What It’s Like Being Hapa in America: Part One

My daughter and I. My daughter is part Asian and I am half Asian.

For as long as I can remember, my mom described America similar to how most foreigners of her generation did: as a place where people can go to achieve their dreams. America is a place where people of many different races live together. In theory, this is great. But practically, this is far from the truth. Particularly if you are Hapa.

I was born to a white father and a Korean mother. The ambiguity of my “race” has always been something that I’ve had to embrace and try to accept from a young age. In fact, one of my first memories in America was my parents telling me that my mom was Asian and my dad was American. They said that made me Asian American. 

I was six or seven years old when they told me this. 

I just nodded obediently, hardly caring. At that point, the only differences I noticed between my parents was that my mom had dark hair and dark eyes and my dad had brown hair and green eyes. I didn’t understand why my parents were telling me what I should identify as. What did it matter? I was a girl, I was happy, and at that time, that was enough for me.

It should have been enough. But I was forced to face the issue of my race at my elementary school. I remember the kids at school looking at me asking me “where are you from?” I remember they didn’t ask the other kids. Only me

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know what they meant. What do you mean? Where am I from? I’m from America. I was born in Texas. But they kept asking me. I told them I was born in Texas but they didn’t seem satisfied. Because it wasn’t the answer that they were looking for.

Obviously, they were asking me for my ethnicity, my heritage, my parents’ nationality. They looked at me and automatically branded me as a certain race. They were the same age I was.  Already they were asking me where I was from. Already I was different. I wasn’t like them.

I wasn’t like them because I wasn’t able to fit into one box. Here in America, you have to “pick” what race you are on college and job applications. If your parents or even grandparents are of different races, then how can you choose just one race? Choosing one race or ethnicity is almost like denying part of who you are. Part of what makes you you.

It took me the better part of my teenage years as I struggled to figure out who I was. Of course, this is normal for a teenager. Teenagers are in a constant search to find themselves, To figure out who they are. For some that is easy. For others, it is harder. I didn’t just have to figure out who I am and who I want to be, but I had to figure out which race I was. Was I white? Was I Asian? I was American and that should have been good enough for everyone but in this country, it’s not enough. You are not just American, but also white American, or black American, or Asian American. You are something-American. We are defined by the color of our skin and the place(s) that are ancestors came from. And that’s not right.

Eventually, I learned about the word hapa. Hapa is a Hawaiian word which originally referred to someone who is half white and half Hawaiian. Now, however, it refers to anyone who is half-Asian. They could be half-Asian, half black or half-Asian, half-Hispanic, and they would be Hapa.

I soon discovered that there is an entire community of people who identify as Hapa. I finally found where I belong. I belong in this community. I am a Hapa. I am half-white, half-Asian. That is my race. My ethnicity. That is who I am.

I am so proud to be a Hapa.

Here are some books about the Hapa/multiracial experience.

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Hi! I'm Helen and I am a 32 year old biracial millennial mom raising two multiracial children. I am a writer, English consultant, and social media manager. I am a self-proclaimed chocoholic.

18 thoughts on “What It’s Like Being Hapa in America: Part One

  1. Interesting. I have two cousins like that (2 women, 1 age 51, 1 age 48). 1 looks like her mother, not Asian. The other looks like her dad, Chinese. I wonder.

  2. You define yourself with whatever you value the most. To me, my race doesn’t matter much, so when someone asks me “who are you” personally, my first thought isn’t “I’m American.” I value my faith and my strength of character more than anything so that’s how I personally choose to identify myself. I really think we as a society should stop putting so much emphasis on the color of our skin and more of the content of our character.

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