On her new EP In Fina We Trust, Korean-Chinese-American rapper Awkwafina opens with a skit centred on a rhetorical question. Who am I? Or, more bluntly, “Who TF is Awkwafina?”
An unidentified – presumed white – fanboy struggles with his answer. Is she Bingbing Fan? Constance Wu? Kimiko Glenn? George Takei? Then, the satirical climax: Dora the Explorer? “Okay, um, also animated, and also Mexican and four years old? I’m Awkwafina.”
What might have been a self-effacing bit a few years ago is a tremendous boast from one of the hottest celebrities of summer 2018. You may be forgiven if you’re not familiar with her hip-hop career. You’d be living under a rock, however, if you didn’t recognize her as the scene-stealing pickpocket Constance in Ocean’s 8, or later this summer as stylish Goh Peik Lin in the all-Asian cast of Crazy Rich Asians.
Awkwafina is one of the brightest stars in a small but growing constellation of English-speaking Asian actors, singers and pop-culture icons (you’ll need more than two hands to count the names in this very article!) that have me giddy about on-screen diversity. Or as they say on the internet: I feel seen, and for the very first time.
Because, for the very first time, it feels like a critical mass of Southeast Asians in North American culture can be celebrated for simply being cool, without the weight of ethnic struggle. For my entire lifetime, there have been what we now call long reads and hot takes on the plight of the Asian identity, stretching back to Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, released the year I was born. There used to be so little representation that the discourse itself centred on the lack thereof.
Two long years ago, Awkwafina participated in a documentary called Bad Rap, available on Netflix. It’s a well-produced look at the lives of her and three other Korean-American rappers, Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy and Lyricks, struggling for respect and legitimacy in a community that considers them outsiders. It’s real, it’s intimate – it’s heavy. True, the Awkwafina of before might have been an unsure, younger twentysomething grappling with the creative implications of her ethnicity. But the filmmakers were so caught up in chronicling what was missing that they missed what was there. The bubbly, bawdy, bodacious Awkwafina who’s earned her place in the spotlight in 2018 was nowhere in sight.
A rapping, acting Asian-American woman would have been singular in any of the past four decades − quite literally, as her career trajectory has no obvious antecedents. Which meant that for most of my adolescence, in retrospect, I did not feel seen at all.
There was a brief glimmer brought on by the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, a historic geopolitical moment that registered to a Chinese-Canadian teen as an influx of new kids to his high school. They were cool, and things they liked seemed cool. Despite my shortcomings in the language, I studied up on Cantonese film and pop, including the famous Four Heavenly Kings of Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai, actor-singers who dominated Hong Kong’s entertainment industry in the 1990s and 2000s. But as much enthusiasm as I put into researching celebrities who at least looked like me, diligently exploring a foreign monoculture felt academic. I could not escape the uniquely Western phenomenon of first-generation children feeling stuck in-between. On one side, language barriers and ethnocultural disconnect; on the other, a popular culture historically indifferent to the stories of people of colour. Given those options, representation doesn’t even register as a priority when choosing a favourite rock star or Hollywood actor. How can it until that first person presents themselves?
In North America, then, how did we go from Asian caricature in a 1984 romcom to accepting the awesomeness of Awkwafina? Representation has to start somewhere, and for most minorities, that is almost always food. There is no better way to ease a Caucasian majority into the unfamiliar than with delicious things.
I began to feel seen when celebrity chefs such as David Chang, Danny Bowien and Eddie Huang wrote unapologetically in books and magazines about Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese food cultures. Before them, I had no idea that you could wax poetic about kimchi, Szechuan peppers and beef noodle soup and have people hunger over food they have surely described as “weird” or “gross.” Then, in a post-Bourdain landscape, these chefs got big enough for their own streaming shows (Ugly Delicious, Mind of a Chef, Huang’s World), the visual medium – seeing them – helping them become household names, in Asian ones at least.
Huang leveraged his fame into a TV adaptation of his memoir, Fresh Off the Boat. The book is a hip-hop-inflected, hardscrabble recollection from a son of immigrants hustling to do good in the U.S. of A. The show, coming off its fourth season (ABC, Comedy), is a feel-good sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family’s misadventures living in Orlando. If that sounds conventional, it’s because it is – and to great relief. It follows in the recent lineage of diverse sitcoms such as Black-ish (ABC, City) and the Latino reboot of One Day at a Time (Netflix) that swim enthusiastically in the cultures depicted, but don’t feel the need for a heavy-handed stamp of authenticity.
Fresh Off the Boat in turn introduced audiences to Constance Wu, a Taiwanese-American actor who plays the charming Jessica Huang. Her hilarious yet warm and nuanced send-up of the archetypal tiger mom became a prime showcase for her talents, which has shot her to a stardom that few Asian women have experienced in a generation, since Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh broke through. Now, she’ll play lead protagonist Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians alongside Awkwafina.
I do have to mention struggle, a bit. It would be a disservice not to mention Wu’s activism for equality in Hollywood, a cause she has embodied as a leading figure in the #TimesUp movement against sexual harassment in the workplace. She first honed her activist voice on the issues of filmic whitewashing and the lack of leading roles for people of colour. Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in Aloha? Tilda Swinton as a Buddhist monk in Doctor Strange? No thanks. Wu was also the adored subject of the #StarringConstanceWu meme, in which Twitter users photoshopped her into various movie posters, replacing white actors with her as the lead. The most biting one was an edit of Easy A. (“Swapping with Emma Stone hahaha oh man…,” Wu tweeted at the time.)
That meme was inspired by #StarringJohnCho, which first lamented the lack of leading roles for the Korean-born actor who had shown his considerable range since the stoner days of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, but was mostly afforded token or supporting roles. It’s only recently that he’s starred in two films, the moody Columbus and the coming social-media thriller Searching, that put him in the lead and posit his ethnic identity as a matter of fact, nothing more. It is a miracle, then, that there is room to talk about the next step in representation: dismantling the notion of Pan-Asian identity. As Randall Park, the comedian who plays opposite Wu in Fresh Off the Boat, put it to Vulture: “In an ideal world, you won’t see a Korean-American playing a Taiwanese character, especially an immigrant character.”
But finally we can have our cake and eat it, too. There still needs to be more artists of colour on our screens and in our ears. At the same time, I can laugh guilt-free at Jimmy O. Yang’s bumbling portrayal of a chain-smoking tech-nerd from China in HBO’s Silicon Valley; I can nod along to the Indonesian rapper Rich Brian without contemplating his place in hip hop; the Korean boy band BTS can continue singing in their native language, so long as I get to see everyone lose their minds over cute Korean guys at awards shows.
The moment I felt truly seen is in Ali Wong’s Netflix special Hard Knock Wife. Wong, a Chinese-Vietnamese-American comedian and former writer on Fresh Off the Boat, wields a cutting brand of feminist humour that far overshadows any attempt to categorize her as an ethnic comic. Nonetheless, she draws extremely well with Asian audiences, which was the case when the special filmed in Toronto during the JFL42 comedy festival. You bet I had tickets.
My wife, Maggie – who is Polish-Canadian – and I thought nothing of the taping we had attended until the show premiered Mother’s Day weekend. We were at a Chinese restaurant, no less, when friends began to text and tweet. “Is this you?” We rushed home, turned on Netflix and clicked to Hard Knock Wife. About halfway through, there we were in a reaction shot, Maggie laughing uncontrollably at a well-timed penis joke while I nodded along in agreement. When you can see yourself – that’s when you feel seen.