Three months ago when I was getting married in Hawaii, I went to visit Pearl Harbor. As I was buying some souvenirs at the gift shop, the cashier said that I looked hapa. Hapa is a Hawaiian term used to describe a person of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander racial or ethnic heritage.
I actually am hapa, but I call myself whasian, which is a combination of white and Asian. My dad is a retired redneck from Oklahoma and my mom is a stereotypical Korean who works at a dry cleaners. They met when my dad was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. That being said, I basically grew up with an insatiable appetite for both mashed potatoes and kimchi.
It wasn’t easy growing up a mixed race mutt. Although I was born in Colorado, we moved around a lot because my father was in the army. We lived in Germany for a few years before I entered grade school, and then we moved to Pusan, South Korea, where I started kindergarten.
In Korea we lived on an army base, so I went to school with many other mixed kids. But when we walked out of the base into open downtown markets, I often got dirty looks from old Korean women. Groups of Korean schoolgirls would whisper and point when I walked by. Why? I didn’t have jet black hair, a flat face, high cheekbones and slits for eyes like my mom. Instead, I had a round, pudgy face and nose, light brown hair and almond-shaped eyes. As far as they were concerned, I was the enemy.
Back then I was too young to care what other people thought about me. I was too busy imitating Michael Jackson and playing with Barbies. But then we moved back to the States and I started middle school in Virginia.
Middle school was a traumatic time for me, emotionally and physically. My parents got divorced, I started getting hair in my armpits and I packed on about 20 pounds. I also had to get glasses, and for some ungodly reason I chose to wear a pair of giant pink plastic glasses, which officially branded me an Asian nerd.
Instead of being mocked for being part white, kids in middle school laughed at me for being Asian. It was a role reversal from Korea. Most white kids couldn’t tell that I was half them. They zeroed in on my Asian features and made up their minds that I was Chinese.
I got called Kristi Yamaguchi, chink, slant eyes and other derogatory names, but I took it with a grain of rice (get it, not salt, rice) because I was focused on writing poetry and competing in spelling bees like a good little nerd. Anyways, Virginia wasn’t too bad because we lived near an army base with a mixed urban population. It wasn’t until I visited my grandparents in Oklahoma that I felt the full brunt of racism.
My dad’s family is from a tiny town in Oklahoma. You have to drive half an hour away just to get to the nearest Wal-Mart. There’s nothing to do there but to hunt, fish or go camping.
For a better understanding of the area, as well as my dad’s family, here’s a bit of history that my mother told me. When my father first married my mother, they lived in a trailer outside of my grandparent’s home. My grandfather refused to speak to my mother for an entire year because he was angry at my dad for marrying a hammerhead (my dad’s term for a Korean). Eventually he came around to accepting her, maybe because he was too tired not to, but it was a slow, heartbreaking process for a woman who had just moved around the world and could speak little English.
When my brother and I visited Oklahoma for summer vacations, we also got looks from the people there. They couldn’t quite tell if we were Chinese, Alaskan or Native American, so they stared at us with brows furrowed and mouths open. Luckily, my grandmother had a huge heart and a no-nonsense attitude, so she toted us around without a care in the world. Maybe she did see people in her church giving us weird looks, but she chose to ignore them.
Then one summer my carefree attitude changed. It happened when I was in high school, visiting Oklahoma again after my grandfather had passed away. We were at the dinner table, finishing up dinner, when my uncle started telling a joke. It began something like, “Let me tell you a n***er joke…”
Now I knew my dad’s family was racist, but I had never heard them be so blunt about it. When that came out of my uncle’s mouth I was appalled, wanting to shout out that he might as well call me that, too. I always felt a special kinship with African Americans because I thought white people looked down on them the same way North Koreans looked down on my mom’s people. Plus, one of my best friends was black!
But instead of yelling, I just sat there thinking to myself, he doesn’t know any better. None of them do. It’s not their fault they were raised in racist middle of nowhere America. It’s not their fault they are ignorant about cultures other than their own. It’s not their fault when Wal-Mart runs out of Wrangler jeans in their size.
I think that day, hearing those words, I made up my mind that I didn’t want to be associated with the white half of my family. I would consider myself full Korean. When I filled out my college application, I filled in the circle that said Asian/Pacific Islander. Same for when I got my first job, and every job after. I didn’t want to associate myself with my white half because frankly, I was embarrassed about them.
Despite wanting to be considered just Korean, I couldn’t escape my white half. When I got my first teaching job, I was sitting at a table for orientation when they called out my name, Patricia Smith. The woman sitting next to me said, “You’re Patricia Smith? Aren’t you Asian?” I politely smiled and didn’t say anything. Yes, I have a very white name.
I’ve also confused people with my accent. Growing up in southern Virginia and having kin in Oklahoma, I have a slight southern twang. One day I was talking to a woman who interrupted me in the middle of our conversation. She said that it was funny to hear a country accent coming out the mouth of an Asian person. I basically had to explain that I wasn’t an OTB (off the boat) Asian.
Another constant reminder of my other half comes from, of all places, Facebook. Last year when I posted about how happy I was to see Maryland considering legalizing gay marriage, a childhood friend of my father in Oklahoma had to reply that it just isn’t’ right because the bible said so. Then there are the pictures of my uncle, covered in camouflage, sitting next to a dead buck he just shot. I just read the posts and move on.
As I’ve gotten older, I have become comfortable in my whasian skin. I no longer get angry or defensive when people make random race-related comments. I can talk about drinking beer and eating biscuits and gravy with my coworker from Texas, as well as joke about my angry Kim Jong iL temper with my husband.
Or, I just joke about my husband being half Canadian, but that’s half of a whole other story.