On Being Mixed: The “Hapa Radar” and other Mixed Benefits/Struggles

Originally published to Medium, Twitter’s long form writing platform.

Today at work, it didn’t take me a moment to think of how to answer the following question:

“So, what are you exactly?”

Tony, who asks me this question, is a regular at Byul, the coffee shop I work at. He is Chinese and his wife is German, and the two met in San Jose. He is also all too familiar with the look of a mixed person, as his daughter is the product of such. Both of us can easily recognize the look of the “hapa.” Although he isn’t hapa, he has the hapa “radar”—as in, he instantly notices when someone is half-Asian.

So what does hapa mean?

According to Urban Dictionary, as hapa is not in the dictionary, a hapa is: “Slang. of mixed racial heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry”

If we wanted to casually graze through the ups and downs of hapa culture, we could somewhat refer to this video. Although Buzzfeed sheds some insight on what it means to be of mixed decent, it also perpetrates stereotypes that group mixed people together, in the same fashion that single ethnicities get grouped into.

Originating in Hawaii, the term hapa started out as a means of describing someone of any mixed ethnicity, and later more commonly became a way to refer to those who were half-Asian. The commonality of the hapa child began, of course, with the parents. Hawaii was the first frequented destination for interracial marriages, and is the birthplace of the first multiethnic president. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, many Chinese immigrants from Guangdong came to Hawaii and married the women there, being the first to prompt interracial marriages.

Although interracial marriages are becoming an increasingly common sight these days, they were illegal in the United States up until a 1967 US Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virgina, that overturned anti-mixed marriage laws. Since then, mixed marriages have been steadily climbing. According to a US Census in 2010, 15.1% of new marriages are between different ethnicities, a 28 % increase since 2000. Although this is an improved increase, there still comes backlash amongst these marriages. In a segment on Weekend Editionon NPR, Sarah McWilliams describes a moment of disapproval between her husband Tracy Williams and passersby. She is Caucasian and her husband is African American:

“A couple months ago at an IHOP near her home in suburban Maryland, she noticed that a woman at another table was staring at her and her husband as they chatted over their meal. ‘I finally caught her eye and said, ‘Are we interesting?’ ‘Sarah McWilliams recalls.”

As a result, hapa children have been sprouting all over the United States, all of whom have begun to create similar physicalities on their own.

The Hapa Project — Kip Fulbeck

Freckles, almond eyes, and auburn hair are among many aesthetic ingredients that get mixed into the melting pot of the hapa. Singular features that are common from multiple ethnicities become a part of one person.

On the inside, a blend of two cultures diverge into one. Growing up in America, how does a hapa assimilate? Does he or she follow Asian culture, American culture, or somehow find a compromise between both?

I’m Katrina and I am proud to call myself hapa. For a long time I wasn’t proud of it, but rather confused by it. I didn’t know how to “be” Asian and be Caucasian at the same time. My mother is first generation Thai, born and raised in a small suburb outside of Bangkok. My father roots trace back to Germany and Wales, but he was born and raised in a tiny city in the midwest, Youngstown, Ohio to be specific. My parents unfortunately found themselves in Florida but fortunately ended up meeting through mutual friends. They were married in 1988 and had me in 1993 and my brother in 1996. We moved to Glendale, California in 2001, where we thought it’d be a promising place to settle as a family of mixed people.

Although I didn’t receive much scrutiny growing up, my brother did. On some days home from school he’d hear word “ch—k” thrown at him. He couldn’t understand why the kids were calling him a racist name for Chinese people when he wasn’t even Chinese—it wasn’t his fault. The kids didn’t know what to make of a half-Asian person, and quite frankly neither did I.

I knew I was Asian and Caucasian, but I didn’t know how to associate with one or another. Growing up I tried to be Thai. In the fifth grade my mother enrolled me at Wat Thai, a Thai temple and Saturday school in North Hollywood for young Thai students. It went, to say the least, horribly. Every Saturday we started the day by singing the Thai national anthem (to this day I still remember it, but nothing of what I’m actually saying), followed by an hour of meditation at the Buddhist temple. (I’m Catholic, so I don’t really know how I found myself here in the first place). Again, more repetition of meaningless phrases, which continued into my academic class. Want to hear the best part of this? It was taught IN THAI. I struggled regularly to keep up. As I wrote the Thai alphabet, I treated it more like a drawing class than a matter of piecing sentence fragments together. I sat at lunch with a table of conversations that I could only pretend I was understanding.

My last day at Wat Thai was a day in which we got called on to answer questions in Thai, and I simply couldn’t answer. I broke down in front of the entire class with tears of frustration. After being with the school for two years, I retained nothing but a knowledge of the national anthem and a handful of meditation prayers.

High school was essentially the typical American teen life for me. The only Thai thing we did was dinners bi-monthly at Sanamluang Cafe in Hollywood. I was culturally confused and tried to make up for this by identifying with the Filipino culture. My best friends in high school were Filipino and all of their moms and dads were my titas (aunts) and titos(uncles). I even became vice president of the Filipino Club my senior year. Although I felt incredibly welcomed and a part of the culture, I still felt guilty for not following through with Wat Thai.

Coming into undergrad at UC Irvine, I immediately found the Thai Club on campus and found a welcoming group of individuals who didn’t even care whether I was Thai or not. We spent time learning about Thai culture, Thai-American culture, and developed a bond that extended beyond our ethnic background. I found a group of people who accepted me and wanted to teach me about Thai culture, and I ended up dedicating an unhealthy amount of nights to their second annual culture night performing traditional dances.

At the same time, I coincidentally stumbled upon MIX Club, a mixed student organization on campus. Here was a group that also helped me create a strong sense of pride for my mixed heritage. We talked about diversity, our parents’ backgrounds, and our own cultural experiences growing up. MIX Club isn’t a place where the members remain exclusively hapa but rather celebrate diversity and celebrate being a club that simply welcomes everyone. Perhaps it’s just the hapas that are a little more boastful about it.

To this day I’ve taken my experiences in these clubs to further strengthen my sense of identity. It’s given me the confidence to know who I am culturally in addition to where I want to go. Being hapa has not only taught me to embrace having multiple ethnicities, but it’s also taught me to be open to different opinions, upbringings, and personalities in general. I feel incredibly prideful to see more and more hapas around me, but I also love to see this as proof of acceptance.


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