She was tall and freckled, with long, dark hair — and we stood out in the same way. As I leaned in to say hi, she yelled over the din, “You’re hapa, aren’t you?” It was the last word I expected to hear in D.C., but I welcomed the refreshing respite from the constant and inevitable question: “What are you?”
What am I? This is what they’re really asking here: What is the particular racial mix that created you? Because YOU don’t fit into a single box in my mind, and that confuses me.
I’m half Korean and half white, and it’s usually easier to just leave it there. If I were to volunteer my identity though, I would tell you I’m hapa.
Hapa is a Hawaiian pidgin word used to describe mixed-race people — primarily, though not exclusively, those who are half white and half Asian. It’s short for hapalua, the Hawaiian word that literally means “half” — and it originated as a derogatory term toward mixed-race children of plantation guest workers from the Philippines, Korea, China and Japan, and the women they married in Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century.
In recent years, though, hapa has become a term mixed-race people in Hawaii are proud to embrace. I learned the word in Hawaii, where I spent my elementary school years being one of the “whitest” kids in my school in Waialua, Hawaii. I would later move to Kansas and become the only “Asian” in my fifth-grade class. My white friends held their noses at the kimbap my mom sent on special occasions. Even now, friends marvel at their incompetence with chopsticks before vowing to marry Asian men — because “mixed babies are so cute!”
But on the rare occasion that I do find myself among Koreans, it’s blatantly clear that I am not part of the club. I’m self-conscious of my Korean pronunciation, and I bow just a little too long in an attempt at a respectful greeting.
It’s this confusion of identity that characterizes the experience of being hapa — struggling to find a balance between being too white and too Asian.
In identifying as hapa, I’ve found a way to normalize my in-betweenness. Having a specific word for what I am connects me to a larger racial demographic in which I perfectly fit — and more than that, it makes me remarkably unspecial. Among hapas, I’m no longer a biological curiosity, just a product of this country.
It’s not a coincidence that the term originated in Hawaii; its cultural and geographical isolation makes the state a particularly interesting case study for race and identity in the U.S. About 27 percent of Hawaii’s population identifies solely as white, compared with the country’s 77.7 percent. And while less than 3 percent of the U.S. population at large identifies with more than one race, 23.3 percent of Hawaii’s population identifies as mixed in some way. Demographically, people in Hawaii meld and mix in ways the country’s population as a whole won’t come close to reaching for years.
Artist Kip Fulbeck lived in Hawaii for several years, and he remembers a more keen awareness of racial and cultural differences among nonwhites than on the mainland.
“If I’m living in Hawaii and playing pickup basketball,” he said, “they’ll say ‘Hapa haole, throw me the ball!’ or ‘Hey, buddhahead! Hey, kimchi!’ ”
Like me, Fulbeck appreciated the nuance of self-identity in Hawaii — there, he wasn’t “the Asian kid” like he was at school in California, or “the white kid” at home with his Chinese family. He was hapa.
“I think [hapa] is a much more interesting and accurate word than ‘Amerasian’ or ‘Eurasian’ or any these words that are two words combined, because I don’t think of myself as half Asian and half white,” Fulbeck told me. “I think of myself as a whole.”
In 2000, Fulbeck started taking photos of hapa people and inviting them to identify themselves in their own words. The collection of photographs grew into the Hapa Project, a multiracial identity project encompassing traveling exhibits, presentations and a published book: Part Asian, 100% Hapa. He has photographed thousands of people for the project, and the community surrounding it remains lively online.
Partly because of his project, and partly because of Hawaiian diaspora, the term has found pathways into the mainland. Restaurants like Hapa Ramen and Hapa Sushi have sprung up along the West Coast, serving dishes that riff on traditional Asian foods.
As more Americans come to inhabit these racial middle spaces, the language we use for multiracial identity will become increasingly normalized — and hopefully, fewer hapas will have to explain themselves to strangers in segments and percentages.
Alex Laughlin is a social media journalist at National Journal, where she tweets, tumbles and brings you the news. You can find her on Twitter: @alexlaughs.