In case you don’t know, hapa is the Hawaiian term for someone who is of mixed Asian ancestry. It originally referred to people who were half Hawaiian and half European. But, as with many words in the English language, the word hapa has evolved to encompass everyone who is of mixed Asian ancestry. Anyone who is half, a quarter, or three quarter Asian can identify as hapa. It is a collective mixed race term used to bring together people with partial Asian backgrounds. There is indeed power in the term hapa, similar to many other racial epithets that we use to describe people.
[See also: Why I Identify as Hapa]
As someone who is hapa — or half Korean and half white — there are so many benefits to being of this racial mix. But at the same time, there are a few things that have made cringe in annoyance simply because of my mixed racial background. In this post, and particularly in light of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I want to write about the five most annoying things about being hapa.
The ‘other’ racial category
If you are reading this and you are biracial or multiracial, then I am sure that you are familiar with the ‘other’ racial category. When you are mixed race, then schools, jobs, and the society at large forces you to make a decision between a rock and a hard place. They force you to choose your mom’s race or your dad’s race. They force you to choose under the incorrect assumption that everyone in America is just one race. They force you to choose without considering the rise of interracial marriages and the children of those interracial relationships.
You look down at the choices, your mom’s race, your dad’s race, and then the infamous other. All of these options are all terrible to choose for someone who is mixed race. When you are mixed race, you can’t simply just be one. You are, by the very definition of the term, a combination of both races. And then, there is also the other. What does that even mean? Is it a term for someone who is so different from “normal” society that there isn’t even a word to describe them? Well, if so, that is what it feels like they are choosing to identify mixed race people as. An other. An anomaly. An alien. Something that is incomprehensible and not yet fully understood.
Compliments that are really insulting
When you are hapa or even full Asian, you are often told these two “compliments” that aren’t really compliments. You might get told that you are ‘cute’ or ‘exotic.’ It may seem as if they are just positive affirmations to describe someone’s good looks. But when you are the only person in your class or group who gets told this, then it makes you wonder. It makes you wonder if you were told this simply because of your race. It makes you wonder what you would be if you weren’t hapa.
Asian Americans have been thought of as exotic. It doesn’t help that Asian Americans are portrayed by the media as being people speaking broken English, having freshly come off the boat from their native countries. And because of the lack of representation of Asian Americans in the media and in our history books, most people don’t understand them. And hence, they get labeled exotic because they seem foreign, different, and as un-American as they can possibly be.
And Asian Americans are also thought of as cute, hardly ever beautiful. Even though both words are used to describe someone’s physical attributes, beautiful is on a higher standard than cute. If you are called beautiful, you are to be admired and praised for your exceptionally comely looks. But if you are called cute, then you are looked down upon as something small, child-like, even insignificant. When hapas are called cute, then it feels as if people aren’t complimenting their good looks, but rather using an umbrella term to describe something that they don’t fully understand.
A target of Asian fetishization
When you are hapa and wanting to date, then it can be hard to find the right person. There are certain people who have a fetishization for people of Asian descent. While it is okay to be more attracted to people because they have the physical attributes that you deem attractive, it is not okay when they want to be with you simply because of your race. In fact, there are certain men who proclaim quite loudly that they are exclusively attracted to Asian Americans. But the way that that is proclaimed almost feels as if they like people of that racial identity simply because they look exotic and different from the “typical” American women who were often portrayed in the media when I was growing up.
The infamous question
When you are mixed race, then you are often asked one question more than any other. You get asked this question more than what is your name? or how are you?. When you are hapa, then you often get asked where are you really from? This question is so annoying on so many levels. For one, it implies that you are not really from America, but instead from a foreign country. For another, it implies that you look so ethnically ambiguous and so un-American that they can’t figure out what you are.
Even though the question technically asks where you were born?, but you know that they really mean where were your parents or grandparents from?, further implying that you are either a foreigner yourself, or a child or grandchild of immigrants. With this implication, they are ignoring the long history that Asian Americans have enjoyed in this country, and that not all have come to this country recently, but many have been here as long as white or black people.
An expert on Asian culture
When you are hapa, people always assume that somehow you are an expert on Asian culture. They assume that you know how to speak the language (always Chinese they assume) and that you eat Asian food daily. It is as if they completely disregard that many of us have grown up in America and are a part of American culture as much as they are. Some of us may have a firmer sense of Asian culture than others, depending on how they were raised. It is never right to assume that anyone is an expert on Asian culture simply because they happen to be half or part Asian.
It is time that we stop assuming that hapas are an expert on Asian culture simply because of their ancestry. Your ancestry does not determine that. Your ancestry is completely separate from your culture. After all, are you an expert in your great-great-great-grandmother’s culture?