Jun 10, 2015
Awkwafina’s NYC: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to the Five Boroughs
Awkwafina makes me laugh so hard during our interview that I start crying over my grilled cheese sandwich. We’re at Enid’s in Greenpoint, sitting outside while it drizzles on us and talking about that time she went canning (the urban foraging kind, not the jam-making kind), while wearing a shower cap, a poncho made out of a garbage bag, and gloves, at her across-the-street-neighbor’s. He tried to shoo her away, and the whole experience inspired a section in her new book, Awkwafina’s NYC: “Think about it like this,” she writes, “Each and every tin can, plastic bottle, or glass bottle is worth a whole five cents.” And, thus two thousand cans get you one hundred dollars.
I point out that five cents used to carry you further in the 90s, when housing owners would guard their renters’ recycled cans and redeem them to make some extra cash. Awkwafina was here then, too, living in Forest Hills and then later, in the early 2000s, taking the subway up to LaGuardia High School. Growing up, she was Nora Lum, a descendant of Lum’s in Flushing fame, laying down beats after class, playing trumpet, and studying classical music and jazz.
Somewhere around when Rudy Giuliani was handing over his reign to Michael Bloomberg, Lum started to fill the beats with rap lyrics. Then came hilarious music videos, her solo EP ‘Yellow Ranger,’ an MTV show, an online talk show, and now a book deal. So, we find ourselves at Enid’s, laughing hysterically.
Brooklyn Magazine: What did you do in high school to have fun?
Nora Lum: We’d go to Thursday night galleries a lot because they wouldn’t card you, because it’s not about that. So we would get drunk in Chelsea like every Thursday. We would go to hookah bars of all sorts. We would go to Cozy Cafe. That was what we did all the time. We would go to each others’ houses.
I lived for one year in Long Island when I was in second grade since my mom had passed when I was five, so I went to go live with my grandma. But it was shitty for me to move and not really be somewhere permanent, so then my grandma just moved back to Forest Hills, and I lived there with my dad and my grandma.
And you dedicated your book to your great-grandpa?
Yeah, my great-grandpa Jimmy Lum.
When did Jimmy come to the US?
So Jimmy came here in 1946 or something. He came pretty early on. He worked in a restaurant in the Bronx. When he first came, he was very poor, and he slept on the floor like covered in roaches all the time. I don’t know what happened, but I guess he had a brother that came and they made enough money to open up their own place. I think they opened up one restaurant in the Bronx, and they opened up a huge one in Flushing. It became the first Chinese restaurant to open in Flushing, and it stayed open from the fifties to the eighties.
What was it called?
Lum’s. Flushing at that time was very Jewish, and my elementary school teachers who were like in their fifties went there and they all knew it. Anyone who grew up in Queens in the sixties or seventies, they all knew Lum’s.
What happened to it?
It started really well, with this nice bootstrap story and then they eventually lost money. The money was broken up weirdly. No one felt like they were compensated. No one walked away with millions, which at one point, was what it was worth since it was a really popular restaurant.
You also say in your book that your parents didn’t force you to go to medical school. But you did work a corporate job.
Yeah, I mean they never really forced me. I grew up with a lot of Asian kids that were really under pressure to do things. They weren’t allowed to watch TV. Their parents were super strict, and they had a lot of rules. I didn’t really grow up with rules at all. I think when it came to what I wanted to do, they would have been okay if I had just made money. But getting my corporate job was kind of me. I basically took a year off and moved to China, and so all of my friends went to college. By the time I graduated college, all my friends were already back in Brooklyn living in their own apartments with good jobs that they loved. They were showing off all the time. So I just wanted to do that. I didn’t want to live at home anymore. It was all about getting a good job so that I could move out.
What did you do in China?
I went there during that summer and I just stayed. I was teaching English, and I made connects with a lot of expats out there. Then, I went back as like a food writer. I wrote about food for a government-subsidized business magazine.
Because they were trying to write in English.
There’s this really weird FBI video that they have on their website about writing for the Chinese government. There’s apparently a real guy who started out writing random papers and then was somehow pulled into being a spy.
But they didn’t really give a shit about me. They cared more about the white people that were there. They wanted them to really become Chinese. They give them like apartments that are fully furnished with Ikea furniture and they have maids. They just bring them maids.
Yeah, people were writing for China Daily. They would just come in and they would have no writing experience, and all of a sudden they would be the top.
That’s crazy. I guess that FBI video seems legit now. How did you pick the places in the book?
I didn’t necessarily want to be the one being like, “This is where I go so you should go there.” A lot of those places I discovered, too, for the first time. It seemed like there would be a—what’s that word when you’re not being a good journalist?
Well, that word. It just felt like it would not be authentic if I would just do tours. A lot of the deep outer borough ones, they were actually by fixers who are from those areas. Everyone who helped me is from New York, and they grew up in those neighborhoods, especially Arthur Avenue or Staten Island. They knew a lot about those areas. It can be your “bored on a Saturday” book. It’s not necessarily for tourists because you don’t want tourists to go to Staten Island immediately. That would be weird.
How long did the writing take?
That definitely took a lot of months. I don’t know how many. Under a year, but it felt like a year. At one point, my editor—Emma Brodie, who is amazing—put harsh deadlines on me because, you know, you have to go on the tour and then you have to write them. But, I had to write about them immediately after the tour because I didn’t see the pictures right away and I was taking a lot of notes. I won’t ever feel bad about that book in terms of not doing a lot of work, because I really did a lot of work on it. That’s why I think I’m proud of it.
You have to go on it. There’s absolutely no way you can fake it and not go. I also wrote it imagining it that someone would be holding it while they were in that tour, that’s why it’s so in the now.
Where there any tours you did that didn’t make it into the final book?
There were a couple that I went on which didn’t have enough substance as I was walking on them, which is good because you wouldn’t have known. There was one I wanted to take people to my neighborhood, to Forest Hills Gardens, which is a really historic area. Some Adidas shoes say ‘Forest Hills’ on them because there’s a really old Forest Hills stadium that used to be the old US Open in this kind of hidden…
…And then they moved it inside Flushing Green Meadows?
Yeah, they moved it but it was originally this kind of medieval-looking stadium in the middle of nowhere in Forest Hills. It’s just covered in houses—you have to walk into a housing community to see it. But other than that, that was the only thing about that neighborhood. You don’t want to walk by people’s houses. That’s weird. I really wanted to do Little India, which is like 74th Street, Jackson Heights. But that didn’t make it in there.
Where do you hang out in NYC now?
I mostly hang out in Brooklyn. Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick sometimes. I hang out in Manhattan sometimes, but Manhattan now just turned into a place where you go for work. Brooklyn is where you live, go home, hang out.
If you had to move out of New York, where would you move?
To Los Angeles. I think when you grow up in New York, it fucks you up because you don’t really know how to appreciate anything. That sounds a little annoying but, it makes you really jaded. I think for me, I have to be in a big city or a city where there’s a tangible scene. You can move to, say, Atlanta, but you won’t really infiltrate the cool scene. You have to try or you have to know people there. Los Angeles was the only city where I’ve felt that you’re not missing the world while being there. Or Beijing. I’d moved to Beijing.
Since you’ve lived here almost your whole life, how do you see the changes that are happening in the city?
I think the upside of gentrification is that a neighborhood becomes safer and that’s it. That’s what I see the perks as. The downside is that it becomes really expensive. Take a neighborhood like Greenpoint. I have this conversation with people all the time about how the locals are dealing with it. One person told me that in church, the priest begs the people not to make the rents high for Polish people. It becomes an issue where they do it to themselves because it’s not like the gentrifiers are coming out of nowhere and taking over the land. People are giving them the land, but they’re doing it at a cost.
In Greepoint, they’re Polish people. In Chinatown, they’re Chinese people. They’re doing it because they know they can get more money out of it. What happens, in turn, is that it breaks a community. Chinatown is no longer Chinatown. In fact, it’s been kind of pushed to the East Broadway area. Mott Street is no longer a Chinese street. The only Chinese people there are the Chinese people who haven’t left. But will they leave? Probably, because it’s not worth living there anymore, you know? If your community is gone, there’s no reason to live there anymore.
Growing up, I’ve seen communities break down and all that’s left is just the people that can still rent there. So that’s my only issue with gentrification. Also, I think that New York City has always been a place where people come from all different areas. That’s not a new thing. That’s been happening since, like Thoroughly Modern Millie was like, “I wanna be a star!” So, it’s not a new thing. What is a new thing is that it’s happening at a new volume now, where neighborhoods that were never affected by gentrification are starting to get affected. Like Ridgewood—a neighborhood where you’re like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Like are you kidding me right now.” That’s becoming a gentrified area. That’s what I find depressing about it.
Is there any Williamsburg fashion trend that you think has to go?
Maybe the man bun. Also, men dressing like UPS guys from the 1920’s. So annoying. [laughs] I hate it. Britches of various assortments. Take your goddam britches off—just wear regular pants. Just go to the regular pants store and buy some regular pants.
How did you go from writing lyrics to making videos?
I started producing beats when I was sixteen, seventeen. I would write the rap lyrics and fill it in. I wrote “My Vag” when I was nineteen and I recorded it. I didn’t send it to anybody. I just sent it to like my best friends. Then it got to Court Dunn, who does all of my videos. He was a good friend of mine from when I was working at a video store when I was sixteen. He got it and he was like, “You have to make a music video.” I was like, “I can’t because I’m working at this company.” He was like, “You can wear glasses and you’ll be fine. No one will recognize you.”
Wait, did that actually work?
It didn’t work. But he was like, “We have to do it.” He made the video, some years later. Like five years later. So after that, it was like, “Well, you have to keep putting out content now because that video did well.” So, I would write it and we’d make a video immediately.
And that’s how your ‘trademark’ glasses look got started…
Yeah, I mean, I need glasses and I think that’s a punishment because my eyes have degenerated a lot since that point. I really can’t see well anymore. I knew that wearing glasses would make it worse when I didn’t need them because it makes it like a crutch.
And also your company recognized you…
Yes, they recognized me. I filmed the video on my twenty-fourth birthday. You how the office gives you an obligatory birthday party, where they get like Melissa’s Cupcakes and are like, “Let’s get back to work.” So they were like, “What did you do for your birthday?” And I was like, “Oh, I filmed a music video.” And they were like, “Oh my god, what for?” And I was like, “My Vag.” So then they were really passive aggressive, and when I got back to my desk there was a long e-mail that was like, “Just be careful that you don’t embarrass the company or embarrass yourself because it will live out there forever.” I was like, ‘Thanks… for believing.” Then things just went downhill.
You have a section in your book about canning and the rules about redeeming them. How that get in there?
I reached a dark period between unemployment and just being bored where I would just go can. That’s how I knew so much about the redemption and the Chinese grandmas. In this neighborhood, they’re not Chinese. They’re actually Mexican. The really scary ones are like, “Get the fuck off my territory.” It was like a scavenger hunt, you know? Except I would get yelled at all the time.
By the real canners?
By real canners and the people who owned the garbage cans. They were like, “Get the fuck out of my garbage.” [laughs] I was like, “I know you. I live across from you and you don’t recognize me?” And they were like, “No, because you’re wearing a shower cap. And a poncho made out of a fucking garbage bag.” It was really embarrassing. But, I was like, “It’s a scavenger hunt!” I would put on gloves and sift through the garbage like, “Oh, that’s real poop.” I only did it for like two days.
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