Allison Haunss/Nühanzi Staff – New York
Ever since becoming internet-famous for her incredibly catchy 2012 parody rap song “My Vag,” Nora Lum, best known by her stage name Awkwafina, has shown the world a different version of Asian-American womanhood than the media typically represents. In a culture that too often stereotypes Asian women as passive, boring, or socially inept, she’s displayed charisma, humor, vibrancy, and attitude both in her rap songs and in her acting roles. We’d say that definitely makes her a Nühanzi .
This summer, she’s making history by appearing in Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Awkwafina called it “a very American tale” — just one we don’t hear nearly enough. The film’s star Constance Wu said giving Asians the lead for once let them portray more multidimensional characters than we see when Asian actors are confined to the roles of sidekicks.
As if that weren’t enough, Awkwafina also recently starred in Ocean’s 8, which broke grounds of its own by contributing a movie with all female stars to a previously male-dominated series. This is definitely her year — and a year for Nühanzi as a group and a movement.
At New York’s Ozyfest July 21-22, Awkwafina spoke about her latest role in Crazy Rich Asians, how representation of Asian women has changed over the past few years, and how she’d like to see it improve further. “I used to get roles that… would only call for Asians,” she recounted on a “Future of Hollywood” panel with Laverne Cox, Taye Diggs, and Rebecca Sun. “I remember doing this one where I got into the room and the casting director says, ‘I want an accent.’ … I’m like, ‘a Chinese accent?’ They’re like, ‘Asian.’”
These same prejudices were evident on screen. She grew up watching shows and movies with Asian characters who were flattened to stereotypes, and the only Asian women she had to look up to in the entertainment industry were Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu.
But she’s had fewer casting experiences like the one she described over the years, and actresses like her are changing the game for Asian-American representation. “We’re just real characters,” she said. “When you put us together, we’re able to have our own storylines and our own problems and to resonate in different ways.” And that’s what movies like Crazy Rich Asians are doing.
We were lucky enough to speak with Awkwafina at the event about her recent work and her thoughts on the Nühanzi movement. First, I asked her what it’s like to be starring in movies focused on Asian Americans. She talked about how unpredictable it feels, since there’s little precedent for it.
“When I was working an office job back in the day, I was able to google ‘does my boss hate me?’ or ‘how to confront your boss,’” she explained. “I was able to google things that had to do with the workforce, and I can’t google ‘what will happen to me as an Asian woman lead in a movie?’ My job doesn’t exist. I have a pilot now that’s airing on Comedy Central. I can’t look up the history of Asian-led music shows on network television because they just don’t exist. There’s no paper trail of that, so it’s scary. It’s like a brave new world, and I wonder, what are the numbers? Will people watch this? Will people like it? Will people hate it? Will this set us back?”
She’s learned to push these questions out of her mind, though, so that she can continue being her confident, kickass self. “I’ve made a career out of more than being an Asian woman — being very aggressively myself, and that’s my draw to people,” she said. “So you can’t worry about those kinds of things because what else can I do than be myself, you know? It either works or it doesn’t work, so that’s my thing.”
When I told her about the Nühanzi movement, she hadn’t heard of it but could relate to the desire to break stereotypes of Asian women. “That stereotypical demure Asian woman doesn’t even exist,” she said. “I’m trying to go even bigger than that because in 2018, that’s not allowed to exist anymore, and there’s so much better that we can do. We can take it from even just breaking that little stereotype to just being the lead in a giant role. I know they’re doing a new Spider-Woman movie and that makes me so happy. … Crazy Rich Asians, even if I wasn’t in it, it makes me so happy because it’s stories about Asian American women who aren’t the demure role but are much more than not being that.”
When people first heard about both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, their reaction was, “how could that exist? That’s weird,” she remembers. But as movies like these become increasingly popular, she thinks that’s changing. “I want these movies to symbolize the opening of a time when those aren’t weird movies,” she said. “There should be tons of female-led ensemble films where we’re being badasses. There should be tons of Asian-led movies. They shouldn’t be the first ones. So I think right now, I’m in a time where they’re rare, but I hope that they won’t be in the next 10 years.”
Based on our conversation, it was obvious to me that she’s a Nühanzi. But I wanted to hear it from her. When I asked if she identified with the term, she answered, “From what you told me, definitely yes, because I don’t think I fit into any stereotype of an Asian person. And I think that in certain parts of Asia, I do freak people out by being very balls-to-the-wall, very loud. I have a voice. I think people might’ve called me that when I was in China. So yes, I’m gonna look it up. It sounds great.”
Her advice for the other Nühanzi out there who want to follow in her footsteps? “What’s worked for me is never adhering to the rules. Being yourself will make you different, and difference is what will make you go farther in this world.” Spoken like a true Nühanzi.
Allison Haunss is an Emmy award-winning journalist. As the founder, creator and host of the “Working Woman Report” (www.workingwomanreport.com ) she has spent the past 6 years interviewing and researching the lives of thousands of female entrepreneurs around the world. That platform led to the creation of “Nühanzi” (www.nuhanzilife.com)