Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Asian-American Women Pioneering the Path Forward: A Conversation with Awkwafina & Lisa Ling

Awkwafina

Today’s episode is an exclusive replay of a 2020 Massachusetts Conference for Women keynote conversation recognizing two remarkable pioneers blazing trails for Asian Americans, and inspiring women and girls of all ages and backgrounds: award-winning writer, actress, and comedian Awkwafina and journalist Lisa Ling.

With authenticity and vulnerability, Awkwafina shares personal experiences in navigating the ups and downs of her career and life, illustrating that everyone, regardless of success level, grapples with insecurities and self-doubt. Packed with advice and laughter, you will walk away inspired and ready to tackle your fears and take a risk.

 


 

This Month’s Guest:

AWKWAFINA is an award-winning writer, actress and rapper. Her “government name” is Nora Lum. Most recently, Lum earned rave reviews for her performance in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Before that, she was seen in Warner Brothers features Ocean’s 8, directed by Gary Ross, opposite Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett and Crazy Rich Asians, directed by Jon Chu, opposite Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh. Lum can be seen in the Universal film Neighbors 2 opposite Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, and Rose Byrne. She also starred as Rebecca in the independent comedy Dude, written and directed by Olivia Milch. She was the voice of Quail in the Warner Bros. animated feature Storks (2016). In television, Comedy Central ordered ten episodes of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, a series which Lum created and stars in. Her other TV credits include: Hulu’s Future Man as well as MTV’s Mary + Jane and Girl Code. She is self-noted for her extensive satire and comical appeal in her music. Lum sold her first book, a travel guide to New York entitled Awkwafina’s NYC published by Penguin Random House. She hosts a talk show on YouTube for Astronauts Wanted entitled TAWK. Lum is a cast member on MTV’s show Girl Code and Girl Code Live. On October 2, 2018, Lum hosted Saturday Night Live. She has been featured in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, New York, The Daily Beast, Gothamist, Jezebel, Gawker, Hairpin, HelloGiggles.com, and Bust. @awkwafina

 

In Conversation With:

Lisa LingLISA LING is the executive producer and host of THIS IS LIFE on CNN, now its seventh season. For five seasons prior, Ling EP’d and hosted Our America on OWN. She was also a field correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show and contributor to ABC News’ Nightline. Ling was the first female host of National Geographic’s flagship show Explorer which sent her to cover the phenomenon of female suicide bombing, the spread of the MS-13 gang and the humanitarian crisis inside North Korea. She got her start in journalism as a correspondent for Channel One News where she covered the civil war in Afghanistan at 21 years of age. She later went to become a co-host of ABC Daytime’s hit show, The View, which won its first daytime Emmy during her time at the show. Ling is the co-author of Mother, Sister. Daughter, Bride: Rituals of Womanhood, and Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and The Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home that she penned with her sister Laura. In 2014, President Obama appointed her to the commission on White House fellows. She is an advisory board member for Fostering Media Connections, The Amani Project, and a Baby2Baby angel. @lisaling

 


 

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Awkwafina & Lisa Ling Interview Transcript:

A note to listeners & readers: About three-quarters of the way through the conversation (00:17:55–00:18:05), Awkwafina recalls an anti-Asian racial slur yelled at her in the past year, during the pandemic. It is very brief, but if you are not in the mood today, please skip ahead. We do hope you will listen to the rest of this wonderful conversation!

Lisa Ling:

I am so excited to be talking to Awkwafina whose career I have just been in awe of from the day that I became aware of her. Awkwafina, the people who are watching this, they probably know you as this A-list movie star, who has been in some of the biggest films of the last couple of years, but you started your media career as a rapper. And that’s how the name Awkwafina came about. I wonder if you could tell everyone what launched your acting career, and people also might not know that your real name is Nora.

Awkwafina:

Yeah. My parents didn’t name me Awkwafina much to the surprise of a lot of people. Yeah.

Lisa Ling:

But how Nora became Awkwafina. So, what launched the acting career and how did Nora become Awkwafina? And where is Nora now?

Awkwafina:

Wow. I think I always noticed things when I was young. I love making people laugh. That was my main prerogative. I would do anything. I would jump off of a balcony to make someone laugh. I would do anything. And that was a big thing that made a lot of sense to me. And then I loved writing. I loved music. I loved everything from classical, to hip hop, to Latin folk, everything. And I noticed that there was always this interconnection between everything, the books that I read, the indie movies that I was moved by, wanting to entertain. And I think that all of those things played a factor in where I am, and where I became.

Awkwafina:

When I was 15, 16 years old, I came up with the name Awkwafina, not ever imagining that it would be a known thing or that people would call me that. But also, when I was 15 or 16, I had a shamelessness of confidence and a bravery that I don’t have anymore. And I think a lot of it was disciplined away and just becoming an adult. But the person that I was when I thought of that name was someone that was a dreamer, that was put in a situation where her life circumstances seemed pretty bleak, but she dreamed all the time. And that Awkwafina didn’t care as much as Nora. And so, when it became this moniker for my career now, there is always talk of this duality with it, where it’s like, Oh, they’re two different people.

Awkwafina:

And I think if you say that enough you ignore the reality that they are the same person. Awkwafina is a part of me. And when I see that name on chair backs, on movie posters, I’m reminded of that girl that I was when I was young. So, where Nora is now? I think Nora, I’ve always said that Awkwafina induces the panic attacks and then Nora goes through them. But I think now as I’m entering my thirties, I need to find more of a connection between the two.

Lisa Ling:

Would you say that Awkwafina has really helped Nora a lot? And where is Nora today?

Awkwafina:

Nora today is still caked with imposter syndrome, overwhelming insecurities, anxieties, worries, fears, the feeling of inadequacy, always. I talk about this sometimes and it makes me obviously seem like an asshole, but the years when I was struggling, when I was making $15,000 on a good year, working at a bodega, playing little shows, those were the best days of my life because I was waiting for something to happen. And it was ironic for me because when things started to pick up and it was objectively the best time of my life, I found myself losing a sense of identity, who I was, losing myself. And so Nora today is someone who is trying to realize what happened over all those years that I think I missed out. I want to try to be in a mental place where I can handle this career in a healthy way, and I’m not worrying all the time.

Lisa Ling:

So appreciate you being that vulnerable about that. Can you talk about the ways in which you are trying to combat that insecurity? I think insecurity is something that we all feel, right? And so are there ways that you figured out to try and deal with that? Or have you found ways to help you through and overcome some of those insecurities?

Awkwafina:

I have. It was actually very recent, I read a book that actually changed my life. If I tell you what it is, you’ve probably heard of it, it’s called, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fu*k, and it’s by Mark Manson. I’m not into self-help, I’m not into that, but what the book taught me, it taught me two things. One, that your greatest love will always be the source of your greatest pain, your greatest tragedy, your greatest fears, because it’s your greatest love. The second thing it taught me is that, when we define ourselves as undiscovered geniuses, rising stars, people that are the next, if you define yourself as that you set yourself up for a constant row of disappointments. Instead, define yourself more broadly.

Awkwafina:

I’m an actress, I’m a musician, I’m an entertainer. And yeah. And I think once I realized that life will always be about suffering, life will always be about problems. One thing that’s a problem for me is that I have a problem where I want everyone to like me. I don’t want people to hate me. I want people to like me so badly that it’s unrealistic, because as they say, when you become the president, you lose half the country. For me, instead of making my value, I need everyone to love me, or something that I can’t control. I can instead say, I want to put out kind energy. I want to treat people with kindness and respect. I don’t want to be someone who people don’t like. That’s what I can control. So yeah, I’m still learning. Yeah.

Lisa Ling:

Does it make you nervous, or how does it make you feel when people describe you as this A-list actress, right? Who has worked alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood, Golden Globe Award winning, among so many of the accolades, how does that feel? Does it feel deserving to you?

Awkwafina:

Deserving? I don’t know if that’s the word. Unplanned? Yeah. And I think, the first couple of years that I started doing this, beginning with my first two big movies, Ocean’s 8, and Crazy Rich Asians, it always felt like an acid trip. It’s like sometimes I wake up and I don’t know if it was a dream, my whole life was a dream. With the Golden Globe though, it was so unexpected. And it meant a lot to me because that movie meant a lot to me. And when I think about Billi, I think about my grandma. And so, to see a film like that, written and directed by an Asian-American woman, to get that kind of recognition for a story that I felt that no one could understand, that made me feel good.

Awkwafina:

And I think it definitely, I don’t see it as like, Oh, well, I’m done. That happened. It was the most memorable night probably of my life, but I’m still hungry for more. And I don’t, by any means, think I’m an A-list actress. I think that you can be an A-list actress for a week and then it’s arbitrary. So I’m just waiting for it to even itself out.

Lisa Ling:

Well, that role in the Farewell, I just thought was incredible. And it was just so different from how the world has seen you, right? Over the past couple of years. So I imagine that it just must’ve been so validating as an actress, to be awarded for a role like that. You talk about the fact that it was an Asian American director and writer. You are Chinese-Korean, like my two daughters and —

Awkwafina:

Yeah. Yes, we need more of us!

Lisa Ling:

Yes.

Awkwafina:

To understand the really complicated inner working relationships of the two cultures. Yes.

Lisa Ling:

Exactly. Right? But I wonder if as an Asian-American, has it hurt you or helped you in the business? And if so, in what ways?

Awkwafina:

I can’t say, I’m different from a lot of Asian-American actors who’ve been doing it for a lot longer who have been hurt, and who have been disrespected and treated unfairly. They were the pioneers to create the landscape that allowed someone like me to thrive. When I came onto the scene diversity was something that was starting to become a prerequisite for a lot of these things. And so when I came on the scene, what I noticed is that it was quite the opposite of being hard because I was different. However, I started to notice that I was being auditioning for roles that had no substance, had no growth, had no context, but they were just Asian. So, I came into the industry at a time of diversity.

Awkwafina:

The problem then was that, I feel great doing this, but I don’t have any lines. I’m in every scene and I’m just there in the corner. And so that’s when I started to see the difference between diversity and representation. I also came into an industry where I was a part of one of the biggest reintroductions of Asian representation. And to see the difference between that and the beginning of my career, I didn’t notice that they’re two different things. And so that was different. But overall, I think, yeah, I think that it hasn’t necessarily been hard, but I don’t want to take jobs from people just because I’m Asian. I don’t think that I do, but that’s not right either, I guess.

Lisa Ling:

Well, how do you work against being typecast, right? In those exclusively Asian roles? How do you get beyond that? You certainly have been able to, but for those who are struggling to be able to be seen beyond a certain label, how would you suggest being able to do that?

Awkwafina:

Well, the only people that can answer that and do something about that are the people behind the scenes. Actors have no say. We can’t blame any of the Asian-American actors that came before us for the roles that they were given, because why weren’t there any other roles for them? And so we need people behind the scenes that are writing authentic characters, that don’t typecast. I think there was something I saw on social media, someone was caught doing a casting call and asked specifically for no monolids. When I was first coming up, there were instances where they want you to put on a Vietnamese accent, or they want you to sound like this. And that more and more doesn’t exist.

Awkwafina:

I think right now, people are aware that, that’s not the way to go. And I’m seeing characters that could have been written for a man, could have been written for any race of person, it’s just a character. But then at the same time, the difficult thing with typecasting is that you want to also do movies that tell the stories of your community. There’s some projects that I’ve done, or that I’m developing right now that, it’s almost like I want to do it for the culture. I want to tell these stories. So it’s almost like maybe I’m typecasting myself, but I don’t let anyone have ownership over… I’ll just say no at that point, if it’s like that. And I think a lot of actors are starting to.

Lisa Ling:

Let’s talk a bit about Nora from Queens, your show, on Comedy Central. Why did you want to bring your life story to the forefront?

Awkwafina:

Well, it was the only story I had pretty much. And I also, I think that one thing that we need to do, especially when we talk about representation and Asian-American media, we have to show Asian-Americans the way that they are, even if that means accidentally confirming some stereotypes, I wanted to make a show about a specific place, which is Queens, which is the most diverse borough, the biggest borough of all the five boroughs, and one that people really don’t understand. The nature of it is different. And I wanted to portray a family that wasn’t brainstormed, it was literally ripped from real life. And the setup, everything. And it’s almost like if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t work, then that was then maybe my life didn’t work. You know what I mean? I wanted to show an Asian-American experience that was true. That didn’t have to check boxes. It just was what it was.

Lisa Ling:

And what was it like for you to even step back and watch that? Nora from Queens is a show, right? It’s a scripted show, but there’s so many elements of your life that are the basis for the show. So, given that you really struggled with a lot of things growing up, what was it like for you to watch from the periphery a show about your life?

Awkwafina:

Well, I’m my harshest critic about that, my show. It’s my life, so it’s like, I’m never going to watch it and be like, Oh, I killed it. It’s always going to be like, I could have done that so much better. A lot of regrets. But what I see though is something that I’ve never seen as just a consumer. First of all, being able to work with BD Wong in that specific role. He plays my dad in a way that my dad can’t even play my dad. And working with Lori who has been acting for many, many, many years, starting with Madame Butterfly with BD, she’s an OG, I’ve never met an Asian-American woman from that generation. And to be around her was more than inspiring because the stories that she would tell, and also just to see a woman that dedicated her life to acting, an Asian-American woman. So, when I watch it, it feels like it’s different than my family, but it almost is my family. And also, I am reminded of a time where I had no idea what was going to come.

Lisa Ling:

I want to pivot a little bit to these times that we are living through right now. We’ve just experienced perhaps the most consequential election of our lives. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, and there has been a lot of racial attacks, a lot of xenophobia directed toward Asian people, because this virus reputedly started in China. How have you used your platform to speak out on issues like that and others? And how do you view your platform given the fact that you have such a high profile as an actress?

Awkwafina:

Well, I think with that, first of all, with all of the xenophobia and the sudden slew of racist attacks against Asians, that was deeply disturbing. And instances that I even experienced. I think the first couple of weeks I was yelled “COVID.” I was yelled “chink.” It happened to me. And obviously it’s founded in ignorance and stupidity, it’s driven by hatred, misplaced hatred. And for me, I really don’t think there’s any room for it. I also know that in our country we have a lot of issues with race. We have a lot of issues with groups that have been oppressed, murdered, abused for as long as our country’s history. And at the same time, we then have these events that cause this spurt and just more ignorance. The way that I want to use my platform is obviously to not promote ignorance, right? Because the way that I responded, honestly, is that I was hurt by it. And I don’t really know how to use my platform to be angry or aggressive if I’m just honestly, just deeply saddened by it.

Awkwafina:

And when I did realize how much it was affecting Chinatown, and especially given my family’s history of Chinese restaurants in New York City, imagining my great-grandma walking around Chinatown, if she was still alive and getting a soda bottle thrown at her by some racist idiots, yeah, my heart hurt. So I wanted to give back to the Chinatowns and I think, yeah, I just really hope that we can gain some form of understanding as a people, because we have a lot of problems right now.

Lisa Ling:

Do you feel compelled to use your platform to speak out on things?

Awkwafina:

I do feel compelled to use my platform to speak out against what I consider injustice, for sure. I also am careful about how much I do talk about without knowing anything about the situation. So if I’m going to use my platform to spread information, or to spread my opinion, I need to make sure that I know the situation full over, because that’s my responsibility. There are certain things that I think I don’t feel comfortable talking about, for instance, like my private life. I don’t know a lot about politics in sense of a global perspective also. And so I need to know those things before I use my platform, but obviously it is important to use your platform to help.

Lisa Ling:

Well, I certainly appreciate you doing so, because there are things that to me are just no brainers, right?

Awkwafina:

For sure.

Lisa Ling:

Use your platform to speak out against hate and intolerance and bigotry and racism. And I so appreciate people like you, and so many others who are continuing to do that, because there’s a difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. And when you know it, you can’t not speak out against injustice. I want to ask you about something that when I saw this on social media, I was just, beside myself, excited, and that is, you’re going to be working on a series with Queen Sandra Oh.

Awkwafina:

Yes. Yes. A movie.

Lisa Ling:

I’m so excited about that. Tell me a little bit about that.

Awkwafina:

Oh my God. We got the script from Jen D’Angelo, Who’s this awesome writer, and Sandra was into it. And we got on the phone, and I remember the first time I got, I’m obsessed with Sandra, I met her years ago at a Korean charity event. I was emceeing it, she was the guest of honor. And I remember her walking in and her being like she is, so swag, it was just, this is the coolest woman I’ve ever seen in my life. She was so down. She came and said, hi. And then, years later that got to us talking about this movie, our first conversation lasted almost two hours. And I think for me, just like Lori Tan Chinn, I love having that support. I love being able to talk to her about being an Asian-American woman in this industry, especially from her.

Awkwafina:

You need to come do a cameo.

Lisa Ling:

I would love that. I would love that. You can teach me how to exercise my acting skills. What is your hope, or what are your hopes for the next year, for 2021?

Awkwafina:

I hope that, and this is an unrealistic hope, but I hope that, as a nation, as a people, and even as a generation, we started to think outside of ourselves a little bit. And we also started to look into ourselves. I hope that we figured out what matters. I hope that a part of us became unselfish. I hope that a part of us gave up something for the greater good during this time. And I hope that when we come out of this, we are able to pick up the pieces.

Lisa Ling:

Well, Nora, thank you for taking the time to be with all of us today. I just continue to watch you with awe and I so appreciate you making all of us laugh. Thank you.

Awkwafina:

Thank you, Lisa. I’ve been watching you forever. You’re so cool. I can’t believe that this is the second time I’m talking to you. I’m going to call my dad after this. As a matter of fact, I’m going to take a picture of this and I’m just going to send it to him, and he’s going to be like, “What?” Because my dad has a crush on you. Anyway, it’s all good. I love you, Lisa. You’re the best.

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Themes: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Embrace the Unknown, Podcasts, Life on Your Terms Tagged: , , |
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