2018 has been an especially draining year. We have a racist, corrupt, self-absorbed president. The ice caps are still melting. Aung San Suu Kyi is not the hero we thought she would be. I found 12 gray hairs on my head and oh did I mention that I work for a gun violence prevention organization?
But all is not lost and I’m not one to stay defeated. McDonald’s still serves breakfast all day and for the first time in 20 years, an Asian American woman hosted Saturday Night Live. This woman also happens to be my childhood best friend.
Awkwafina, aka Nora, and I grew up together in a small neighborhood in Queens, NY. We met in 3rd grade and hit it off right away. I still remember when we first met. Hard to forget an Asian girl with tomboy vibes in a pair of overalls. She always made the funniest faces and had a knack for imitating politicians. I had freshly immigrated from Singapore so it was a pleasant surprise to meet a spunky and rebellious East Asian girl.
One time when we were filming our show “Mo and Fo’s Excellent Adventures” with her dad’s camcorder, she farted on command. I was really impressed. Her grandma and my mom would take turns babysitting us as a pair but for the most part, we were at the park near her home burying treasures, talking shit about classmates, watching SNL or learning how to pogo stick.
We lost contact after we parted ways to go to high school: she went to the famed LaGuardia School of Performing Arts to play the trumpet and I chose the nerdy path and went to Townsend Harris. We tried to find time for each other but distance and the pressure of higher education got to us. Nevertheless, we found our way back into each other’s lives after college at the peak of social networking. When we reunited, we were fresh out of college and woefully underpaid. We knew that neither of us took the stereotypical Asian American career trajectory of Doctor/Lawyer-hood and it was during this time that she told me about her side project as a rapper.
When Nora released “My Vag” on Youtube, I choked hard on my matcha latte from laughing. Everything about it screamed Nora and her rebellion against the Asian American stereotype. It was brave and I was proud of her resistance. She had made it seem like a small project but when I went to see her perform the song live at a street food festival in Flushing, the Asian American community showed up and were clearly smitten by her. Her brief YouTube and rapping fame opened doors to other opportunities and she eventually landed impressive supporting roles. I cheered on the sideline as her career slowly took the interest of Hollywood but I never imagined it would get so big.
I knew early on that Nora would be part of a bold project called “Crazy Rich Asians”. I had my doubts that the general American audience would care for a movie with an all Asian/Asian-American cast, but I made everyone I knew, including the lady at the Japanese grocery store, to promise me that they would go see it. The movie broke box office records.
My family and I watched the earliest show we could find. I showed up to support my friend and our community but didn’t expect to cry over the relatable mother-daughter bond, or laugh so hard from Nora’s comedic timing. I yearned so deeply for more movies like this. For a moment I forgot that my friend was on the screen and I was carried away into a world so familiar to me. It was undeniable that Nora was part of something big and important. For years, Asian Americans had struggled to have three dimensional characters in Hollywood and she had been part of the team that broke that barrier and succeeded.
There were those who criticize her, but I think they’re all full of shit. Instead of nitpicking her for a perfect role model of Asian American womanhood like we have for those before her, why not embrace her uniqueness and give her the space to grow into her new identity. She is an unintentional recipient of this onus to represent Asian American women in film and I know she doesn’t take that lightly.
The rise of Awkwafina and the success of my friend has been the good news that I needed. Behind that hilarious, crazy vision that is Awkwafina, Nora is a serious, sensitive, and brave person. She embraces her imperfection and listens deeply. She knows that she’s breaking the ceiling for other Asian Americans in the industry and as the friend who saw her through the awkward phases, I know she’s the right person for this.
About the Author: Recovering former Conservative Christian, full time activist. I have to keep my identity anonymous because I work for a gun violence prevention movement and only in America is this a safety issue.
Cover Image: Copyright NBC Universal