By Mia Nakaji Monnier
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 16, 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 wary 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.
Written for Thoughts from a Third Culture, my Open Salon blog, open.salon.com/blog/miamonnier