I am what many would call, “ethnically ambiguous.” Throughout my years, guesses have ranged from Filipino to Mexican to Indian. If we want to be specific, I am Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Irish, and Portuguese; however, I identify as hapa.
Hapa is Hawaiian pidgin for “half”. It stems from a derogatory term used to describe the biracial children of indigenous Hawaiians and the immigrant Filipino, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese plantation workers in the early 20th century. As years passed and Hawaii became more mixed, hapa lost its derogatory tones and became short for hapa haole, meaning “half white”. Today, the word hapa has migrated to the mainland and is used colloquially within the Asian-Pacific Islander (API) community to mean being part-Asian or Polynesian. This
implicit shift in connotation is characteristic of its surroundings. In Hawaii, where about 27 percent of the population identifies as solely white and 23.3 percent identify as mixed, being hapa means being half-white; for the rest of the US, which is comprised of 77.7 percent identifying as solely white and less than 3 percent as mixed, hapa becomes half-API because the established standard is white. This transformation is indicative of the hapa experience; hapa identity is determined by the environment just as much as it is defined by heritage.
Throughout my talks with other hapa people, I discovered that there wasn’t a similar unifying feeling in the same way I’ve seen people of a single ethnicity related through a shared culture. I realized that so many factors play into the hapa identity that it is nearly impossible to create a unified culture. Firstly, hapa is by definition a mix of cultures. Person-to-person, it’s almost never the same mix. It’s difficult for me to relate to someone who is part-Filipino, despite both of us identifying as hapa, because I didn’t grow up with any Filipino culture. But even within the same combination of cultures, everyone seems to take different traditions and aspects to create a wholly unique blend that is their own identity. But it’s not only personal culture that factors into it, as identity is developed just as much through self-reflection as it is others’ perception. Your surroundings and community heavily influence how you present yourself and how you perceive your place in the world. My father, who grew up in Hawaii, saw himself as hapa because he was one of the whiter kids in his class. I see myself as hapa because I’m one of the darker kids in class. Concurrently, countenance and appearance tend to dictate how others see and then treat you. My brother, who has the same racial makeup as I do, doesn’t identify as hapa because he looks more traditionally Japanese than I do and is treated as such. The weaving of heritage and environment that hapa identity tends to be highly individualized and personal.
From this lack of a universally shared set of experiences stems a single common thread among hapa people: a contradictory confusion of identity – being too white, being too Asian, and still feeling inadequate in either culture. Even amongst other mixed folk, everyone grows up experiencing different aspects of a shared culture to create completely different perceptions of hapa. When feeling stuck between two or more cultures, there’s an inherent pressure to choose and assimilate to one of them. For years, every standardized test and survey I would take asked my race, followed by the dreaded, “Choose only one option.” It is an assumption that to be accepted by either culture, you must choose one of them. But even if you choose, a sense of belonging never quite comes to fruition. It’s a strange, dejected feeling to think that other people have more of a right to your culture than you do. But then they change the words next to the ethnicity boxes on the standardized test. “Choose all that apply.” And at some point along the way you figure out that you don’t have to decide what race you are. You recognize that you don’t have to fit in a box, that you don’t have to identify yourself as others do, and that you don’t have to justify your existence to the world.
Interracial marriages have been federally legal for less than 50 years; being multiracial is still a relatively new territory looking to be defined. In a country where the number of multiracial people has increased 32 percent in the last decade, this struggle in a search for a singular identity will become increasingly common. However, there is a futility in trying to define hapa culture. Due to its very nature, there is no singular way to be hapa. To be hapa is to be multiracial. To be hapa is to be indefinable by any sort means, percentages, or fractions. To be hapa is to live out a unique experience. And to be hapa is to create an identity that is all your own.