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That Hapa Kid—Part 1

The author joining a Japanese cultural event at Seattle University. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Turner.

Hapa, in Hawaiian, means “part” or “mixed.” It’s typically used to describe a person of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. I heard the word on the first day of my freshman year in college. That night, I met two girls studying in the hallway outside of my dorm room. They greeted me kindly and invited me to join them. Before I even sat down, one of them asked me if I was a “hapa kid.” I asked her what that meant. She explained how, when she first saw me, she guessed that I was part Asian but I was probably born in the US since my English is good. The other girl nodded in agreement. They were right. I felt uneasy but I sat down anyway and we introduced ourselves.

Alyssa was born in China and adopted by a family in Hawaii. Ashley was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the states just a few months before we met. We started talking about our childhoods. I told them that I was born in Portland, Oregon, and that my dad was American and my mom Japanese. I have two older siblings, both of whom look just as “hapa” as I do, and we speak Japanese at home except for when my dad is in the room, in which case we say everything twice, once in each language, so that my siblings and I know that both parents understood what was said.

As I was talking, I looked up to see whether the two girls were listening or even interested in what I was saying. They were staring intently at me, and asked why I had stopped. I was struck by the curiosity I saw in their faces, so I continued.

I started going to Japanese school when I was three years old. The school itself was small but well-organized. Professors and instructors from Japan taught us math, science, and language every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. If I remember correctly, more than 400 students were enrolled in classes from kindergarten through 12th grade. Many students were American but most were Japanese—only a small number were mixed-race like me. I know because the kids in my class called me “half” when the teachers weren’t around. I wasn’t hurt by their words—I don’t think they even meant to mock me.

In my experience, Asians are surprisingly casual when it comes to race and skin color. It’s not uncommon when I’m with other Asian people for one of them to ask me, “What kind of Asian are you?”

As far as I can remember, the late night conversation I had with Alyssa and Ashley was the first time somebody had questioned my ethnicity. I guess I had never considered myself anything but “American.” In other words, my racial identity didn’t extend past my own birthplace. I’ve done a lot of thinking since then. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the value of the simple fact that my parents were born more than five thousand miles apart, or that my life is the result of a union between two families that were formerly separated by the Pacific Ocean. And while I believe my heritage is a gift, there are two sides to this interracial coin.

On one side, I can essentially live two lives at once. Being able to speak two languages means I can communicate with an entirely different face of humankind. My love is equally split between America and Japan, but the short time I spend in the latter country makes me yearn for it that much more. Thankfully, there are exchange students here whom I see on a daily basis, and few things make me happier, and more at ease, then speaking to them in what I think is the most beautiful language on this planet.

On the other side, my split origins make it impossible for me to call either country my “home”. My family visits Japan almost every year to see my grandmother and uncle who live together in Chigasaki, a suburban town on the lower east coast of Japan. While we’re there we like to go shopping, eat as much food as we can, and explore every cool place we can find on a map.

Last summer we stayed for three weeks. During that time, unlike any past visit, I could never shake the feeling that I was a foreigner. I’m convinced that it was because of the conversation I had with Alyssa and Ashley. Wherever I went, it felt like everybody was watching me. I became self-conscious of my appearance.

Questions spun in my head like flies. Was it the way I dressed? The way I talk? Can they tell that I’m not a native? What do they think of me and my siblings? The simple answer is, yes, of course Japanese people can tell that I’m mixed race. I think most people can.

For a time, it felt like I was unwelcome everywhere I went. In Japan, I felt like an intruder stealing something that wasn’t mine. In the United States, I’m a minority, and that adds an entirely different level of complexity to my situation. Either way, I was the proverbial fish out of water—the ugly duckling—a square peg in a round hole.

But I feel different now, and less dramatic, too. Just like there are two sides to my coin, there are two ways to live my life. I can carry on thinking that I’m a counterfeit half-breed that doesn’t belong anywhere, or I can ignore my own insecurities and take full advantage of the fact that I am literally the lovechild of two countries, both with a completely unique set of tradition, culture, and ideology that I can access simultaneously.

In the midst of a supposedly post-racial era marred by issues driven by race and cultural identity, it can be hard for me to see where I stand. I’ve heard it said that interracial people represent a minority within a minority. The treatment I’ve received from some people would suggest that this is true, but that doesn’t mean I’m less of a person. Actually, I think it means the opposite. In the past two years, I’ve come to see myself not as an oddity but a rarity. And with these new eyes, I know that I can do anything I want, wherever I go.

Part 2 >>

 

* This article was originally published in The North American Post on June 23, 2016.

 

© 2016 Nicholas Turner / The North American Post

family hapa identity language mixed race