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What Mary H.K. Choi Can’t Live Without

Photo: Courtesy of Hatnim Lee

If you’re like us, you’ve probably wondered what famous people add to their carts. Not the JAR brooch and Louis XV chair, but the hand sanitizer and the electric toothbrush. We asked author Mary H.K. Choi — whose new book, Permanent Record, is available September 3 — about the cotton pads, pizza knife, and black pens she can’t live without.

I’m usually an English Breakfast, PG tips, or even an Irish tea drinker. I used to drink so much caffeine, but when I’m going into promotion or I’m doing work that requires a lot of anxiety, then all that caffeine makes me do is access self-loathing a lot faster. So I’ve got to go decaf. Barry’s is nice because so many teas are really anemic-looking in the mug. But Barry’s deludes me into thinking I’m actually drinking caffeine — the flavor is just really, really good. I’ll put in a little almond milk, which is, like, the conflict milk. Then I add some Stevia and I’ll drink it throughout the day. Anytime I have to attend to an oral fixation rather than doing any of the old things, like snack or smoke, tea holds your attention in a weird way. It’s like an avocado. There’s a window in which optimal drinking happens, so you have to tend to it. I hate coming back to cold tea and being like, What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stay focused? Why does Instagram not want me to have tea?

My worst secret is that I’ve never tried Biologique Recherche. Really, I don’t know what the P90-whatever smells like, but I can joke about it! I’m like “Oh yeah, that toner smells horrible!” But I really have no idea. I feel like a failed Korean for not quintuple-washing or whatever. I’m that way with any emollient too. I can’t do it. I can’t do $150 moisturizer. I know it’s preventative and other people are really good at it. I believe them. But I like this stuff. I just splatter it on my face as a moisturizing lotion — it’s a morning and night thing. At night, I’ll use an eye cream, and even the eye cream is from the drugstore.

These kind of remind me of that episode of Seinfeld where they painted over the street separation, so they are driving down that one big fat lane. They remind me of parking in Texas vs. parking in Manhattan. Cotton balls — I mean, surely there have been advancements — but these are like an embarrassment of riches. What I do is dump micellar water on one and take off all my eye makeup. Then I flip it and take off city grime. These are so good because there’s enough left you can even get the back of your neck and your décolletage.

And I put the micellar water in these dispensers, these shitty Amazon ones. There’s two, because a deep dark secret of mine is that I’m one of these New York assholes who has two bathrooms. I keep one in each because I’m lazy. Flossing and taking off my makeup is a thing I do properly now because I’m an adult, a.k.a. I’m just old. So I have to make it as convenient as possible, otherwise I will reward myself by not taking my makeup off properly.

$32 for 4

So my partner is Swiss, and the Swiss are a hilarious people because everything they have is really nice. Everything is objectively and empirically the Platonic ideal of a Thing. These knives — if you pick it up, you’ll have a deep appreciation for how cheap and whatever they are, but it’s the knife that you reach for more than any other knife. It’s the knife you go to to cut limes for a drink or to make a salad. For some reason, you want this knife. We have four. Even your really nice Gustave whatever knives, I just don’t use them anymore. I use these flimsy knives that are so sharp. If you go to any Swiss person’s house, they have one of these in rotation. And, in Asian custom, I bring home a slew of these knives and give them to my friends. If someone moves into a new apartment, I’m like, “You need this knife if you’re ever going to eat a meal here.” But you can’t just give a knife to someone — it’s unlucky in Asian culture — so my friends have to give me ten cents or Venmo me a quarter so that they are buying it off me. It’s just an Asian thing.

You know with some snacks, you’re like, How is that five portions? That seems so rude. But this is a believable snack unit. It does what a snack is supposed to do. It’s not like a Dorito, where you keep forgetting you ate one. These are good to curb hunger. It’s substantial, and I love the texture. I like them on flights or in places where there’s not a lot of pacifying foods available. You know how, for some reason, because you’re in the dark movie theater, portions are just a little unusual? Or in the airport, I’m like, Wow, we’re all just out here cud chewing because this is intolerable — which I understand. These are purely for travel and definitely for going on tour, where you just want to know what you’re eating in some aspect.

Okay, so my best friend’s mother bought this for her because it’s a grand tradition among Asian women that your mother starts worrying about your skin sooner than you do. Your mom will just troll you from the time you graduate from college. So she and I have been getting stuff for so long. She has very oily skin that’s prone to breakouts, and her dermatologist was like, “Do not oil cleanse.” And her mother, you know how mothers are, was like, “Here’s some oil for oil cleansing.” So she gave it to me, and I was like, Oh my God, this is a trough. But I started using it and it changed my life. It’s the one thing I will absolutely splurge on. The very large bottle lasts me almost a year, and I use it every morning and every night. Again, my skin is really sensitive and I live in New York, where the air is just trying to constantly sabotage my pores. It really calms it down.

So this stuff is not waterproof; it’s water resistantish. But I like it because of the way the felt tip distributes the pigment. I’ve been using this for five years, and it’s my go-to. I do a cat’s-eye on both eyes every day of my life. Still, I dance the terrible dance that all of us are destined to, which is one of them is always better and the other one pales in comparison. I also play the panda-bear game where you just keep filling it in. I love this stuff because anytime I’ve been somewhere in the world and need to re-up, it’s always available.

I don’t know why I’ve decided to make a huge distinction between Purell and this stuff, but with this, I don’t feel like it’s creating a huge, mega-superflu or tainting our groundwater. I just think this is a less harmful version of hand sanitizing. Like, if you’re going into surgery, or you’re about to do something invasive with your hands, yes, but for most my-hands-feel-icky issues, I don’t think you need to detonate that much antibacterial power onto your hands. And everyone I know who I love and trust has at least one Dr. Bronner’s thing in their house at a given time, and for some reason the transitive properties are attributable to this stuff too. I feel like this stuff is more like, Yay for morale! People trust it, and it smells like lavender, which is nice.

Pilot Precise V5 Pen
$11 for 12

I always use black because I take myself seriously as a businessperson. No, but I did start writing in a journal, like almost “Morning Pages” douchebag stuff. The really nice thing is that I just love getting ideas down away from a screen. And when you start writing a lot — if you haven’t written for a long time — you realize how hideous your handwriting is. And for some reason, for vanity reasons, I like the way my handwriting looks most with this pen. But I’ve also taken to writing a lot of thank-you notes and post cards — nice little things that I know for a fact are going straight to the trash can, like other people’s to me are. Social media just makes me crazy, my in-box makes me crazy. Even note-taking on my phone — I’ll go to write something on my phone, and 45 minutes later I’ve bought some weird weighted blanket that’s also a bean bag or something. And I’m like, What at all did I need to do before this happened to me? So it’s a pen, but it’s also what it symbolizes.

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What Mary H.K. Choi Can’t Live Without