Awkwafina Is Not Just Nora From Queens

Awkwafina first charmed me in the summer of 2018. In Crazy Rich Asians, she played the scene-stealing Peik Lin, a raspy-voiced Singaporean heiress with a bad dye job, a visual archetype common in the English-speaking world in internationally diverse schools like Parsons, UCLA, and University College London. This type of crazy rich Asian doesn’t often seem to have a whole lot of purpose in life but will show up fabulous to a Vanity Fair party and trash-talk anyone for any friend on any given day. I did not find Peik Lin relatable. I found her sass performative and slightly awkward. In one scene, she was wiggling her index finger and telling Constance Wu’s character, in what many have critiqued as “blaccent,” to not “swerve like a chicken” in front of her future mother-in-law. Don’t get me wrong, that scene was very funny. Seeing that uncategorizable Asian on-screen felt powerful: Peik Lin was not exactly a “cool Asian,” not a “school Asian” either. If anything, she was a hot mess of an Asian. Watching the first movie with a full Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, however, made me ponder if Asian Americans were inevitably trapped by and into binary and overly simplistic ideas of race. I made a wish for something more from Awkwafina. What that more was, I did not know.

One year later, Awkwafina moved me in The Farewell. This time she dropped her disguise, her hair dark and straightened, back hunched, wardrobe toned down. The Farewell, written and directed by the talented Lulu Wang, is a quintessential homecoming story about a young woman reconnecting with her past and realizing she’s a stranger in her own hometown. It is a movie about certain unspoken qualities so innate to Chinese culture (the Chinese translation of the film title is literally Don’t Tell Her), and the portrayal of northeastern China is so accurate—the accents, the interior decor, the round-table dinners, the wedding extravaganzas, and the family secrets—that I thought I was watching my own life unfold on screen. Apparently I was not the only one. “Oh my God!” I heard someone gasp during the movie. “That is so relatable. That’s exactly what my grandma would say.” It was the young Asian American woman sitting behind me at the Angelika Film Center. Awkwafina’s character Billi, once again, is not the gold-star immigrant kid who has brought honor to us all. Instead, she refuses to conform. She bangs on doors asking why, why no one wants to be on her side, and she has the nerve to ask the questions many Asian Americans wouldn’t dare to ask: Are we happy here? Why did we come in the first place? Do we come to America to be free, to lose ourselves so we can find family anew? It takes time and skill and a painful amount of introspection to make nostalgic campiness out of suffocating tradition. This is so well done in The Farewell because of Lulu Wang’s creative control.

Although the Asian American experience takes center stage, Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell are specific stories about specific people in their own right; they also resonate with a much larger audience beyond markers of cultural or ethnic identity. One main reason for the success of these movies was their placement of Asian American creatives at the helm and behind the scenes. This level of visibility and inclusion allowed the integrity of the storytelling, what they call “authenticity,” to be protected while evading the girlboss type of feminist chicken soup that live-action Mulan tried to feed audiences. Awkwafina’s fame is specific. Straddling a particular inbetweenness, her celebrity persona is so tightly connected to the borough of Queens that she automatically dodges the “Where are you really from?” question all Asian Americans are so fed up with. Because Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. New York is a very tribal city. Even though the question rarely pops up in conversations, since everyone is from everywhere in this town, people seem to take a special interest in which neighborhood you live in or, if you’re a native New Yorker, which borough you are from. It is precisely this pride in her Queens upbringing that cements her American-girl-next-door persona. But who she really remains an enigma. We don’t know who Awkwafina is dating or where she lives. We don’t seem to care either. True American celebrity is the kind that attracts paparazzi because people obsess over your possible romances, your extravagant home, your messy divorce, your splashy conservatorship, or which toxic ex you might go back to. Awkwafina is not there yet. Her still-niche fame is rarely acknowledged by my Chinese friends in China or by people outside of New York, or people who aren’t Asian. Maybe she will never get there, and so much for the better.

There is a peculiar phenomenon that the handful of movies Awkwafina has been in aren’t simply movies; to me and many Asian Americans, they feel like celebrations. Recently, I watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with a Taiwanese American friend. We got popcorn and nachos and snuck some seltzers into the theater, making a party out of it. Eight minutes into the movie, I was already crying. It was the scene where Shang-Chi’s mom (Fala Chen) was teaching him to cut a dragon out of a piece of red paper, a totem that would appear later in the movie to guide Shang-Chi back to his past. I risk sounding like a sissy here—which I honestly couldn’t care less about—but this scene made me miss my mom. I haven’t seen her in three years. Three movies in three years. Awkwafina has locked down her status as the anti-heroine. Three years isn’t that long a time. But the three years from the summer of 2018 to the fall of 2021 overlapped almost entirely with Donald Trump’s presidency. This period of time bore witness to the coronavirus pandemic, which is still progressing with much uncertainty; the Black Lives Matter movement; a right-wing insurrection that culminated in the storming of the Capitol; the wave of anti-Asian violence—all of which still make me rub my eyes in the morning, wondering if it all actually happened. During these three years in the United States, I have been living with the continuous expectation of leaving. Like thousands of other immigrants, my destiny in this country is determined not by agency or willpower, but by chance: by a job offer, marriage, or winning the H-1B visa lottery. My inbetweenness has robbed me of a sense of belonging and it constantly makes me wonder: What is the point of my even being here? Where is home?

Do we come to America to be free, to lose ourselves so we can find family anew? What does Awkwafina mean to me? I cautiously subscribe to the Asian American identity because I don’t know if I will leave or stay. This self-consciousness seeps into my career choices, my relationships, and even my friendships: exactly how full-heartedly can I call this country home? How much can I afford to invest in building communities around me if they are only ephemeral? Perhaps we all share the same distrust of our individuality when it comes to coping with loneliness or alienation. That’s why we build communities around ourselves, communities that we are familiar with, populated by people with whom we have rapport or cultural shorthand. Sadly, some of these communities can eventually become insular enclaves we can’t outgrow. As I think about the level of shared identity I need to feel comfortable and protected in a group of people, to be able to shield myself from explanation, fetishization, and more potential alienation, it dawns on me that this is the same old Asian American conundrum. In lieu of giving each other the benefit of the doubt, we tend to underline differences: while I, an Asian person from Asia, wonder if I’m not American enough, the Asian Americans who grew up here have to live with the perpetual self-consciousness that they are not Asian enough, as if Asian and American are two labels that just cannot coexist. We end up feeling like we don’t belong in each other’s company all over again.

The specificity of Awkwafina, however, makes me feel that there’s a space for my inbetweenness. There is something deviously strategic about Awkwafina, not the person but rather the brand. We live in a time when identity is becoming increasingly fluid and defining. Specificity is culture’s way of interpreting intersectionality. Asian, American, woman, artist. A dabbler who refuses to stay in her lane, whose career was launched through a series of music videos on YouTube. Whose big break was her role in the mainstream blockbuster Ocean’s Eight, in which she played a street-smart crook with a nose ring. Now she creates and writes and stars in her own show, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. Through this dabbling, she is proving her range and complexity. It hasn’t always been easy for Asian American creatives to cross boundaries or even try new things. Our dabbling is recognized but not rewarded. While being anti-narrative, she has built a new narrative that doesn’t care much for the racial binary. The success of Awkwafina is ultimately an American story: she emblematizes the American will to reinvent oneself. She may be a New Yorker from Queens, but she is so much more than that.

I don’t know if I’ll leave or stay. But in this inbetweenness, I am building a home for myself. It may not look like the house I grew up in. It may not be a house at all. There may not be many people in it, but those very few I have chosen are the family I have found anew. Why do we come to America? Like everyone else, to gain experience; to bear witness to not only what is, but also what’s possible; and as cheesy as it sounds, to find ourselves. In these past years, the rise of Awkwafina has proven to me that you can play with dualities and more: Asian and American, rapper and actor, woman and dabbler, all at the same time. What I’ve learned in the past three years is this: reinvention will always be more interesting than assimilation.

*Illustrations by Hansel Huang

Hansel Huang is an innovation strategist and trans-disciplinary creative based in New York City. By day, he develops design solutions that put humans in the center. By night, he writes poetry and essays about culture, relationships, and social change. He has lived in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Aarhus, and New York. A generalist and a master of none, he’s still trying to make his mom proud.

Published: 2021.11.11