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Are You For Real?

At a recent gathering at my children’s school, one of the parents came up to me and said, “I’m so glad I know you because you are one of the very few real people here.” Assuming that was meant as a compliment (which was somewhat odd because I was dressed in a tacky muumuu and draped in plastic leis as part of a presentation), I responded to that with my standard, “Oh, well, thank you, but no, I’m not, I guess” in that self-deprecating way that I automatically do whenever someone says something even minimally positive about me.

When I got home that night, I started to process what she had said and many questions filled my teeny brain. Was I really real, unreally real, or surreally real? What did she mean by calling me real? What does it mean to be real? Did I really want to be real?

I believe my difficulty in pondering the whole question of realness stems from being a Buddhahead for whom the word “fake” is often the insult of choice but the word “real” is only uttered when it pertains to a Louis Vuitton bag a friend received from her errant husband trying to get out of the doghouse, another friend’s double-eye surgery which did not give her a permanent deer in the headlights glare, or the impact age is having on my already gravitationally challenged boobages. Perhaps this is why J-Lo does not seem to have a lot of Asian people in her extensive entourage, we simply could not tell Jenny from the Block on demand that she’s real—unless of course, she asked us whether we thought her protruding okole was the result of butt implants.

Perhaps this tremendous discomfort with the concept of being real stems from our need as Nikkei to live within the strict guidelines of enryo and “what will other people think”—it is pounded into us by our jii-jiis and baa-baans from the moment our teeny tiny feet and gigantic baby heads bust out of our kaa-chan’s womb as that was the first and the last time we were allowed to freely scream and cry in public. Many of us did not get to experience the joy of throwing a tantrum while lying down on the floor of an aisle in the toy section at Walmart like other real children of other ethnicities were allowed to do. All it took was a shot of stink eye, a clandestine pinch, or an icy cold “You better not make me shame in public” muttered under the breath to silence an impending whimper.

According to my parents, this power to suppress your realness does not work if you dilute your pure liquid gold Japanese blood with even a drop from any other race—hence my youngest son’s (affectionately known as “Mad Cow”) penchant for morphing into the Tazmanian Devil at Toys R Us. Every hysterically crazed manic episode was blamed not on the total lack of discipline shown him by his Yonsei grandparents (who still consider M&Ms and frosting the perfect meal for grandchildren) but on some genetic defect passed on from his Jewish father’s side of the family. I swear I even heard them tell someone, “He’s like that because he’s hapa” in the midst of yet another typical Mad Cow Club Penguin-inspired fit at Longs Drugs.

While most of the time, I think about booking my Mom and Dad a room at the funny farm, I do feel that white people seem to prize being real a whole lot more than we yellow folks do (yes, the person who complimented me on my realness was Caucasian). This explains the popularity of the whole Real Housewives series on Bravo and the obvious lack of color in the cast. With the exception of a handful of the chocolate housewives in Atlanta and Washington DC and the dulce de lece ones on Miami, the Real Housewives are largely vanilla in flavor—regardless of whether they flip a table like a Cubano Scarface, drop more f-bombs than an NWA video, or eat every meal at a sushi bar staffed by heavily accented, hachimaki wearing, kimono donning, looking like Tojo in every Looney Tunes cartoon from WWII “locals.”

While the half-Chinese Lisa Wu Hartwell was a Real Housewife for two seasons in Atlanta, the only 100% yellow folk have been supporting players—the aforementioned sushi bar staff, the Vietnamese nail salon crew, the Wu family who we meet at a banquet at a Chinese restaurant in California (where ancient Chinese grandma does not speak a word of English but works a mean chopstick), and shi-shi-shi Beverly Hills wedding planner Kevin Lee. The implication seems to be that although we are not real enough to garner a place on the roster of housewives, we can project a little bit of realness if we are trying to make a buck, doing a job that we are stereotypically supposed to do, or our hapa relatives force us to go on television (although I do question the authenticity of Kevin Lee’s feathered helmet hair). Other than that, it is clear that most of us choose to keep any realness we may have hidden deep within a tansu in the back of the basement closet and that is just fine with mainstream media.

The thing is, although I am a real real housewife in Hawaii, my life bears no resemblance to the lives of anyone in any of those shows—even Jiggy the dog has a better wardrobe than I do. Unlike Camille Grammer of Beverly Hills, I do not have four nannies but spend at least four hours a day in my home trapped in that hell known as “parenting a pubescent JJA (Jewish and Japanese American) princess.” Unlike Kim Zolciak of Atlanta, the last time I admired “tight butt” was when I was going to make shoyu pork for dinner and not instigating a booty call with a young tender NFL player. Unlike Tamara Barney of Orange County, the only time I was ever in a steamy bathtub with a hot Latin man was when I had to give a Chihuahua I was fostering a flea dip. Unlike Sonja Morgan of New York, I have never gone out in public and forgotten to wear underwear but I have gone out in public and realized I hadn’t bathed in three days (due largely to new Mom lack-of-sleep brain death or major vog-induced Nyquil intoxication). Unlike Danielle Staub of New Jersey, the closest I have come to doing a pole dance is walking into a tree while getting swept up in the spirit of Pokemon Ondo during Obon.

I have never thrown a glass of wine in someone’s face at a pool party. I have never criticized someone’s marinara sauce as not really Italian. I have never pulled out someone’s weave in front of a bar. I do not have my own shoe line. I do not have an off-key, pitchy dance tune for sale on iTunes. I am still married to my first husband. My kids will never receive a brand new Mercedes just because (well, not from me anyway). Yes, I do have a purse sized dog, but he rides in a Foot Locker and not a Ferragamo bag. But yet, somehow, I received the good housekeeping seal of real from a white girl (a blonde one with blue eyes at that) which, of course, my parents would see as a negative and blame on my habit of being Caucasian-adjacent.

Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I still know my place and never ever ever take the last piece of mochi on the plate.

© 2012 Jayne Hirata

hapa hawaii identity media multiracial values