hapa [haw-puh]: 1. From the Hawaiian word meaning half, part, fragment; to be partial, less. 2. A person of mixed heritage, usually part Asian or Pacific Islander. 3. Originating from the Hawaiian term hapa haole, which literally means “half white”; a person of mixed blood who is part Hawaiian, part white.
Identity is a slippery thing. There are many ways to explain who and what you are, yet words often fail to encompass the entirety of that identity in all its beauty and complexity. I am half Chinese, half Irish. The dictionary might offer up terms like: multiracial, mixed race, mutt, eurasian, amerasian, or 混血 (mixed-blood). I eschew all of them for hapa or, simply, mixed.
Hapa, like most words, has evolved over the years from its original Hawaiian meaning. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii you know that there is an obvious distinction between the locals and the tourists. Back in the day when Hawaiians were still the majority and whites the exception, hapa was most commonly used in the phrase hapa haole or half white. As more Asians have immigrated to the U.S. and become a part of American culture (especially in California where the largest population of Asian Americans resides), hapa has come to mean someone who is part Asian, part white, or more broadly, anyone of mixed heritage.
Since moving to the East Coast, though, I find I use the word less. People’s eyes tend to glaze over and a silent question mark looms, floating menacingly above their heads. Hapa? What does that mean? Though the word hasn’t reached critical mass in the American lexicon yet, there are still plenty of us out there. After all, mixed kids are the face of the future. *wink*
I recently saw Kip Fulbeck, who is one of the most vocal hapas in the public sphere, speak about his photography at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). In 2001 Kip started The Hapa Project. He traveled across the country taking photographs of more than 1200 volunteer subjects who self-identified as hapa, which, for the sake of the project, was defined as mixed ethnic heritage with partial roots in Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. The end result was a book of stark portraits juxtaposed by each subject’s answer to the question, “What are you?”
I keep my copy of the book facing outward on my bookshelf and everyone that visits is inevitably drawn to it. Flipping through the pages you get a real sense of the vast diversity of the human species; no one person is the same, no one hapa looks alike. In some small way, this book helps me to tell people who I am.
At the end of the event Kip stressed that his definition of hapa only holds true for himself. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to frame the conversation–to label or not label. Some days I’m Asian, some days I’m Caucasian, but most days I’m just Katie, and that’s fine by me.