Story by Matt Villano
Photos by Megan Miller
In the world of The Mash-Up Americans, a young-but-growing media company that celebrates cultural differences with coverage in a variety of different media, this made-up word means everything, the end-all and be-all of life in the modern-day melting pot of America.
The noun pertains directly to the number of hyphens someone slips into a rundown on their ethnocultural background, encompasses the uncomfortable challenge of box-checking about race, cheers contradictions, and connects directly to the degree of cultural richness in a person’s life. Its adjectival form, mashy, describes just how much mashiness a particular story or person or situation possesses.
It’s practically impossible to talk to the company founders, thirty-somethings Amy Choi and Rebecca Lehrer, without hearing them use the word, mashiness, at least a dozen times.
And the duo wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Everybody, in one way or another, is navigating what it means to live in a world in which all these different cultures, races, and religious beliefs are butting up against each other all the time,” says Choi. “Our diversity of races and religions and ethnicities and cultures does not divide us, but instead gives us a shared wellspring of strength and depth, as well as a unique lens on America’s particular challenges and a compelling and fresh perspective on solutions to those challenges.”
At a time when intolerance is spreading both at home and abroad, the philosophy behind The Mash-Up Americans is a refreshing change of pace. Differences are welcome. Complicated ethnic backgrounds are cool. Minorities are the majority.
According to Lehrer, the more mashiness a person’s story conveys, the better the story works as a tool to help others employ empathy, become vulnerable, and spread kindness.
“Each of us comes at the world from such a different place, yet despite our differences, we all struggle with some of the same themes, and we’re all more interconnected than we think,” Lehrer says. “That’s the beauty of what we’ve created: Our details are everything, yet the deeper you dig into the details, the more universal any given narrative becomes.”
The Mash-Up Americans began as a bit of an experiment. Lehrer’s husband grew up with Choi, and the two women became fast friends. Years passed. Choi, a Korean-American, and Lehrer, a Salvadoran-Jewish-American, bonded over the fact that they both were first-generation kids and that they both were married to people from different cultural backgrounds than their own (Choi to a Colombian-Mexican-American, Lehrer to a “woke white dude”). The more they discussed the wacky cultural combinations and universal themes of their respective lives, the more both women decided it would be worthwhile to engage in more formal storytelling on the subjects.
So in the fall of 2013 they launched a Tumblr page. And the following year, when the page began getting decent traffic, they upgraded to a full-fledged website. In these early days, the mission was simple: to start conversations and build passionate communities centered on the hilarious, head-scratching, and deeply personal experience of navigating hybrid cultures.
“After talking for years about the awkward challenges of living a mash-up life, we realized that no one in mainstream media was reflecting our experiences,” Lehrer says. “Really, more than anything, we just wanted to provide that voice.”
Initially, Choi and Lehrer did this with prose — they wrote stories and tips and commissioned others to craft pieces for the site as well.
Instead of fitting these pieces into the traditional “identity” verticals, the duo decided to center stories on the universal issues that affect us all: family, relationships, food, faith, love. All of the stories are honest. And all are told through a nuanced and compassionate cultural lens.
One of the most talked-about essays, penned by a Sikh man, outlines questions non-Sikh people likely have about wearing a turban but are too afraid to ask. Guilt has been a big theme, too — from the guilt one gets from mom and dad for not being “ethnic enough” to the guilt one feels when devoting more attention to one part of a mashed-up identity than another (say, when someone of a mixed Catholic/Jewish background celebrates Easter but not Passover).
After publishing exclusively on the website for a few months, in February 2014 Choi and Lehrer added a weekly newsletter to the mix.
On the surface, this newsletter had the same mission as the rest of the company: to build community. In practice, however, Choi and Lehrer used the newsletter to interact directly with their followers, guiding and shaping which stories their audience saw on a week-by-week basis.
Whereas other media outlets might have outsourced the writing of a newsletter of this nature, Choi and Lehrer were determined to maintain ownership, so they wrote most of the newsletter items themselves. They still do. Lehrer says it’s hard work, but notes that handling the messaging in-house helps her and Choi keep it real. She adds that it’s always fun to pepper the newsletter with a mix of lighthearted and serious stories.
“A range of topics always is more powerful,” says Lehrer. “It’s also about informing people, and making sure they can understand the depth of systemic racism and oppression, and be empowered to fight.”
The essays and newsletters are only two parts of The Mash-Up Americans model; in November 2015 Choi and Lehrer added podcasts to the mix — produced with assistance and funding from American Public Media and Southern California Public Radio.
The duo’s first podcast actually was a close look at President (then-candidate) Donald Trump and his “Mash-Up American family narrative.” Since then, the podcast has interviewed mash-up celebrities such as Margaret Cho and Nina Garcia about how their mashiness has impacted their work. The podcast has covered everything from Japanese hip-hop to Goya beans, Spanglish to population genetics.
A recent iteration — no. 42 in the series — profiled a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and spotlighted what it means to be “American” when you’re Native American.
The on-air chemistry between Choi and Lehrer is what makes the podcast so fun; as a listener, you really get the sense that the interlocutors are calling people in instead of calling them out, that they will stop at nothing to understand every aspect of the mash-up phenomenon.
That insatiable quest for truth is enthralling. It’s inspiring. And to be honest, it’s thoroughly addicting.
A second relatively new addition to The Mash-Up Americans database is a recipe collection; because culture so often is tied inextricably to food, Choi and Lehrer encourage contributors to submit play-by-play cooking instructions — especially for dishes that originated with an older generation.
Finally, Choi and Lehrer have tried commissioning longer pieces and multi-part series that encourage readers to come back for more. One of the most widely read series to date was a three-parter about transracial adoption by Nishta Mehra, a Houston-area high school writing teacher. The pieces summarized Mehra’s experiences as a gay Indian woman adopting a black boy and the cultural mash-up that has ensued.
The stories are honest. They’re open. They’re not entirely rainbows and unicorns. And they leave readers with an acute sense of the cultural ups and downs of Mehra’s day-to-day life.
“I’m simply giving people a sense of what it looks like for us to walk through the world as a family,” she says. “You can only hope it inspires empathy. Once people read about how much of a difference tolerance and kindness make to families like ours, it can help plant a seed for people to be more thoughtful.”
Another way The Mash-Up Americans has diversified in recent years: consulting, Choi and Lehrer see consulting as another way to share their knowledge of mashiness with the world.
In their view, though mash-ups represent the future of America, very few companies have any idea how to reach this audience with any level of authenticity. To this end, The Mash-Up Americans launched a creative studio to help executives and brands engage with mash-up America in a meaningful way; Choi and Lehrer work with companies to help them understand what mashy people care about most.
“We’re saying, ‘You’re doing this, here’s another way.’ Or, ‘How can we help you understand what questions to ask?’,” says Lehrer. “There’s no judgment with these relationships, by the way. Just help.”
For some of these engagements, a company might hire The Mash-Up Americans to put together a tolerance-oriented newsletter. For others, a company might hire The Mash-Up Americans to pull together research and positioning for a marketing campaign. Still others may seek data to conduct original research.
Original research is what The Mash-Up Americans did recently for Jim Babb, founder of Part and Sum, an innovation and strategy company in Brooklyn, New York. Babb hired Choi and Lehrer to investigate the multicultural aspects of the city of Los Angeles so he could help a client better understand its market. Over the course of a few months, the Mash-Up team provided Babb with insight and perspective through the same editorial lens they publish original content.
He describes the takeaway as “invaluable,” and says the data ultimately drove policy.
“They have a unique point of view that’s accepting and friendly,” says Babb. “Being able to apply that voice and perspective to everything you do affords you a lot of great opportunities — you get to a point where people hire you as much for your authenticity as they do for your expertise.”
Looking forward, The Mash-Up Americans will continue to produce original content for the website, podcast, and newsletter, and will keep expanding the consulting business and creative studio. Choi and Lehrer say another area of emphasis in the coming months will be live events.
The company has been holding these events in some form for a while — Choi and Lehrer have sponsored regular meet-ups for women entrepreneurs and women “doing cool shit” for a few years, but plan to expand the breadth and scope of these events over the next year. In November 2016, for instance, Lehrer interviewed Chef Eddie Huang at a live event. Just last month, Choi and Lehrer teamed up with public radio station KPCC to interview restaurateur and mescal guru Bricia Lopez at another live event.
Choi says she could see The Mash-Up Americans holding anywhere from 10-12 such events every year — everything from live podcast recordings to industry conferences, panels, and professional development seminars.
“The beauty of building a community online is that we can tap so many people that we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise,” she says. “That said, nothing compares to the experience of being physically together, hearing somebody laugh, holding someone’s hand, getting a little tipsy together, eating good food and extending the community over a meal or simply face-to-face.”
In person or not, these connections are key.
As the site gets more followers, as the podcast attracts more listeners, experts say the mere fact that The Mash-Up Americans is advancing the dialogue is a step in the right direction.
“Talking about cultural diversity and differences is becoming more and more important in an ever more polarizing world,” says Chris Smit, founder of Culture Matters, a cultural diversity management firm based in Belgium. “People, by nature, are judgmental of others, and if you don’t discuss and elaborate on the differences, there is little chance of clearing up the different insights that people have.”
Matt Villano, a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California, is one of the founding advisory board members of 500 Pens. Read more about him and his work at whalehead.com.
Megan Miller is a photographer based in Los Angeles specializing in creating images of people, progression, and innovation. She’s worked on stories for clients such as The New York Times and NPR, and done work for brands including Infiniti, Qualcomm and Disney. More of her work can be found at MeganMillerImages.com
Copyright © 500 Pens. July 2017.