A towering “Ocean’s 8” movie poster of Awkwafina, whose real name is Nora Lum, is currently draped outside a building in New York City’s Times Square.
The sight is as jarring as it is inspiring. Just years ago it would have been unheard of to see an outspoken Asian-American woman staring down the crowded streets of the concrete jungle.
But this year is Lum’s year ― she’s starring alongside big names like Rihanna and Sandra Bullock in the film, a gender-swapped installment of the “Ocean’s” franchise. For someone who’s written songs like “My Vag,” the movie seems like it’d be an appropriate foray into the Hollywood mainstream. Though it might seem like she came out of nowhere, fans know her from her early days on YouTube making unabashed rhymes.
While Lum has emerged as an unstoppable force in the entertainment industry over the past few months, she’s long been a stereotype-smashing, feminist voice in the Asian-American community.
Lum didn’t necessarily set out to do that. But the visibility of her naturally bold, larger-than-life personality has shown young Asian women another kind of representation.
“Just by being myself, I break certain stereotypes,” Lum explained at the HuffPost offices. She’s wearing a three-piece pin-striped shorts suit and pointed-toe pumps. She’s a fast talker who cracks jokes in her low, confident voice, which is pitch-perfectly aligned with her bad bitch image.
“I’ve always met people and have certain interactions with them whether it be an interaction with someone who’s doing the whole ‘ching-chong’ thing or people hearing my ‘manish’ voice ― they’re changed. They’re changed from that moment because at least they know I’m not what they think I am.”
“It’s very important for Asian-American women to embrace themselves fully. Because if they have their quirks, if they have their flaws, it’ll turn into a bigger universal dialogue about what we are.”
Among Asian-Americans, Lum has been known for her comedic rap, unapologetic ridiculousness, love of weed and big personality. She’s just not your China doll. Even in “Ocean’s 8,” Lum’s character, Constance, deviates from the overtly sexualized role that so many Asian-American actresses have been traditionally relegated to. Instead, she’s an emoji-proficient expert pickpocket who’s an integral part of an elaborate heist.
The role is significant because the meek, submissive Asian girl stereotype still continues to influence perceptions today. Last month, comedian Godfrey even insisted that “Asian women won’t talk back to you. There’s some subservience to them,” adding that it’s just part of the culture.
As long-standing as these tropes have been, Lum says that Asian women don’t need to be radical to chip away at them ― they can do so by simply staying true to themselves.
“It’s very important for Asian-American women to embrace themselves fully. Because if they have their quirks, if they have their flaws, it’ll turn into a bigger universal dialogue about what we are. It’ll help us not be caged in,” she told HuffPost. “I am so aggressively myself. I play a lot of college shows and talk to kids and I tell them to be themselves.”
As more Asian-American women like Lum speak out about intersectional feminist issues, Asian-American men are wondering where their advocacy is. The group has been consistently emasculated in American society.
Data released by OK Cupid in 2014 revealed that Asian men had the most difficult time getting a date. Last year, comedian and author Steve Harvey even cackled at the idea of anyone dating an Asian man. Restaurateur Eddie Huang penned a piece in The New York Times following the incident, explaining how the belief that Asian men are undesirable truly affected him.
“No matter how successful I was... there were times I thoroughly believed that no one wanted anything to do with me,” Huang wrote.
However, Asian-American feminists have also been attacked by men for dating outside their race. A recent HuffPost contributor described her experience of being labeled a race traitor because she’d married a white man.
“Women should have the choice to date whoever they want. I don’t think women should date based on social responsibility. That’s just not real,” Lum told HuffPost. “But we as a people shouldn’t add into... the taboos that exist around Asian-American men. We shouldn’t feed into that narrative by saying things like, ‘I’ve never been attracted to Asian men, therefore I only date white men.’”
“We as a people shouldn’t add into ... the taboos that exist around Asian-American men. We shouldn’t feed into that narrative by saying things like, ‘I’ve never been attracted to Asian men, therefore I only date white men.’”
She added: “If you desexualize Asian men and over-sexualize Asian women, it all comes to bite us in the ass in this karmic loop.”
Lum herself has always been an “equal opportunity” dater, she says.
“For me, I have never prescribed to the argument that ‘I only date this’ or ’I only date that. I date for the person.”
But when it comes to Asian men, she says, the media has a responsibility to change the false way the group’s been perceived for years.
“I just got off a movie where every single man was so fucking hot and all were Asian,” she said, referring to the upcoming “Crazy Rich Asians” movie in which she plays Peik Lin. “But I also stepped off and thought, ‘Well, we don’t show Asian men like this all the time.’”
“I remember growing up and being ashamed because of the way the world made me feel.”
Indeed, a quick look at the history of Asian-Americans in Hollywood reveals scarce visibility on screen, coupled with atrocious representations when they are depicted. When they are portrayed, men and women of Asian descent were often depicted as two-dimensional caricatures. There’s the white-washed, buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the eccentric foreign-exchange student Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles.” The list goes on. In fact, a 2017 study of Hollywood TV shows revealed that Asian-Americans continue to be cast as perpetual foreigners, exoticized women, emasculated men or model minorities among other outdated stereotypes on the small screen.
Improper representation has plagued Asian-Americans for years, including Lum.
“I remember growing up and being ashamed because of the way the world made me feel,” she said. “What I saw was this serious lack of representation... and [because of that] I held on to the ‘American’ identity that sometimes was validated and sometimes wasn’t. When you’re Asian-American, you’re made to feel less American, but when you go to Asia, you’re not Asian there. You’re in this gray area.”
These days, however, Lum feels that the tide has turned. In the past, she says, she couldn’t have dreamt of strong representation of Asian-Americans, yet “now we got it, and I’m part of that.”
But as audiences gear up to see the diverse casts of “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” she stresses that these movies shouldn’t be seen as one-offs or outliers.
“These two movies are monumental and huge, and they’re going to definitely add to the culture, but I don’t think they should define the culture. If these movies don’t do well, it shouldn’t mean that we should never have another all-female cast or another all-Asian cast,” she said. These should be “the first of many, and that makes me feel really good.”