Authentic Identity at Work: As Artist (Part 1)

Jenny Choi
On Work, Identity and Liberation
5 min readJan 6, 2022

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Source: PEN15 (Hulu)

In high school, I hung out with the weirdos — I was friends with all the artsy “freaks”, mostly because I had long felt like an outsider as an Asian American young girl who wrote and performed my own music. I was also a terrible student because I was a rebel and hated being told what to do, especially if I didn’t understand the point of whatever we were assigned to do. I often confronted teachers who assumed respect without earning it. It made me eventually decide I needed to be a high school teacher to hold myself accountable, which was a great first chapter for me in learning about best management practices.

I was lucky — even though I was at a school that had traditionally like most other schools prized blonde and blue-eyed star athletes, my high school experienced the “grunge” era of music, where it was actually cooler to be creative and in a band. So although during my freshman year I was relentlessly bullied for being poor (not wearing the right labels), weird, and writing and performing my own music, by my senior year I was able to leverage all of my weirdness when the timing was right, so that all the things I liked to do eventually became cool to everyone else.

But I was still awkward AF. I couldn’t convince/bribe/threaten any of my friends to take me to homecoming or the prom. I wrote music I thought other (white) people would like. As an artist it was difficult for me to create something that felt like it was coming genuinely from me, since I didn’t really know who I was growing up, especially being raised by my parents who were very absent and distant from me.

I was determined and resilient, and fast forward, was able to put out records (a couple even distributed by independent record labels before they eventually went bust) and create a brand for myself enough to somehow become an integral part of a couple punk rock legacies. I’ll write more about how that happened in future posts, but it was complicated. So much of figuring out oneself as an artist is to balance one’s own self-expression without self-consciousness with an understanding of one’s audience for the art to resonate. I can’t express how much this tension has undergirded how I’ve navigated my career since.

The first pieces I wrote (from high school through my freshman year in college) that eventually made its way to my first record aged well — they were not nearly as self-conscious and cringey as the ones that appeared on my second album (which I just can’t revisit ever never ever without wanting to tear my hair out and scream). I released my first record just before the digital music revolution, garnered a solid following (some of whom I sometimes hear from, even 25 years later), and I sold a respectable number of units. My songs were still pretty derivative (I came up during Lilith Fair when the whole feminist acoustic singer songwriter was a thing), but because of my youth and naiveté, they were still charming and free. I miss writing and creating as a young person who was unafraid to put myself out there, with nothing to lose.

So I’m reflecting on some of those lessons learned that I should try to remember to take heart:

  1. It’s important to keep doing you — even if you’re the only one, and no one seems to get it because eventually, someone will. Then surround yourself with the folks who at least understand the promise of what you are trying to do and celebrate it. With time, you will become the cool kid in a context that matters and will make sense to you.
  2. Sometimes even what you’re creating or doing isn’t super excellent or popular, it matters a lot to be one of the first ones. Even though when I was coming up, I didn’t see many Asian women doing what I was doing and I was told that I needed to lose 20 pounds, learn how to dance like a pop star, or change (Anglicize) my last name, by the time I was performing more regularly in college, many student affinity organizations began booking me not only to perform but to speak to the challenges of an authentic Asian American female experience, and it began to shape my professional and personal political identity. This career trajectory continued, eventually leading me to found an Asians in Indie Rock tour which led to a lot of other things that I’ll write more about later.
  3. Being a weirdo doesn’t have to be alienating — be the weirdo that brings others up, sticks up for others, and is generous to others, even if they are different from you and what you are trying to achieve. Yes, I was bullied in high school, but I also eventually became the first Asian homecoming and prom queen in the history of my high school (look, I know this is actually an embarrassing factoid to disclose, but the point is that if you knew me today, this is probably the last thing you’d ever expect of me) not because I was the funniest, smartest, most athletic, talented, or good-looking in school — I wasn’t any of those things by far. I simply became friends with all the people who weren’t the most popular back then, which basically comprised the majority of the school population.

I’ve learned (and am still learning) how to negotiate being generous and supportive of others without feeling taken for granted or compromised throughout my career, but I’ve found generally being compassionate, generous, and supportive of your colleagues helps give additional grace and space for a leader and innovator who comes from a paradigm outside of the mainstream. As difficult as it was to forge a new path and identity for myself, it would have been insanely impossible without building relationships with others who were also often overlooked, mischaracterized or misunderstood.

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Jenny Choi
On Work, Identity and Liberation

OG on diversity/equity/inclusion, philanthropy and journalism. Adept at seeing the magic in the tragically ignored. Retired punk rock musician.