Thoughts from a Third Culture

reflections of a mixed American

Mia M

Mia M
Los Angeles, California, United States
December 31
A lactose intolerant who loves eating cheese, a native Angeleno but also a nomad. Mixed, forgetful, upbeat, prone to existential crisis. Lover of words, tea, mix CDs, and the ocean. Enjoys sneaking shout-outs into pieces, cooking with varied results, collecting life anecdotes. Can't escape thinking about race, love, and mortality. Also, the birthday field is broken-- I'm a cancer. This is my purely stress-free writing zone.

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JULY 27, 2010 10:59PM

Part Asian, Not Hapa

Rate: 15 Flag

My mother is Japanese from Osaka; my father, American from a small town in Western Oregon. There's a word for people like me, used especially on the West Coast and popularized in recent years, maybe most notably by artist Kip Fulbeck:


From the Hawaiian phrase "hapa haole" ("half white"), the word "hapa" has come to be a label that many multiracial people with some Asian heritage incorporate into their identities, whether they wear it with pride or with ambivalence.

I don't wear it at all.

It's not that I think "hapa" is an offensive word, though my parents took issue with it as my brothers and I were growing up, their reason being that it means, literally, "half." "Haafu," the Japanese equivalent has the same literal meaning and I've even heard people skip over both these words entirely, going straight to "half." As in, "You look a little Japanese. Are you half?" or "Why do you work at the Japanese American National Museum? OH, are you half?!"

Even if these words aren't meant to carry a negative connotation, the jump from using "half" to describe a person's racial background to using it to describe that person's worth is an easy one to make.

Here's the most awkward example I can remember. Two years ago in a Japanese class, a male friend of mine who also happens to be half Japanese and half white was arguing playfully with another classmate, an Asian girl, when she said, "You're only half! You're not even a whole person!"

"Half," "hapa," and "haafu" weren't words I grew up hearing. I was born in the San Gabriel Valley area, surrounded by the Japanese American relatives who helped my mom settle in Los Angeles in the 1970s. A year or so after I was born, we moved to St. Louis, Missouri, starting a chain of moves that eventually took us to six cities--and me to seven schools--before bringing us back to the L.A. area in 2004.

After less than a year in St. Louis, we moved again to a small town almost three hours outside Chicago, called East Peoria, where we spent more than six years. My memories of our life there are limited and mostly of the typical childhood kind, like the time when my brother tried to kiss an ant and ended up curled up in a ball in the grass, crying, the ant hanging, fat, from his lip by its mandibles.

But I also remember the hungrily-anticipated packages from my great aunt and uncle back in Monterey Park, filled with rice crackers and Japanese whistle candy; eating steak with rice and soy sauce; hiding my onigiri (rice balls) under the lunch table at school, sneaking them out and eating them one by one. In kindergarten, a group of girls used to pull their eyelids back into slits and stick out their tongues at me. They apologized when they found out I was half Japanese. "We thought you were Chinese," one of them told me.

By the time we moved back to L.A., we had lived in Berkeley; San Jose; a suburb of Seattle; and a town called Flower Mound, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas. During that time, I was bussed to an inner-city school, met Japanese kids from Japan for the first time, had a ten-year-old explain to me the concept of "Asian Pride," and felt vaguely uncomfortable when I met my first white anime fanatic, a girl who came to speak to our geography class about "Japanese culture."

In Texas, I made friends with a Chinese American girl from Manhattan named Katrina. One day during the summer after seventh grade, she went through our middle school yearbook with me, telling me which kids were "real Asians" and which ones weren't. (Luckily, she grew bored of the game before we reached the M's, so we never had to broach the subject of my debatable Asianness.)

Maybe it's partly due to how I look--ethnically ambiguous, often passed over as white--but I thought for a long time that race was a detail best not thought about. When my mom talked about feeling out of place in our white, suburban neighborhood in Texas, I would tell her that it shouldn't matter, that almost all my friends were white, and very nice people. They accepted me without question, I said--and really, I felt less comfortable around Katrina, my supposed minority sister with her "Yellow Power" t-shirts and gavel of "real Asian" judgement. With my white friends, I didn't have to label myself. Whether or not I looked white, they knew that wasn't the whole story, and that didn't seem to be a problem.

The summer I turned sixteen, we moved back to L.A. There, at a large public school in the South Bay, I heard people call each other things I'd never heard of before: hapa, FOB, whitewashed, rice cracker, Twinkie...

While my Texas high school had been homogeneous enough that the few minority students, for the most part, mixed in with everyone else, my new school fell on the other end of the spectrum. My English teacher used to say (repeatedly) that our campus looked diverse, but at lunch time, it divided, turned into the United Nations--each group sitting with its own.

In such a diverse school, you couldn't just be, you had to have a label. And sometimes, your label had to have a qualifier. You couldn't just be Asian, you had to be a "whitewashed Asian."

Only in college did I really begin to look back through my experiences and think about what they meant all together. I live in a "third culture" family. It's not fragmented into Japanese and American parts, it's just a new normal, incorporating both. I'm American. My best friends in Los Angeles are second-generation Persian, Guatemalan, and Russian, and I'm surrounded by Japanese Americans and Japanese at work, who make me feel welcome and at home. I lived in Kyoto for a year with my Japanese major friends, the only one of us with Japanese blood, but not the best one at speaking Japanese. I moved to Vermont for college and during my last year lived with three roommates, all from different places. When I talk to my mom, I do it in Japanese and English; to my uncle in Japan, Japanese. When I'm around my high school friends, supposedly I talk like a California girl, but rather than get embarrassed, I like knowing that I can adapt.

Moving around the country, though it always felt impossible at the time, kept me from having to solidify a way of seeing myself, whether as a hapa, a "JA," a white girl, or anything else.

In the end, I'm undeniably American and proud of my Japanese roots, but I'm happy to have escaped a permanent, imposed definition. My looks are flexible, and sometimes I feel like a chameleon, moving from one group to another, having to feel out whether to pick up my bowl or leave it on the table to eat.

During the past four years, I wrote a few research papers on multiracial identity, I got into reading Kip Fulbeck's books, and being able to learn about multiracial perspectives helped me to gain a stronger sense of self. Maybe there's similar value in identifying as "hapa" and exploring what that means.

But I can't help but think if race is a socially constructed "accident of birth," my accident of being multiracial, of growing up across the country as something of an ethnic and geographic chameleon has been a pretty lucky one.

I've always felt weary of people who claim that multiracial individuals are in the unique position to negotiate between different cultures, between different worlds. We don't all pop out of the womb as diplomats, simply because of our race. Still, I'm reminded of that day in Japanese class when the word "half" turned into an insult thrown at my friend. It was a joke, albeit an awkward one, and within seconds it was thrown out and forgotten as our professor started his lecture.

After class, as we were headed out the door, our professor, a Japanese man about our parents' age with a friendly smile, caught up with my friend. "I wanted to tell you not to listen to anyone who says you're not a whole person," he told him, glancing over at me too. "My kids are like you, and I always tell them they're not half: they're double."

It's the same thing my dad used to tell me: corny, but sweet, and the more I think about it, in some ways true. As it turns out, I like having a "border identity." I like being someone who both stands out and can play a fly on the wall, observing people in their own environments, catching them at their worst but also, more importantly, at their best. And I have no desire to put up new borders for myself by claiming another, if new, exclusive category.

I'm not hapa, I just am.

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When still actively teaching younger students here (I only do professionals and special projects now), I always explained it exactly as mentioned by Your professor, adding that doubles had the advantage of seeing things from TWO perspectives instead of one and absorbing the best of each.

Really well told._r
Great post. Your description of having more labels in a more diverse school seems counterintuitive, but I have definitely experienced the same. Even though you don't embrace the label of "Hapa," from a visual arts point of view you might be interested in seeing a photo book with the same title, which I have seen at Chronicle Books.
For what it's worth, I have come to the same conclusion about gender as it relates to me. I simply am. And most of the time, that's pretty okay. You packed a lot into one post . . . well written, and an excellent read.
Interesting post, Mia. My own young children are mixed race- Asian and white. I can see how their experiences are already different from my own childhood, or even from kids whose parents are both second generation Asian Americans. In the SF Bay Area there are lots of kids who are Hapa (or mixed race) but not a lot of dialogue among parents about what it means or how to consciously help their children form their own sense of identity.

As for being having a "border identity", I feel that applies to myself more than to my children, even though I am not of mixed race. I think it has more to do with being an immigrant, or raised by immigrant parents, and navigating the cultures without clear directions from either side.

Have you had a chance to meetKip Fulbeck, as his art is on display at the Japanese American Nat'l Museum?
wonderful article, Mia.

One of my friends is a Japanese man in his eighties. Only recently has he spoken of his memories as a young boy, during the war in western culture. I mentioned that it must be much better now. He said "yes, but some people always live with fear". It was a powerful perception to me that he saw it as fear.
It's horrible to say, but at least as far as Anglo men are concerned, you could have done much worse. A very large number of us regard Hapas as the perfect hybrids, the golden doodles of the human race. Rated.
I'm full blooded White Bread With Mayo, and a midwesterner to boot. So I've never felt anything of which you speak. And I had the benefit of a color-blind father who taught me that people are just people, so I've never played those "games" myself, and never understood those who did.

I appreciate your giving me a look inside your world, and I'd add my vote that you are indeed a double.
I'm thankful for your story, and your experience really strikes a chord with me. I know it's not something intended to stir emotions, but for me it does. My family is more diverse than most, and you so articulately put their experiences into words. I always say I am nothing of interest, of mixed European origin, but my son is Hispanic, my boyfriend is white and two different distinctions of Alaskan Native (which causes its own weird system of belonging depending on who you are talking to), my sister embraces the Trinidadian in her, my brother is "mixed," and that's only my immediate family! I see them battle with who, in the unsaid opinions of society and the people around them, they are "supposed" to be. I have never believed in labeling people, and have always had a really hard time with it. When people go "oh! she's your half sister!" or " oh, your son is HALF!" it reverberates in my ribs and shocks me every time. No, she's just my sister, and my son is my son. We should never be assigned or have to choose "sides." I prefer to think of "race" in anthropological terms as a human invention to categorize geographical biological adaptations and sometimes cultural practices. We are all whole people.

Sorry for the length, your experience is response/thought provoking!
Thank you all for the thoughtful comments!

Bonnie-- Sounds familiar! I've been the new kid so many times, I think it only stopped being a defining part of me once I went to college and realized (with relief, actually) that I was only as new as everyone else. You must have been to an even wider range of places growing up in the military!

Linda-- I have checked out the book you're talking about (Part Asian, 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck), and I actually own it now! From a visual point of view, I do think it's really interesting and cool to look at, and I liked reading peoples' comments, whether or not I identified with them. If you haven't checked out his other book (also Chronicle) called Mixed, you should! It's like the last one, but the photos are all of kids-- I like it a lot more too, because the photos have much more personality this time around.

Owl-- I'm glad you brought up gender, because I think everyone with a "mixed" experience has something in common, even if we're mixed in completely different ways. And I'm glad you're in a place where you feel okay just being. :) I'm sure you have so many interesting stories of your own-- I'll have to check out your blog and learn about them!

(More responses later... I'm new to Open Salon, so I'm still getting the hang of this!)
Grace-- I think you're right about the effect being an immigrant/having immigrant parents has on a person's identity. I think I tend to forget that I'm the "child of an immigrant" and the culture of my family is something I kind of take for granted, so I wonder how much of that part of my experience will be passed on to my kids if/when I have them.

I had a chance to hear Kip Fulbeck speak at the museum, but I didn't meet him in person! (Only long enough to have a book signed.)

Catherine-- That's a really interesting comment. I could spend forever replying and talking about the war. Maybe that'll have to be its own entry eventually.

Max-- Goldendoodles are pretty cute, so it's not so horrible. But be careful who you make that comment to! Also, we're not all beautiful any more than women of any other race are all beautiful (though I'm sure you know that... just saying).

David-- Thank you, Mr. White Bread with Mayo. :)

Secret-- I'm really glad my story struck a chord with you. Your family sounds so interesting, and it seems like knowing and loving such a mixed family has given you great perspective. Thanks for sharing your experience. :)