The term “hapa” originates from Hawaii and refers to a person of mixed ancestry. However, today the term is widely used in reference to people who are specifically part Asian or Pacific Islander. In my case, I am half-Filipino and half-Irish.
My ethnic and racial identity is somewhat complicated.
That is not code for “I’m special!” or “Oh, poor me!” It just means that my experiences are sometimes different than those of monoethnic and/or monoracial ancestry.
I honestly have no opinions on this topic that I wish to explore publicly at this time, even though there are certainly some provocative subjects from which to choose from. (For example, “Monoethnic and/or Monoracial Privilege: Reality or Myth?”)
But, yeah…no thanks!
I’m not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole. Notice the lack of a “, Ph.D” after my name in the byline. I am simply here to share a few experiences and facts about myself with respect to my mixed ancestry. Some of them might have political implications. Others are simply funny, ironic, offensive, or awkward interpersonal anecdotes. Perhaps some people out there will relate to them or learn from them.
That is all.
1. No one has ever accurately guessed my ancestry. Most people perceive me as mixed but will guess that I’m half-Caucasian and half-Chinese or half-Korean—never Pacific Islander or Filipino. Some people will think I’m 100% Caucasian. And I can recall one or two people who thought I was 100% Asian. Then there are those who think I’m Bjork’s nephew (i.e. Icelandic). I don’t really mind—it serves as icebreaker when meeting new people with whom I have nothing else to talk about.
2. I look nothing like anyone I’m related to except for my brother. The cousins I’m closest with on my mom’s Filipino side of the family have very dark skin and are often mistaken for being black. I, on the other hand, am so pale that I was once asked in all seriousness if I was albino. In the U.S., being this ghastly pale is generally considered not a good look. When I’m in the Philippines, I am told I should be a movie star. (I’ve actually heard “I’m whiter than you’ll ever be!” used in the context of a vicious catfight in the Philippines.)
I have a young cousin who is also hapa but has a much darker complexion. Her father (my uncle) is Filipino and her mother is Caucasian. A few years ago her parents got divorced and full custody was granted to the mother (whom she looks nothing like). After once being vaguely suspected of kidnapping, the mother changed my little cousin’s last name to match the maiden name she herself had already reverted back to. And from then on she made sure to always carry their passports.
3. This one kid at my grade school used to frequently ridicule me for being Asian. Sometimes he would call me “a big ugly gay Asian,” which is nothing if not a mouthful and an extremely thorough attack on all fronts of my intersectional being. To make matters worse, my other classmate once tried to console me afterwards by saying, “Don’t worry, you don’t look very Asian to me.”
Yes, it’s a bit disorienting to have someone try and appeal to your vanity as an individual at the expense of offending an entire race of people with whom you identify with.
4. I tried to join the Asian Students Coalition during orientation of my freshman year in high school. But this did not work out so well. For whatever reason the club president who was manning the sign-up sheet gave me the stank eye and all but explicitly discouraged me from becoming a member when I inquired about the organization.
I could tell this figurehead fancied herself a real Asian-American activist. And for what? Organizing a “multicultural demonstration” on how to make mochi for Japanese New Year? I, on the other hand, had been advocating on behalf of myself and my Asian peers for years by putting anti-Asian racists on notice. But of course she would be awarded some bombastic student-group resume glitter under “Extracurricular Activities” on her college applications while I was stuck doing the thankless dirty work.
It’s also awkward when you’re having dinner with your dad (whom you look nothing like and aren’t really close to thus don’t give off that “father-son” vibe) and people assume your on a date with your sugar daddy.
5. I knew this guy in college who claimed to be a quarter Kennedy and have Kanye West’s cell phone number (yes, that guy). We were friendly but then it turned out he was flagrantly racist against Asian people. “…but I’m Asian…” I informed him. “Oh, you’re my exception!” he assured me. I got the impression that he was expecting me to be blush and be flattered by this then let out a mousey demure giggle.
Instead, I began to hate him with a deep burning passion and told everyone I knew “he’s racist!”…
…but then he blew $500 on bottle service at a trendy night club for my birthday. So I gave him a hug and an enthusiastic “thank you!” the next morning during my hangover. (I’m only human.)