Why Awkwafina’s Success is Uniquely Asian American
by Avery Hoang
Nora Lum, a.k.a. Awkwafina, has had a big couple of years. Being a prominent character in Crazy Rich Asians, starring in The Farewell, and winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. She is one who is celebrated by many Asians, but her story is so distinctly Asian American, specifically internet age AsAm, that it resonates especially hard with those of us who came of age in the 2000s-2010s.
Growing up in Hilliard, Ohio, I didn’t see many Asian people in person, let alone on TV. I was one of two Asian kids in my grade for most of my elementary school, and because of that, we got a lot of “are you two brothers?” and slant eye gestures. The first Asian person I ever saw in a movie was Jackie Chan, and I latched on hard. I even tried to do martial arts for a year before I realized it was hard and quit. Martial Arts movies were really the only kind of movies that Asians were in, at least as far as I knew. Bruce Lee quickly became my idol, even though I hadn’t seen a single one of his movies. I was too young to watch Better Luck Tomorrow and I don’t count Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Instead, I found representation on YouTube. The free form of the early platform led to many AsAm content creators like Nigahiga and Wongfu Productions and allowed kids like me to see real, authentic AsAm experiences where nowhere else would. Social media like YouTube became the outlet for AsAms to tell their stories. As Phil Wang from Wongfu said on NPR, “[W]hen growing up here in the States, you know, that – because we’re relatively new to this country, there isn’t a lot of established Asian American culture for us to kind of gravitate towards. So I think a lot of people… think… [t]hey must be foreign. And so a lot of Asian Americans, you know, were forced to assimilate in some type of way to try to fit in. And like a lot of times, you know, that meant, you know, silencing our own stories just to make sure that we weren’t viewed as these foreigners. And now we’re just kind of coming around to believing that what we’ve been through, what our parents have been through does have a place in the American narrative. And I think for the first time, thanks to social media, we’re kind of finally coming into truly being accepted in American society. And I think that’s really great.” This online hub would lead to many different people that could be considered YouTube celebrities rising up, like the aforementioned Wongfu and Ryan Higa, alongside others, like the Fung Bros, and Dumbfounded. We could see ourselves in these people doing things Asians “weren’t” supposed to do, whether that be comedy, making films, or making music. Awkwafina was one of those people.
The first time most became aware of her wasn’t from acting in Wongfu shorts, or guest starring on Ryan Higa’s channel, but because of a rap song. In 2012, her song “My Vag” became a hit online, and people began talking about her as one of the future AsAm rappers who’ll make it big. She was Asian, but also so clearly from New York, with her Hipster-esque glasses and style. She started popping up on the Fung Bros channel, where they talked about Beijing food and Asians in NYC. As we grew up, Awkwafina got bigger and bigger, and it felt like we were right there with her. In her, and in many of the other AsAm personalities, those of us who had never known the Asian American part of our identity finally found a voice, telling the world about what it was like to be us. A much needed voice for the kid that didn’t want to eat Vietnamese food because they were ashamed to not just be American. Nora Lum’s path from YouTube to movie star, and being a part of the movement pushing the traditional medium to include more Asians in movies, is one that many of us never thought would be possible. Going from making a song called “Queef” to winning a Golden Globe is a pretty big jump. And now, Comedy Central has Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, a show that stars Nora Lum and is loosely based around her. As someone who found a home watching others like me create their way into the public consciousness, seeing Awkwafina get the praise she has deserved for 7+ years inspires me, and drives me to keep making art, and keep telling stories that show the AsAm experience that others might ignore.
Parasite and the Dream of Capitalism
by Will O’Neill
“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned.” – Kim Ki-taek, Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s latest film Parasite follows The Kims, a working class family struggling to make ends meet. In the opening scene, Bong and the film’s co-writer Jin Won Han, introduce us to this family unit through the kids, sister Ki-jung (Park So Dam) and brother Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik), as they pace through their semi-basement house in South Korea in search of a Wi-Fi signal. Eventually, Ki-jung settles into a little nook in the house where she’s able to connect to the Wi-Fi network of a nearby coffee shop. Thus, mere minutes into Parasite, the film’s title carries with it a deep level of meaning.
This is a film about a family that must leech off of others to survive.
You know… like a parasite.
And when you put it that way, the Kims sound kind of contemptible.
After all, capitalism (allegedly) works off of the notion that people achieve wealth based off of their labor. While some would be quick to decry this family for taking what isn’t theirs, an argument could be made that the Kims perfectly embody what capitalism really is.
In the first act of Parasite, preppy and wealthy college student Min pays an unexpected visit to the Kim family. An old friend of Ki-woo, he brings with him two things. One of these things is a scholar’s stone, a decorative rock Min claims brings wealth to families. The other thing he brings with him is a job offer: for Ki-woo to tutor English for a teenage girl in the wealthy, high-status Park family.
“It’s so metaphorical,” Ki-woo announces when Min gifts the family the scholar’s stone. And in some ways, it is. By offering Ki-woo this job, Min has given Ki-woo some sort of “path” towards wealth. Or at least that’s how he takes it.
Ki-woo, a smart and enterprising young man, develops a plan as he begins working for the Parks. It’s a heist essentially. Or the reverse actually. Through lying, forgery, and various other nefarious means, Ki-woo manages to infiltrate the Park family’s home with his own family members: His sister as an art therapist for their young boy, his father Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) for the family’s driver, and his mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) as the maid.
And, just as the rock foretold, the Kims are able to dig themselves out of their financial hole. To put it in American terms: They have achieved the (American) dream.
While the Kims are sustaining themselves off of the Park’s wealth (as alluded to by the film’s title), it’s important to note that this prosperity was not just handed to them.
Ki-woo had to plan, and coordinate with his family members, who themselves had to execute Ki-woo’s plan.
That’s capitalism at work. Wealth at the expense of others.
In this case, it’s at the expense of the Park family, but even moreso, the working individuals employed by the family (the driver, the maid) who had to go, so that their places could be filled by the Kims (Ki-taek, Chung-sook) .
But pretty soon, to put it not so eloquently: Min’s plan goes to shit. Up to this point, the Kim’s actions were reprehensible, but a threat to their source of income escalates things even further, driving the family to commit acts of violence.
Through all of this, Ki-woo holds on to the scholar’s stone like it’s his baby. Later in the film, when the Kim’s home is flooding, the practically worthless rock is the one thing he thinks to take with him. Later, he clutches the stone as he descends a stairwell, holding it as if it’s a weapon.
When Ki-woo is bludgeoned with the stone in the film’s chaotic climax, there’s a sort of sick irony to it.
But it was an inevitability. Because the pursuit of wealth is an inherently violent thing. It carries with it the ability to inflict blunt force trauma to anyone who is in its path.
The injury nearly kills Ki-woo, who must undergo a brain transplant to survive. It’s both darkly comedic, yet tragic, considering that Ki-woo’s brain was arguably the Kim family’s greatest weapon of all. It was his intelligence and cunning, not some rock, that brought his family a brief window of prosperity.
But now Ki-woo’s brain isn’t wired right. He laughs when he’s not supposed to, even when he and his mother are attending to his sister Ki-jung’s grave.
Ki-woo’s penchant for planning not only permanently damaged him, but his entire family. His sister Ki-jung dies, and his father must go into hiding, after he kills the Park family’s patriarch Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun).
And yet, in the film’s closing moments, Ki-woo sends a message to his father, outlining a plan that he has concocted.
“Dad, today I made a plan – a fundamental plan. I’m going to earn money, a lot of it. University, a career, marriage, those are all fine, but first I’ll earn money. When I have money, I’ll buy the [Park] house.” – Kim Ki-woo, Parasite
For all of the Kims’ reprehensible actions, we feel a deep sense of empathy for them. We want them to succeed. Even when they were swindling, and scamming, we wanted them to succeed. And we still do.
As Ki-woo outlines his plan, and we see it coming to fruition, it feels deeply cathartic. As Ki-woo, now dressed in nice, expensive clothes, moved into the Park’s old house, and reunited with his father, I felt myself deeply moved.
Yet, this moment of the Kims attaining the unattainable is short-lived, as the film’s picture soon fades to black.
When it fades back in, we find ourselves back in that little semi-basement house the Kims call home. We’re back where started.
Half under the ground, half above it.
A liminal space somewhere between the Park’s seedy old bunker (where the Kim patriarch and fugitive Ki-taek eventually ends up) and the lavish house that’s built over it. A purgatory.
The beautiful, cathartic image seen just moments ago of Ki-woo walking into the Park house as its owner is at best a flash forward. But most likely, it is a delusion.
Earlier in the film, Ki-jung has to forge papers for her brother in order to convince the Parks that Ki-woo is a college student. Before leaving for the interview, Ki-woo rationalizes this forgery by explaining he will go to college in a year or so, meaning the papers are not fake, they’re just a bit early.
And we believe that Ki-woo believes this.
He’s delusional, and who could blame him. Because we know that Ki-woo’s plan is doomed to fail.
His own father put it best.
“Life cannot be planned.”
That said, how do you keep going? How do you continue to exist in a society in which social mobility is nearly impossible?
You dream. That’s what Ki-woo does.
Because his plan isn’t really a plan at all. It’s a delusion, intended to keep him going. Like the scholar’s rock.
“It’s so metaphorical.”