• Interviews

Awkwafina: ‘There is definitely a problem with ignorance and stupidity’

Awkwafina invented her nickname when she was 16 by combining the name of the water Aquafina with the adjective awkward. Her real name is Nora Lum and she was born in Queens, New York, to a Korean mother and a Chinese American father. After playing supporting roles in the ensemble comedies Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, she gave a leading performance in The Farewell directed by Lulu Wang that earned her a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Drama from the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press. She then created the autobiographical TV series for Comedy Central titled Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, where she plays Nora Lin, a young woman living with her grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn) and her father Wally (BD Wong), going into business with her cousin Edmund (Bowen Yang). We interviewed her on Zoom from her new home in West Hollywood, after she returned from filming Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in Australia.


Awkwafina in Awkwafina is Nora from Queens

Danielle Levitt



In the ten-part series, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens you touch on many issues faced by young people today and you do that in a funny and original way. What was your intention?

I really wanted to show a glimpse of what I like to refer to as the millennial conundrum, which is being a twenty-something, living in a big city, not knowing what you are going to do with the rest of your life, and inevitably hating yourself for it. I spent a lot of my twenties doing that, Nora is me at a specific period of my life. So, it is an honest depiction of someone who is defined as a loser by everyone around her, who is essentially trying to find herself and her place in the world.

In the last episode, Nora flies to Beijing when she’s hired by a Chinese company after launching an app with her cousin. What did you want to say about China, after shooting The Farewell in that country?

I also spent time in China when I was 18 and 19 studying Mandarin at BLCU (Beijing Language and Culture University), and what I found is actually a similar experience to the one that was depicted in The Farewell, that you get “lost in translation.” You go over there and you think you’ll feel Chinese, but the truth is that you’re American at the end of the day. And obviously it’s a comedic show, but I also wanted to show some things that I noticed over there, like the fact that the ex-pat culture is very separated from actually immersing yourself within the Chinese culture.

When Donald Trump calls COVID-19 a Chinese virus, what is your reaction?

That’s not something that elicits anything positive from me. That’s a very loaded way to put something that shouldn’t be blamed on an individual country or on all Chinese people. So, the kind of hatred that that term could inspire is very daunting.

Growing up as an Asian-American kid, you faced discrimination as many other ethnic or religious groups do – Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, gays…How do you feel about the resurgence of that kind of separatism today?

There is definitely a problem with ignorance and stupidity, hatred and discrimination, we see it across the globe and throughout history, but especially right now in the United States. Honestly, I’m very disturbed and disgusted by the level of hatred that we see being taken out violently on people that don’t deserve it and have nothing to do with it.  It makes me wish that we had more of an understanding of people in the world.

We have all gone through changes in our lives in the last few months, because of this lockdown due to the coronavirus, the terrible consequences of people dying, losing their jobs and their healthcare. What kind of changes has this crisis brought to your thinking about the future?

This whole period is very devastating and it’s scary to see what’s happened. I know so many people that are struggling right now, people that have caught the virus, that have lost loved ones, and for us as a people, everyone that is going through this, we’re inevitably going to hit this introspective moment of self-reflection about what really matters in our lives. For me, it made me think about how much I value my family, my grandma and her health. It’s a scary time, but it’s really important to not think selfishly right now, to think about everyone else and act accordingly.

After your mom passed away when you were 4 years old, you were raised by your Chinese grandmother. What did she teach you that most helped you in your life?

The most important advice my grandma ever gave me was very early on when I was just starting this career, and she told me, “Life is a series of ups and downs.” And that can’t be truer, not only in this industry but also for our life, the idea that you can’t be up for long, and you can’t be down for long. So that’s wisdom that I always think about and it always rings true.

Did winning the Golden Globe impact your career? 

That Golden Globe night in January was probably one of the most memorable nights in my entire life. When I think about it, I get the chills, because I literally couldn’t believe that it had happened. I remember watching the Golden Globes as a young kid, and to even be invited to those awards was something that I never thought would happen.  After that I definitely got offered a lot of exciting new projects, so it has changed my life, but I still have a lot more learning to do, and I don’t want to cap it there, I’m not done yet. I want to use that event as inspiration to do more and hopefully come back to the Golden Globes again.

What would be your advice to your young Social Media followers, on how to jumpstart their artistic careers, like you did?

My advice to young people is, number one, it’s never too late. Because people can be deterred when their first, second, and third shots don’t work out. Then the second thing is to always make sure that you’re self-generating your content, that you’re publishing your own stuff, that you’re getting it out there because if you don’t cast a line, you won’t catch a fish obviously. So, it’s very important for young people right now using YouTube or TikTok or any of those platforms, that, if you have an artistic voice, you portray that voice. And then the third thing is, in a world where everyone wants to be the same, where weird and eccentric kids are not nurtured, you have to realize what it is within yourself that makes you different and cherish and immerse yourself in those differences, don’t be embarrassed by them, because essentially it will be those differences that will set you apart.