Critic's Notebook: 'Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens' and the Freshness of Angst-Free Asian Americans
6:45 AM PST 2/26/2020
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The Comedy Central show takes a few episodes to settle into a groove, but its depiction of an Asian American family defined by unconditional acceptance — rather than intergenerational tension — feels groundbreaking.

Sixteen years after Harold & Kumar inducted Asian-American stoner dudes into mainstream pop culture, Asian-American weed aficionadas have finally been getting to see their own hazy passions reflected onscreen in Comedy Central's Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.

Somewhere between an Abbi and an Ilana, 27-year-old Nora Lin (Awkwafina) regularly wakes and bakes, owns a vaguely terrifying sex-toy collection (that one is how big?!) and is going nowhere fast in her rideshare gig. Given the narrative of upward mobility that frames so many media reports and popular depictions of Asian Americans, a scuzzy townie like Nora is already a step toward greater, more inclusive, not to mention more candid, representation.

But it's not the character's cannabis cravings that make Nora From Queens such an urgent advancement in Asian American pop cultural progress; it's her dad (BD Wong) and her grandmother's (Lori Tan Chinn) acceptance of them. Modeled after Awkwafina's own family, the Lins are an Asian American family we've seldom seen before.

Many of the most acclaimed Asian American projects of the past few years — Fresh Off the Boat, Master of NoneThe Big Sick and The Farewell among them — have centered on parent-child relationships defined by cultural differences, child-of-immigrants guilt and aspirations toward the American Dream. These stories, all loosely to fairly autobiographical, have resonated with audiences for the lived realities they evoke. But they hardly encompass all Asian American families, especially those where the parents or even grandparents assimilated long ago. On Nora From Queens, the family hearth isn't a site of intergenerational tension or unbridgeable distance. It's simply the TV where three generations play video games together.

If urban sitcoms have long posited friends as the new family, Nora From Queens submits its inverse: Family are the new friends. Unlike most young female TV protagonists in New York City, Nora has few friends and zero romantic interests. After an abortive attempt at moving out in the pilot, Nora resettles into her room, nudged toward slightly more gainful employment by her father and going on day trips to Atlantic City with her grandma. When Nora earns her first big paycheck, the first and only person she invites to a celebratory dinner is her grandmother.

Fans of The Farewell, about a struggling twenty-something in New York missing her gran in China, indeed might find superficial similarities between Nora From Queens and Lulu Wang's award-winning film. But in The Farewell, Awkwafina's Billie had a mutually doting but strictly hierarchical relationship with her grandmother. In contrast, Nora and her foul-mouthed grandma are often in cahoots. And unlike in most family sitcoms, Nora isn't there to learn life lessons from her elders. She lives to have fun, ideally in the form of masturbation benders.

In contrast to the reserved, impenetrable or controlling Asian American parents we've become accustomed to seeing onscreen, the Lin family is strikingly affectionate. Nora's dad's nickname for his only child, even when she drives him up the wall, is "Princess." Her grandmother tells her without reservation, "I'm so proud of you" and "You could never disappoint me." For a new generation of viewers of color looking to television to find openly adoring parents (a role family sitcoms have played for decades), it's no longer necessary to look to a white family for domestic solace. The support that Nora gets from her working-class family — who, it's clear, don't exactly embrace her rut of mediocrity — stands in stark contrast to the tiger parenting that's made her tech-exec cousin Edmund (Bowen Yang) an anxious, status-obsessed mess who can't be honest with his hypercritical parents. (His app idea? To use tech to drive homeless people away from the city, of course.)

And while Chinn's raunchy grandma often strains credulity, it's worth noting how well the show nails its characters' assimilation without deracination. The Lins' living situation, with three generations under one roof, is one I myself grew up with. In the third episode (the series' first strong half-hour), we see the Chinese-American community supporting its members (a common experience still all-too-rare in Asian American narratives). And the various hair mishaps (including one poodle perm) that Nora undergoes feel like a love letter by a creative team that knows all the ways Asian hairstyles and treatments can go wrong.

The Lins, in their relative Americanization and vocal devotion to one another, may not be a typical Asian American family. But they're a celebration of the kind of close-knit Asian Americans found in the millions across the country — a family in which members simply enjoy each other's company. The stories of cultural and intergenerational clashes that we've gotten so many of in recent years are undoubtedly important, but so too are ones like Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, where the Asian American family doesn't have to mean strife and compromise, but unconditional encouragement and freewheeling fun. Sounds utopian, until you remember the perms.