KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 7 — Bowen Yang couldn’t be more different in real life from his overachieving, successful Silicon Valley bro-type character in the hit show Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.
But it was exactly the sort of person his parents would compare him to when he was growing up.
The Australian-born comedian knows what it’s like to be evaluated against other people’s children, a familiar rite of passage for many kids of Asian background.
Now that the Comedy Central series is back for a second season, the 30-year-old actor’s perfect comeback for all those awkward comparisons is perhaps modelling the part of Edmund, Nora’s (Awkwafina) ambitious and annoying cousin, after the personalities Asian parents would fawn over.
“(It’s) a pretty evergreen figure in everyone’s life no matter what age you are,” he told Malay Mail in a Zoom interview on Friday.
“It’s someone that people compare you to even though you have no idea that they exist — that feels like a very Asian-American thing and so I just kind of thought about the kinds of people that I grew up hearing about from my parents.
“Or people from Chinese schools where they were like, you know George Lu over there gets straight A’s and he’s going to go to Stanford, what are you doing with your life and I’m like I’m getting a B+ and a C.”
Things may have started well for Edmund in the show but this season, he gets a taste of humble pie after his status, money, education and legitimacy are taken away from him.
Yang, the first Chinese American to be nominated for an Emmy for his work on Saturday Night Live, was glad that the producers and writers allowed him to make Edmund more sympathetic with his newfound struggles.
“I know that feeling of being made to feel less than and that’s what Edmund initially stirs in terms of that getting that emotion from the audience but as he develops, you really care for him,” he said.
“Nora was also very intentional about making sure that he is this likable guy even though she and Edmund are at odds with each other that the audience ultimately roots for both of them so that’s a real gift.”
Nora of course refers to Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum), the co-creator and star of the series that’s inspired by her real-life growing up in Queens, New York.
Yang described the Crazy Rich Asians star as a lightning-fast improviser and a problem solver who knows just what to do in any situation.
“I got to do so much fun stuff with Nora and she’s just such a wealth of knowledge and insight and intuition — I learned so much from her and I learned about her in the process.”
Asked how the show captures the migrant minority experience without playing into stereotypes, Yang said Nora From Queens offers a meaningful direction and tone for Asian viewers but at the heart of it, it’s a family sitcom and an everlasting form of entertainment that many globally know and love.
To see that genre in the incarnation with three different generations of Asian people between Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn), Nora’s dad Wally (BD Wong) and the two cousins is something special, Yang added.
“You just see these characters out in the real world behaving as human beings and just seeing that happen and play out is impactful and that’s what a lot of our Asian viewers say too, which is so touching,” he said.
“It’s a show about an Asian family in the wider context of being in Queens and in New York City, being in America, being in the world, it’s modulated on all these other things that everyone can relate to.”
Nora From Queens is one example of the rise of Asian-American representation in film and television following decades of underrepresentation and stereotypical roles for actors of Asian heritage.
But it’s also a worrying time for the minority group as anti-Asian hate crimes have surged during the Covid-19 pandemic across the US.
Yang, who lives in Brooklyn, said what is currently happening to the Asian-American community is unfortunate, especially when a lot of the crimes are beyond anyone’s control.
“The only thing we can do to protect ourselves is to join together, be a communal entity, let’s look out for each other,” he said.
Yang believes the media plays a vital role in shaping the way Asian-Americans are perceived.
“A way that is meaningful for different people, is to show an example and have a story and narrative drive in the media how Asian people fit into the fabric of America and so it’s definitely something that I think about,” he said.
Season 2 of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens airs every Wednesday at 10pm exclusively on Paramount Network’s Comedy Central Happy Hours block.