Awkwafina lost her mother at the age of 4 and now the star is detailing how the loss changed the course of her life

By Alexia Fernandez
July 03, 2019 01:17 PM

Awkwafina is opening up about the devastating loss of her mother when she was just 4 years old.

The 31-year-old actress penned an essay about the experience which is featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, detailing her mother, Tia’s, battle with pulmonary hypertension.

“My earliest memories of my mom are from when she was already sick,” Awkwafina, born Nora Lum, writes. “I remember her a lot through her food. She used to feed me a lot of Korean food, and I remember her really caring about that, caring about what I brought to lunch in my lunch box.”

The memory continues to stay with the Crazy Rich Asians star, who writes, “She used to feed me tteok, rice cakes. Years later when I’d eat them, I’d cry because I’d remember her.”

Soon after her mother’s death, the actress says she was raised by her father, Wally, and her grandmother Powah, who moved to Queens to help take care of her.

Awkwafina
Aaron Poole/E! Entertainment/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

“I remember seeing my grandma as someone who was saving me,” she writes. “She was my best friend at a young age. She’s snarky; she enjoys a good joke. Nothing was ever too dirty for her.”

Awkwafina adds, “She was really strong too. Whenever people talked about Asian women being these docile, subservient creatures, my grandma just blew all that out of the water.”

  • For more about Awkwafina, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

The actress’s experience with loss is reflected in her role in the upcoming film The Farewell, which portrays a Chinese family that goes to great lengths to keep its matriarch from learning she has terminal cancer.

Awkwafina with her mother, Tia, and father, Wally
Awkwafina/Instagram

Losing her mother made her feel like “this fixture of sorrow,” Awkwafina writes.

“Family members would come up to me and cry, and I didn’t like that,” she explains, adding it forced her to find a joyful outlet to overcome the pain.

“So I tried to do this sideshow of, ‘Hey, let me make you laugh,’” she adds. “I needed people to feel joy. That’s who all this began. I was the class clown all the way.”

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She continues, “I think all the time, what would I have been doing if my mom hadn’t passed? I don’t think I’d be here, because I think that I had to face a certain level of trauma to be so joyously self-deprecating and so free.”

As for what she would tell her younger self, she says, “I would say not to worry so much.”

“Not because it will work out, but because that’s all I did, worry,” she explains. “Now I just want Awkwafina to represent the positive impact of what I went through.”

The Farewell is in theaters July 12.

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