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When There Was No "Hapa"

Throughout most of my life I’ve been THE Asian in the room, so to speak. My first grade school had African American kids, but no other Asians that I can recall. At my second grade school, which was very small (less than 125 kids) and mostly Jewish, I was the (only) minority of color. I might add that several of the working class Jewish kids from this school took it upon themselves to beat me up every day for at least three months. When they tired of beating me up, they started beating up another kid who was new to the school and had a German name (but was NOT Jewish). The vast majority of kids who continued to pick on me and hassle me regularly in this school district were also Jewish, but in junior high and high school they were mostly upper middle class or just plain wealthy.

Sometimes when they gave me crap, they would also recount their “adventures” in Forest Park, shooting BB guns and .22 pistols at black kids. Just for fun, you know. The night before I took SATs, a bunch of kids TP’ed [toilet-papered] our house and trees, and in large, red spray-paint letters, wrote “DIRTY JAP” on the front lawn. As this was the first thing I saw when going to the test, it was quite disturbing. Over time, I found out who did it, and none of these kids ever said they were sorry, nor does anyone ever understand why I don’t wish to come to any reunions. I’ve confronted one or two of those sad cases, and never got any response but to watch them stare at their expensive loafers.

I did have a few friends (all Jewish) in high school, and a girlfriend (also Jewish) for almost two years, so not everything was horrible, but it was quite a struggle to stop looking in the mirror and wishing I were white. But I did stop, sometime before I turned 16, and that was a liberating thing.

I did not meet anyone of mixed race background until I was in college. During the summer of 1973, someone I was going to school with recruited me to join a mixed doubles bowling team. The two women were both engaged, but their spouses-to-be had put their sleeping bags and their bongs in a van and taken off for at least six months. My buddy had known one of the women since kindergarten, and so I said yes. The other young woman was a Hapa. Her father was a Dutch national who gained entry and citizenship by joining U.S. forces in Korea, and he came to the U.S. married to a Japanese woman he had met on leave. Their household was very Japanese, at least to me, and since I decided to befriend my bowling mate, I spent a lot of time there.

I found that our experiences were quite different. She (and a younger sister) had experienced prejudice and had not had many white girlfriends, but after puberty, since both girls were shapely and good looking, they had been treated well and did not lack dates and “suitors”. Both of them suspected that some of this was attraction to the “exotic”, but neither seemed concerned.

When most of the people I knew well, who knew the young man she was engaged to, convinced me that he was a hoodlum and wife beater in waiting, I pursued a relationship in order to get her to question her engagement or break it off. She did break it off, but not until there had been some violence, and later, that guy beat me up too. Once the engagement was broken off, she exited from my life. Overall, knowing her was interesting because her home life was very Japanese, including her mom serving her dad, who did no domestic work at all. I do think she learned from my different perspectives and came to see her life and isolation differently than she had before meeting me. Being around her also freed me to be more Japanese in public, as I began wearing happi coats a lot, and dancing slippers and putting up my long hair.

During my second year of grad school there was a Hapa in the new class whose mother was a war bride and whose father was an African American Marine. The father had booked sometime during Reggie’s childhood, and he had been raised by his mom in Harlem. He had received the most rejection from both sides of his family that I have ever encountered. I think I became the first person, outside of his hapless mother, he ever trusted.

Reggie would show up at my fire-escape-kitchen door, at all times of the early morning, begging me to let him in. Sometimes he just needed to hear some funk and be in the presence of an Asian who did not reject African Americans; sometimes he needed to sit on my floor and cry. Reggie was exceptionally smart, and unfortunately, exceptionally sensitive. He knew and understood everything his mother had imparted to him about Japanese food and culture and he absorbed Harlem from the gutters up, with magnificent street savvy and intellectual curiosity. I think he knew more about African American lit and the Harlem Renaissance than many people who were then starting up African American Studies programs. He was the happiest when we listened to The Funkadelic, or Isley Brothers records from 1969-1973, or BB King. He absorbed Texas and upper Delta, electric blues from me, as well as a lot of black jazz.

When I moved to Boston, he contacted me there from NYC, and I visited him there once. He took me to a Cuban-Chinese restaurant in Spanish Harlem, and hoped I would enjoy the vibe and appreciate the “different mix”, as he called it.  We had a wonderful day together. Later that winter, after he had gone back to St. Louis for school, one of my professor friends told me he had committed suicide. Nobody even claimed his body.

Knowing Reggie put every beating and insult I’ve experienced into a sharp bas-relief and perspective. I hope there will never be more Hapa lives like his.

© 2010 Paul Yamada

hapa identity multiracial