If you’ve listened to the podcast Death, Sex & Money, you know they don’t shy away from the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of everyday conversations. This week, journalist Lisa Ling talks to Nora Lum, better known as rapper and actress Awkwafina. “When I was asked who I wanted to interview, there were a lot of reasons that Awkwafina was at the top of my list,” Ling says. “Like me, she was raised primarily by her dad. And like my kids, she’s of both Chinese and Korean descent. And I absolutely loved watching her in ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’”
Awkwafina is currently working on a Comedy Central pilot about her childhood growing up in Queens, and will star in the movie “The Farewell,” coming out in July.
You can listen to the full episode here. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
LL: You grew up in Queens, New York, and were raised by your father and your grandmother because your mom passed away when you were four. How did losing your mom at such a young age affect the person you are today?
A: When you go through adversity at such a young age, you learn embarrassment. I think it’s embarrassment and humility that really drives humor, and in some ways creativity. I was so in-tune with those feelings. I didn’t like crying adults. I didn’t want to be the reason why people were crying. I didn’t want to see family members crying. Holding a crying adult is just — it’s not something a kid wants to do.
LL: At what age did you realize, I need to be funny to get over all the hard shit that I’m experiencing and feeling?
A: Four or five. I wanted so badly to bring joy through making people laugh. But I think that directly ties into not wanting to get to the meat. You just want to kind of make it light — get in, then duck out of there.
LL: Did you and your dad talk much about what happened?
A: When you’re four years old, how do you process something like that? The way I was able to understand it was [by] watching “Bambi.” You know the most horrible scene in “Bambi,” when there is this silence after he calls [his mother]? That really spoke to me — just the silence. That’s when it really hit me. I internalized it in a lot of ways, but I also think it affects me every day.
LL: Your dad was probably not very communicative, right? Because Asian culture in general is pretty closed off?
A: Especially dads. There’s always that one dad or grandpa that’s holed up in a study and hasn’t talked to anybody for days. That was my grandpa. My dad didn’t deal with it like that.
LL: How did he deal with your mom’s death?
A: He talks about her all the time, still. He laughs about things. I don’t think he ever really got over her. He would have dreams where she would come back and he would be mad at her.
LL: What was it like being an only child and an Asian kid being raised by a single dad?
A: I was raised like a boy. I was taught how to play catch. I was never given any dolls. There are pictures of me in the bathtub playing with these little Hulk Hogan wrestling figurines. It instilled in me a certain confidence that is masculine at its core. At the same time you miss out on things. You don’t have that person to teach you how to do your make-up, or dress, or take care of yourself. This is kind of a sad story, but I remember it so vividly: at my mom’s funeral, my Korean relatives bought me this beautiful dress to wear. I just threw the biggest tantrum and said, I’m not wearing that. I showed up in a raggedy old t-shirt and shorts.
LL: How would you describe your relationship with your dad?
A: Contentious, at times. He was never that quintessential Asian dad, forcing you through med school. But he turned into that dude all of a sudden [when I was in high school]. It started when I made the choice to become [singer and rapper] Awkwafina. He thought I was crazy. But the ability to be Awkwafina helped — it was magical for me. I always felt that there was a me inside that was a creator. Music was an outlet for me. It was something that I didn’t have to learn in a book. But at a certain point, my dad stopped believing in me and that was the biggest letdown.
LL: We live in this culture where gender roles are so defined. Do you think that there’s been a benefit for you, being raised by a man?
A: There are definitely benefits. I remember seeing kids in school, their mothers would write them notes in lunch, and everything was so perfect. My dad wasn’t like that. He’d let me taste his beer. We watched Howard Stern together. I think that it gives me a sense of confidence as a woman, a certain kind of security.
LL: Do you remember your first conversations about sex?
A: My dad brought it up randomly and said, “Just wear a bag.” Wear a bag? We were literally just talking about the Mets or something. My grandma was more graphic than she needed to be. She said, “Nora, when I was in China, we didn’t have con-damns.” I didn’t want to think about it. The moral of the story: don’t go to Chinese parents for any sexual advice.
LL: When did you start becoming curious about sex? Do you remember those first memories?
A: I always used to think sex was hilarious, in the same way a 7-year-old boy thinks it’s hilarious. I remember hitting puberty and realizing that everyone around me was starting to become obsessed with sex. On my first day of junior high school, I showed up in an AND1 sweat suit — it’s this basketball brand. I remember so clearly, a guy came up to me and was like, “Man why are you wearing that? You’re a girl.” It was the first time I was ever corrected for what I wore. I realized I had to learn how to be a girl. I found a journal from that age, and, yes, it was cringey, but I started crying because I remember feeling so inadequate.
LL: You once got fired from a job you loved. You were working as a publicist, right?
A: I was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD at like 7. The office world — it just was never something I understood how to do. I don’t understand how people can just sit there and know what they’re doing, and have a purpose. How is that possible? To this day, I don’t know what a publicist is. And I was one! I was bad, bad at my job. I would get home by like 5 or 6, open my computer, and make beats until 4 in the morning. I would wake up at 6 and go to work. Every day I wondered, what am I doing here? What is this? Why am I so useless, why don’t I understand? Going home and making beats — that was me, that was my life.
LL: On your 23rd birthday, you shot a music video for one of those songs— “My Vag” — and put it up on YouTube.
A: It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done. My boss was like, “Oh, what did you do for your birthday?” I told her what the video was called, and immediately got this e-mail: “Be careful what you put on the Internet. It stays out there and you don’t want to embarrass [yourself.]” It was like a slap in the face. Like, if I can’t have that, what do I have? I have nothing. I think that was the last straw. I really wish it was a situation where it was like, fine, I quit. But it wasn’t. I just got fired.
LL: How did getting fired affect you?
A: It traumatized me. I don’t think I’m really over it. I still feel completely inadequate. I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten closure.
LL: How did you perceive money when you were growing up? What did it mean to you? A: My Grandma was so worried about money. It was something that ate at her. I once asked, “What is your only wish, Grandma?” And she said, just being able to pay my bills this month.
LL: In 2018, ”Ocean’s 8″ and “Crazy Rich Asians” made you a movie star. What is it like to suddenly have a lot of money?
A: I don’t splurge on literally anything, except for karaoke nights, if I’m treating like a whole group of friends. I’ll drop, like, 3G’s on a group night of karaoke, but for myself? No! These pants are from Target dude! What my Grandma instilled in me is an anxiety that it’s going to be gone.
LL: With that kind of mentality, do you feel like you need to accept anything that’s offered to you?
A: I have no problem saying no if it’s wack, right? That’s where my relationship with money gets weird. I’m not going to do something that I don’t believe in for money. Even if I was broke, I wouldn’t do that.
LL: What are some of the things that you would never do?
A: A panty liner commercial, a rapping lunch lady. Things that just don’t make sense. This is a long game for me. I don’t care if I go broke in the meantime.