Asian American Rapper Awkwafina Grapples With Grief Across Borders In 'The Farewell'

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Asian American rapper and actress Awkwafina plays Billi in "The Farewell."
Asian American rapper and actress Awkwafina plays Billi in "The Farewell."

Editor's Note: This segment was rebroadcast on Jan. 21, 2020. That audio is available here.

Actor and rapper Awkwafina has made a name for herself in comic roles like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Ocean's 8." But in her new film, "The Farewell," she plays Billi, a woman whose grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The family travels back to China for a remarkable ruse. They gather for a phony wedding staged so they can gather around Billi’s beloved grandmother, who doesn’t know she has cancer and maybe weeks to live.

“The Farewell” is based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s true story. Awkwafina (@awkwafina), who was raised by her paternal grandmother after her mother died when she was just 4 years old, says playing Billi also resonated with her own life.

“For me personally, it was definitely a departure from a lot of my past roles, but a lot of that had to do with actually confronting things like for maybe the first time in my life,” she tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “This role caused me to pre-emptively confront the death of my own grandma, which I've always thought about, and I think it taught me to be vulnerable in ways that I really haven't been.”

Awkwafina describes the film as “a vessel for the Asian American experience.” But ultimately, she says, it’s a story about grief and loss.

“There's so much truth no matter what race you are, what you are you will connect to this because we all experience loss, and we all experience love whether it's a grandma or family,” Awkwafina says. “And we know what that's like, and we know what it's like to lose it.”

Interview Highlights 

On playing the role of Billi, who is loosely based on writer-director Lulu Wang

“Billi is obviously loosely based on something that actually happened to Lulu, but Lulu was never like, 'I want her played this way. Study me.' It was never that. And there is me in there, but it's a role that eventually came to be like a vessel for the Asian American experience because a lot of people have to do this. When you see your family in this context, you have to make the decision whether to greet them with sadness or to greet them with joy. It always is like a matter of like how different families deal with grief. Everyone does it in their own way, but it also for Billi, it is a period of growth for her because she goes back to learn that her way is not the right way always.”

"There is a very personal journey that occurs when you are an Asian American in this country and you go back to Asia."


On how the film explores East-West cultural differences when it comes to death 

“It stems from wanting to literally take a burden that shouldn't belong to someone that you love. And it also stems from this concept called filial piety, which is like you never hear of it unless it's in the context of like East Asian culture, and it is just this undying respect for your elders, for your ancestors. It's something that Asian American people have, but along with that they also have elements of resentment and obviously guilt.”

On Billi’s journey back to China after growing up in the United States

“My Chinese is not perfect. Like I did not grow up on a Chinese speaking household. But at the same time, there is a very personal journey that occurs when you are an Asian American in this country and you go back to Asia. You know, you always feel like you are an outsider in America, but when you go there, you really understand how much of an outsider you are. Yet, you have history there, and you can't forget that. As an actor, that happened for me. But I think that also I know what it's like to go and meet someone, family members that may live in another country that you can't communicate with, but the love is there. And like trying to make them laugh and stuff like that. And I think that's what Billi's trip was trying to convey — the joy that you feel when you see your family. And maybe you can't communicate with them properly, but you still feel the love.”

On how her 2012 music video “My Vag” and this film debunk the myth of the submissive Asian woman

“I think that at that time [that I made ‘My Vag’] not a lot of Asian women presented themselves in that way. And very quickly after that I was told various things like I was very brave, you know like, 'Wow, you must have a confidence.' But that's the truth, I think, that I've always found truth in being shameless. I think that we are taught — actual Asian Americans the ones who grew up in this country — I think that we all grow up with very strong matriarchs. And I grew up with one and that stereotype or that example of like who we actually grew up with influences us more as people than like who we're fed and [how we're] portrayed in the media. And my grandma always nurtured. Like what other people would label weird, she told me that was the best part. And ever since I was like a very young child. So she always believed in me, and I think that if she didn't see, let me, like, explore that aspect of my personality, Awkwafina would never have been formed.”

On the burden she feels to authentically portray the Asian American experience

“We do, as Asian Americans, owe something back to our community, not in a way that it's like if we make something great and it blows up in the box office, but morally right? And I think that if we're given right now in 2019 the platform to tell our stories, let's do so with truth, with authenticity and also with being uniquely ourselves because we're not all the same. And we have different stories. We come from different places. And so I think that there is always going to be that responsibility because there's just not that much.”

Editor's Note: The video below contains some explicit language and imagery that some viewers may find offensive.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on July 11, 2019.

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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