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Awkwafina and Asian American Voice

Janis Jin

[1]

If Crazy Rich Asians supposedly ushered in a new era of Asian American media representation, then Nora Lum—better known as Awkwafina—has been its breakout star. In 2018 alone, the rapper-turned-actress starred in two blockbuster films (Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8) and released a critically acclaimed EP (‘In Fina We Trust’). In October of that year, she was the first Asian woman to host Saturday Night Live in eighteen years. And in 2019, she starred in Lulu Wang’s indie film The Farewell, for which she received a Golden Globe Award for best actress—the first Asian woman to ever do so. She is now the star of a Comedy Central series based on her real life, titled, fittingly: ‘Awkwafina is Nora from Queens’.

Awkwafina’s success has been hailed as a victory for Asian American representation. But she has also come under intense fire for appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and speaking in an affected ‘Blaccent’. In their reviews of Crazy Rich Asians, Mark Tseng-Putternam [2] and Gregory Ng Yong He [3] have called Awkwafina’s performance an approximation of the ‘sassy Black friend’ trope and an instance of Asian anti-Blackness. Her character in Ocean’s 8—a savvy pickpocket from Queens—speaks with the same twang, dropping g-s at the ends of gerunds and leaving out the usual is/are: ‘We’re followin’ the queen, we’re followin’ the queen… Where she at? Where dat bitch at? [4]’. Awkwafina’s music, though less popular than her acting roles, is also rife with evidence. For instance, in ‘Pockiez [5]’, she raps: ‘Thotties tryna start up in the inbox / Now they wanna give props / Tell them bitches exit through the gift shop’.

Awkwafina is, of course, not the only non-Black celebrity to have donned a Blaccent (see: Iggy Azaela, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, etc.). But I do think that Awkwafina’s appropriation of the Blaccent is an interesting phenomenon—or a phenomenon that is interesting to me, at the very least, as an Asian American person. Asian American appropriation of the Blaccent seems especially pervasive in New York and California. I grew up in Irvine, California—the largest Asian American plurality in the country—where cool kids often spoke in Blaccents. Anthropologist Shalini Shankar has written about how Desi teenagers in Silicon Valley incorporate hip hop lexicon into their speaking styles. And during a recent podcast episode [6], Jay Caspian Kang, E. Tammy Kim, and Andy Liu discussed appropriation of Black aesthetics and vernacular among Chinese Americans in Flushing. Kang suggests that the phenomenon is uniquely gendered:

I think for [Asian American] men, masculinity is basically acting Black. And I think that’s totally fascinating… it’s something that was certainly true when I was growing up, in the ‘90s—the way if you’re an Asian guy that you act tough is that you act Black. This goes all the way back to the 90s and the early 2000s—kids in Flushing who were Chinese, using the n-word indiscriminately… I think it is interesting that none of that has really changed.

I think Kang is right that this kind of appropriation has something to do with gender, given the historical racialisation of Asian men as feminine and Black men as hypermasculine (I’d wager that Awkwafina turned to rap at least in part to prevent being perceived as Asian women are: quiet, submissive, and hyperfeminine). I also think that Asian American appropriation of the Blaccent has something to do with questions around foreignness and ‘American-ness’. If we are to try and read what exactly is happening in these acts of appropriation in good faith, that is, perhaps Asian Americans—a demographic racialised as both the ‘silent minority’ and ‘perpetual foreigner’—have turned to the Blaccent in search of a voice that feels distinctively ‘American’ but not white.

This is not a defense of Awkwafina’s appropriative acts. I want to emphasise at the outset that this essay is not about whether Awkwafina is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Others have already written pieces of this kind, landing on the latter conclusion (with which I generally agree). Instead, this essay is an attempt to grapple with why appropriation of the Blaccent has been compelling at all—both for her, and for Asian Americans across the United States. I want to suggest that even if Awkwafina’s Blaccent is indeed problematic, it offers quite a fascinating case study for thinking about race, culture, and vernacular. In other words, we might gain something still from thinking rigorously, not necessarily about cultural appropriation or about appropriation of the Blaccent in general, but about Asian American appropriation of the Blaccent in particular—a phenomenon that, as I will show, is hardly limited to Awkwafina and has in fact spanned decades of Asian American culture. It is my hope, and my contention, that examining this phenomenon more precisely might actually help us theorise possibilities for a way forward that does not involve such acts of appropriation at all.

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To trace the genealogy of this phenomenon, we might begin where concerns over an Asian American voice have been hashed out most prominently: in literature. In 1974, writers Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong co-edited the seminal text whose publication would plant the seeds for a burgeoning Asian American literary movement: Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. The title itself invokes the editors’ preoccupation with Asian Americans’ relationship to the English language (or presumed lack thereof); by demanding that their contributions to American literature ought to be taken seriously, Aiiieeee! also functioned as an indictment of ‘the pushers of white American culture that pictured the yellow man as something that, when wounded, sad, or angry, or swearing, or wondering whined, shouted, or screamed “aiiieeee!”’.

The editors’ vision of Asian American writing is also quite gendered; the four male editors argue that developing a rich Asian American voice is central not only to Asian American cultural integrity, but also to Asian American manhood. ‘Language is the medium of culture and the people’s sensibility, including the style of manhood’, they write. ‘Stunt the tongue and you have lopped off the culture and sensibility. On the simplest level, a man in any culture speaks for himself. Without a language of his own, he no longer is a man.’ Of the four editors, this preoccupation with manhood manifests most in the work of the notoriously misogynistic Frank Chin, who is widely credited as the first Asian American playwright. In a 1972 essay titled ‘Backtalk’, Chin memorably laments that Asian Americans are ‘pre-verbal’, a ‘people without a native tongue’. In the struggle for cultural recognition, he writes, Asian Americans have had only two options: to speak in the stereotypical ‘Asian’ accent (think, of course, of Mr. Yunioshi’s indecipherable grunts in Blake Edwards’ 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s [7]) or to sound like white people.  

Here, Chin charts out a critical third option. Unlike Asian Americans, he writes, Black Americans seem to have developed both an ‘articulated, organic sense’ of their identity and the ‘verbal confidence’ to express this identity through language. In other words, if Asian Americans are to utter a distinctively ‘American’ voice that is neither racist caricature nor disappears into whiteness, perhaps they ought to turn to Black vernacular.  

Chin pursues his own advice in his 1972 play Chickencoop Chinaman—the first play by an Asian American playwright to be performed on Broadway. The play opens with an extended dialogue between a flight stewardess (called Hong Kong Dream Girl) and Tam Lum, a male Chinese American writer and filmmaker who has ‘a gift of gab and an open mouth’. Hong Kong Dream Girl asks Tam to tell the story of where he was born, and Tam launches into a long monologue, rife with dropped consonants, double negatives, and -in’s in place of -ings. When he is finally finished, Hong Kong Dream Girl tells Tam: ‘You sure have a way with words, but I’d like it better if you’d speak the mother tongue’. Tam responds: ‘I speak nothing but the mother tongues bein’ born to none of my own, I talk the talk of orphans’.

Perhaps Awkwafina, like Frank Chin, adopted the Blaccent in an attempt to find a way out of her own discomfort with the Asian accent. A few months before hosting her historic SNL show in October 2018, Awkwafina told NBC: ‘I’m not going to put on a ‘Fu Manchu accent’ for comedy… We’re not desperate for roles anymore.’ In an interview with Broadly a year prior, when asked if there are any roles she wouldn’t accept, Awkwafina responded: ‘I’ve walked out of auditions where the casting director all of a sudden changed her mind and asked for accents. I refuse to do accents… I make it very clear, I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people.’

This is ironic, of course, because Awkwafina does do an accent—just not an Asian one. To see this play out, we might turn to ‘Green Tea’, a 2016 music video collaboration with comedian Margaret Cho. The video features the two women vaping and rapping about pussy while adorned in Korean and Chinese cultural dress. Awkwafina dons her Blaccent, opening the track: ‘Yo / Flip a stereotype / How an Asian bitch got concubines?’. Margaret Cho, on the other hand—known for having built her stand-up comedy career on impressions of her Korean mother (the best one IMO is ‘mom on gays’)—raps with an affected Asian accent. If Awkwafina ‘flip[s] the stereotype’, so to speak, Cho here inhabits it.

Of all this video’s amazing scenes, the one that strikes me most is its ending. After their respective verses have ended, Awkwafina transitions out of the Blaccent, while Cho thickens her Asian accent, beginning to slip into the trope of the overbearing Asian mother: ‘Herro? Why don’t you ever call me?’. Awkwafina interrupts her, having apparently transitioned out of her performance and into her real self. ‘Why would you… why the accent?’ She grows increasingly exacerbated: ‘I feel like we didn’t necessarily agree to that… Ok. Hi. Hi, yes… I think the accent is unnecessary.’

This final scene offers a rich case of dramatic irony. As viewers, we know that Awkwafina and Margaret Cho, as collaborators producing this video together, did agree: on Margaret Cho’s accent and its inappropriate bleedings, and on Awkwafina’s performative critique of it. We might too, then, read this scene as a kind of figurative baton-passing between Margaret Cho and Awkwafina themselves, an intergenerational pair in the lineage of Asian American entertainers. Perhaps what is suggested by ‘Green Tea’ is that, in the battle between the Asian accent (symbolised by Cho) and the Blaccent (symbolised by Awkwafina), the Blaccent wins out.

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I first heard about Awkwafina not through Crazy Rich Asians, but through ‘My Vag [8]’—the  2012 music video about vaginas that got Awkwafina fired from the office job she was working at the time. I often listened to ‘My Vag’ and her other contemporarily popular track, ‘NYC Bitche$’, while driving to and from high school. Sometimes I sang along: ‘My vag speak five different languages / And told yo vag bitch make me a sandwich’.

Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu has said [9] that, before Awkwafina was cast for the film, he had already been watching her music videos on YouTube for years. I wonder if he discovered ‘My Vag’ around the same time I did. Maybe Chu’s interest in Awkwafina was driven by a fascination similar to my own: the spectacle of an Asian American woman so contrary to what we have imagined Asian American women to be. If ‘Asiatic femininity’ (to borrow Anne Anlin Cheng’s term) is typically associated with docility, hyperfemininity, and the exotic, Awkwafina—rapping about her vagina on a New York City rooftop—seemed to be the opposite.

My parents, post-1965 immigrants from China, speak accented English. For many years this was a source of deep embarrassment for me, an index of what Cathy Park Hong has called ‘minor feelings’: Asian American shame, dysphoria, self-loathing. As a teenager I listened to rap and hip-hop often, I imagine in large part as a result of my own anxieties about being perceived as foreign—Black music offered me a way to stake my claim to familiarity with American cultural ‘cool’. When I discovered Awkwafina in high school, she seemed to embody the kind of Asian American girl I wanted to be, allowing me to project my minor feelings onto an alternate image of myself.

Muqing M. Zhang [10] has written that Asian Americans have turned to Black culture in order to ‘swaddle ourselves in a rich culture that feels American, but not white’. I think this is an astute observation: Frank Chin, Awkwafina, and I all offer evidence that Asian Americans have turned to Black aesthetics at least in part to shed the burdens of our own racialisation. But the ending of Zhang’s piece is somewhat unsatisfying—she simply calls on Asian Americans to instead develop a culture that is ‘not Asian, not White, not Black—but Asian American’. Similarly, Mark Tseng-Putternam’s 2016 essay, ‘Against Antiblackness as Metaphor’, criticises Margaret Cho, Constance Wu, and Aziz Ansari for having appropriated Black culture and terminology, but his piece ends with the vague call to instead ‘develop [our own] language and frameworks’. By telling us what kinds of representation we ought to refuse without imagining positive alternatives, conclusions like these feel, admittedly, quite inconclusive.

Maybe one way to theorise an Asian American voice anew is to resist the urge to shed ‘perpetual foreigner’ status at all. Interestingly enough, we might stick with Awkwafina to think about how to do so. The film for which Awkwafina received her Golden Globe Award, The Farewell, features an Awkwafina who speaks not in a Blaccent, but in bad, American-accented Mandarin. I wonder if part of the difficulty in theorising a cohesive Asian American voice comes from the presumption that it must be an Anglophone one. After all, if there is another experience that unifies Asians in the diaspora, one other than shame and insecurity about the Asian accent, perhaps it is speaking poorly in the mother tongue.

While the Asian accent has been the primary focal point of decades of debates over an Asian American voice, it seems to me that Asian Americans’ relationship to their mother tongues—no matter how vexed—has yet to be taken up as a site for similar cultural experimentation. Obviously, the ubiquitousness of the English language has proven one barrier to doing so, but here I’m reminded of what Bong Joon Ho said after Parasite won him four Oscars: ‘Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’. In charting out a new path for an Asian American voice, one that does not rely on the appropriation of Black vernacular, perhaps Awkwafina’s bad Mandarin in The Farewell does offer us something new—whether Awkwafina herself knows it or not.

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Janis Jin [11]received her BA from Yale University in English and Ethnicity, Race & Migration.