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December 21, 2011 / Katie


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.

Kip Fulbeck's The Hapa ProjectIdentity 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.


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  1. Adalena Kavanagh / Dec 21 2011 7:09 pm

    Here’s an illustration of what it means to be hapa, at least in my life:

    At work a student might walk away muttering, “stupid white bitch, ” when I’ve sent them back to class because they’re trying to cut, or they might warn a friend, in Spanish, that “la Chinita” is coming. They see me both ways—as a white woman, and as an Asian woman. I work with high school kids who are mostly African American and Latino. We have conversations about why they can’t assume that all the Chinese American girls are my daughters, because not all Asians look alike. We also talk about how it’s not cool to refer to someone by his or her race or ethnicity. I feel like they should know these things, since the offenders are all racial or ethnic minorities themselves, but that’s not always the case.

    Last month I told my Irish-American father that I was going to read at the Asian American Writers Workshop open mic and he asked me how come I never go to Irish-American readings. I didn’t have a good answer but I asked my white husband what he thought. He came up with a good response. My father is second generation Irish-American; my great-grandparents on his side came to New York from Ireland in the early 20th century. There isn’t much about my father or his family that makes him more Irish than American other than their claim on their Irish-ness. On the other hand my mother is an immigrant from Taiwan. She has an accent. She keeps a Buddhist altar and curses in Taiwanese when life disappoints her. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’ve been to Taiwan six times. My husband suggested that as a first generation American on my mother’s side, her cultural influence is just going to be stronger than my dad’s watered down Irish-ness. Which isn’t to say that I’m not completely American, either.

    It’s complicated. My sister says she doesn’t feel that connected to her Taiwanese side. She wonders why I do, but then I remind her that a long time ago I used to speak Chinese. I don’t anymore, but I remember.

    I’m also a writer. That’s complicated, too, because I write about white women and I write about Asian women. I even write about hapa women. Some people think you shouldn’t write from the point of view of races not your own, but I think this view might be too narrow for our times.

    Yet, how will people take me seriously as an Asian-American writer when I don’t even have a Chinese name? Have you ever noticed? All the prominent hapa writers have an Asian middle name that clues you in to their (almost) secret Asian-ness. Maybe I won’t want to be pigeon holed as an Asian-American writer. I haven’t decided.

    Even when you seek define yourself, as you must, the world doesn’t always agree with what you’ve chosen. Being hapa means waiting for the world to catch up, because we’re the future.

    • Katie / Dec 22 2011 12:00 am

      Adalena, thanks so much for sharing your story. It certainly resonates with my own experience.

      My roommate, who is full Chinese, used to teach in the South Bronx. Some of her kids thought she was white because they assumed that “white” was the only other race outside of black and latino.

      It’s hard to deal with the fact that people see what they want to see in you. I find it exhausting to constantly reassert my identity. Yes, I’m part Chinese. No, I’m not just white. Yes, I know I don’t look it. At times I wish I could simply pin a label to my sleeve.

      But I am proud of both my heritages, so I will continue to answer these questions, even when they annoy me. I will walk into an Asian American event and act like I belong there. I will choose which identity to wear today because I can.

      p.s. It’s cool that we are the same mix!


  1. Haole definition | Topimages

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