now 45, tells CNBC Make It she hit a "turning point" when she launched "My Life (Translated)," a documentary series that followed teens from immigrant families through dating, prom, college and young life.
It was the first time she could talk about being Korean American "in the absolute sense," Pak says, and it would be "accepted" and "celebrated."
But while MTV launched Pak's journalism career and made waves for AAPI representation onscreen, it's also where she experienced racism and sexism from colleagues. Decades later, she's still unpacking it all.
Reconciling work success with trauma
In spring of 2021, following the racially motivated Atlanta spa shootings that killed six women of Asian descent, Pak opened up on Instagram about an encounter in the MTV newsroom, when a white male co-worker made inappropriate comments about her appearance.
"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," Pak wrote, referencing a line spoken by a Vietnamese sex worker in the 1987 film "Full Metal Jacket." "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."
Pak says she didn't have any allies in the newsroom or resources beyond the workplace.
"Most of my career at MTV was outside of being connected to an Asian American community," Pak tells CNBC Make It. "I did a lot of things in a vacuum."
The internet was in its infancy and social media didn't yet exist, she adds. "I can't even imagine what it would have been like if I had Instagram, or the feedback or bond that we can now have as strangers sharing this big identity together," Pak says.
She didn't really think about that experience again until the rise of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, Pak told The Cut in 2021, and she felt compelled to finally speak up: "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."
MTV did not respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.
Support through community and representation
Pak says an MTV executive reached out after her Instagram post and expressed a responsibility to heal the damage. Shortly after, MTV asked Pak to contribute the introduction to a new book, "My Life: Growing Up Asian In America."
"It definitely wasn't an immediate yes," Pak says, but she decided to move forward with it and be that resource she wanted for her younger self. The book features the works of 30 writers who contributed their own essays, poems and art.
"There's something really comforting being one of 30 voices," Pak says, "so that you didn't have to feel like you had to answer that question for anyone else, but just yourself."
Pak may have been the first Asian face of MTV, but she's no longer the only one. Representation of AAPIs in pop culture and news media has increased slowly over the years. She's also found support among groups committed to newsroom diversity. In 2019, Pak even met her "Add to Cart" podcast co-host Kulap Vilaysack in the AAPI breakout group of Time's Up Entertainment.
Pak says writing about the racism and sexism she experienced early in her career helped her see courage in a different way.
"For me, this is the most courageous work of all: dismantling and reconciling my former shame and guilt while also honoring them," Pak writes in her intro. "For many years, I lived in this emotional space, wondering who I was and who I was supposed to be. I still lose my way all the time, trying to answer those questions. In the past, I let others answer them, but I'm at a place now where the answers are my own."
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