By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
My very first interaction with Assunta Ng was when I had to interview her for a Northwest Asian Weekly story on Rainbow Bookfest, a program that she had started. It was in March of 2008, and I am positive Assunta doesn’t even remember this conversation ever taking place. I was a 22-year-old new grad from the University of Washington, I didn’t know how to write a news story to save my life, I was not yet her editor, and I was naively unaware of the legend that surrounded her.
I interviewed her over the phone. She sounded really busy, distracted, and a little short — later, I would learn that she pretty much always sounds this way on the phone. Her curt tone was supremely intimidating, and the lackluster interview ended with me thinking that she probably thought I was an idiot.
When July rolled around, Northwest Asian Weekly’s then-editor Eleanor Lee decided to leave the paper for an adventure in Patagonia involving penguins. I learned about the editor job opening from Craigslist. (Like, no one asked me to apply to Northwest Asian Weekly ’cause they thought I’d be a good fit.)
In 2008, I hated my job as a content analyst, which is really a fancy title for a job that amounts to data-mining all day, and I spent all of my free time trolling Craigslist for writing jobs. In 2008, all I wanted to do was write stuff and have people voluntarily read the things I wrote — and I had no qualifications whatsoever. The Northwest Asian Weekly job stood out as extremely prestigious and unattainable — just impossible.
I still have the email exchange I had with Eleanor. I’m too embarrassed to paste the entire exchange here because I was so earnest and thirsty. But here are highlights that demonstrate what favoritism looks like:
Stacy to Eleanor: “I have a question! I’d like to know more about the editor position at the paper — the posting on Craigslist was a bit cryptic. Like how much experience are you guys looking for? I am possibly super interested, and I completely love NWAW … [But] I want to see how realistic working with NWAW is, if you’ve got a crazy amount of resumes and cover letters crammed in your mailboxes from super qualified people or something like that?”
Eleanor to Stacy: “One caveat: It’s a little crazy here. Like, I’m not sure I would wish it upon someone I liked. If you’re okay with crazy, then apply and I will profusely recommend you to Assunta.”
Stacy: “Yeah, Assunta called me and asked me to come in at 3:45 p.m. today. Thanks so much for passing the word on, El. You’re pure awesome.”
Eleanor: “Oh, yeah, Assunta just told me she asked you in. That’s great! A tip, but don’t tell her I told you: In the interview, she’ll most likely ask you what you like and dislike about the paper, and what you would add or change about the paper, and about which current Asian American issues you’re concerned with.”
Stacy: “She intimidates me. I have many criticisms alongside the love — but I’m Asian. So you know, it’s against my nature to express negativity, and I sort of also want to say the ‘safe’ answers and stick with profuse ass-kissing. But would that totally not fly with her?”
Eleanor: “It’s just important that you have an answer, any answer. A lot of people have a hard time finding something they don’t like, so just have something.”
I showed up to my interview with Assunta in sweatpants. I cannot even remember why because that was a real dumb thing to do. I think it was because she rushed me and made me come down right away (and later, I would learn that this is very typical Assunta behavior). The job interview was bizarre and stressful. I remember my heart just hammering and feeling like Assunta was messing with my mind and asking all of these coded questions in order to do a psych eval on me.
She offered up these very specific situations like, “What would you do if I thought headshots should be enclosed in rectangles and put on the right side and the layout editor thought that they should be squares on the left side? Who would be right? How would you decide who is right?”
And in my head, I was like, “What the hell?”
Out loud, I was like, “You? You are right?”
Which was an answer that Assunta found unsatisfying — and later, I would learn it’s because she does not like yes-people. Her confidence is rarely shaken, and she never needs external validation. She needs for her people to be truthful and to fight for their point of view.
In the interview, I am pretty sure what turned the tide for me — with her — is that she asked this really inflammatory question about where my loyalties would lie, when it comes to displaying the Vietnamese Communist flag.
I am Vietnamese.
This is a big deal in our community.
I told her it depended on the context. There are some instances where the official flag (the communist one) is the one that should be displayed.
She asked me if I would declare this publicly, in front of my mother and father and God.
I bombastically was like, “Yes. I would. I would shove it in my parents’ faces, if it was the right thing to do.”
And she seemed like, super happy with that answer — like, incredibly happy with that answer. Because she is scary, nuts, and unintentionally hilarious sometimes.
After the job interview was over, I baldly asked her what my chances were, of getting the job. I broke all the rules about being stone-faced in job interviews, and I told her I wanted the job so badly, and I was positive I would do a good job, despite not having a cool resume to back up that statement. She frankly told me that I was gonna be the risky candidate for her. She proceeded to tell me how there were two other candidates who were wildly more qualified than I was (shoutout to Jason Cruz!). She told me I had no editing experience whatsoever.
I mean, I knew that. But hearing her say that felt dark and sad. I really, really wanted the job and to be a part of the newspaper.
This story has a happy ending. Within a day, Assunta called me when I was at home and she told me she was hiring me. I was like, “Oh my God, are you messing me with?” She said she was not. She said there would be a three-month trial period. She also said that she was taking a real risk with me, a recent college grad who has not really demonstrated an ability to write or edit or manage anything ever(!). She said she was doing it because she had a gut feeling — and that there was something in my impassioned, desperate pleas and declarations that moved her.
I told the story of the beginning of my time with the newspaper, even though the decade that followed was also really eventful and grueling and meaningful.
The beginning is important because it makes me remember all the things I didn’t yet know about the newspaper and about Assunta — and yet, you can see all of these markers that predicted how the next 10 years of my life with the newspaper unfolded. I would be her editor for about four years. (She always rounds down and says three years and nine months or “almost four years.” And I always round up because, oh my God, it’s basically four years.) I would cry when I told her I was leaving to go and do new, challenging things. I would cry to her again after that, when I went through the end of a relationship. I would cry to her (again) when I lost my job. She would give me money (again and again) to do newspaper work. I spent 10 years getting pretty good at reading her mind, at reading her ridiculously cryptic emails, and at having arguments with her on what stuff people actually like to put their eyeballs on.
Assunta is the greatest mentor I’ve ever had. And that’s an important statement I’m making because I’ve actually had like, a billion amazing mentors. I like ranking people — so it means something when I say, she is the most impactful. She is so very human and full of unwavering conviction. I talk to people the way I do because of her. I write emails the way I do (cryptically) because of her. I force myself to go to bed early sometimes, because she is always getting on my ass about that. I don’t write very often these days, and I don’t report often — but when I do, it’s only for her paper.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.