Monday, July 16, 2007

Hapa Fever

This weekend I've been reading a lot about hapa issues. Hapa, for those unfamiliar with this term, is the Hawaiian word for "half" and generally speaking refers to anyone who is mixed race, with part of that mixture being of "Asian" origins. This is rather loosely taken in Kip Fulbeck's book, Part Asian*100% Hapa, since some of the participants don't seem to have any Asian ancestry (there is one person who is half African American, half Native American and there is a Japanese-Korean person, which would seem to make this person inter-ethnic Asian rather than hapa, but perhaps I'm splitting hairs since all participants in the book are self-identified, and if you tell me you are hapa I will believe you). It's a great book--and I'd encourage anyone interested in mixed-race issues to find a copy (you can easily get it on Fulbeck says it's the book he wishes he had growing up, and I see why--it's a simple book of portraits from the collar-bone up of various self-identified hapas and their answers to the question: What are you?

I also just finished a memoir by May-lee Chai called Hapa Girl (a fairly page-turning memoir, although I found the instances of naked racism in South Dakota hard to stomach--although important to remember that it went on in the 1980s and probably still does today), and in the NY Times this weekend there was an announcement that Sarah Gore, the youngest of the Gore daughters, was married to Bill Lee, a Los Angeles businessman. It wasn't until I saw this item repeated in the Angry Asian Man blog and then found a photo that I realized that Lee is Chinese American. Which means that the bio babies of Sarah and Bill will be hapa--and Al Gore will soon have non-white grandchildren (of course, perhaps he already does since his other daughters are also married and may have adopted children from other countries and heck, maybe their spouses are also non-white--surnames are misleading).

And I guess what impresses me about the quick google search I did for info on Lee & Gore's wedding was that only one site made mention of his ethnicity--and it only said that she was marrying a Chinese American businessman.

Anyway, is this a tide we're turning--that there is now a coffee table photo book, a memoir, and the man who may help stem the tide of global warming is going to be a global granddad within his own family? Or are we just proof that the model minority myth isn't so mythical and that mixing with Asians has just never been as controversial as crossing the black-white color line?

[Amendment--July 21, 2008: Since I've written this post I've had a few thoughts about the use of the term "hapa" which has come to be seen as a controversial adjective/label within the mixed-Asian community. For more, see this post on my thoughts about the use of "hapa"]


jordynn said...

There's also a TV Show called "Jon & Kate Plus 8" which features a family of 8 (two twins and a set of sexteuplets): Apparently the father is half-Korean so the children are 1/4 Korean. The mother is white...

Jennifer said...

Hmmmm...that's really interesting, because I've seen snippets of the show and assumed that he was 100% Asian (didn't know Korean) and, thus, the kids looked *very* Asian to me--I assumed they were "half" rather than a "quarter," although I think this points to my own over-reliance on appearance. At any rate, they appear to be "mixed"--although, truth be told, some of the kids look REALLY Asian, to me at least. But perhaps I see the world through yellow colored lenses.

On a totally different note, I've not had the energy to watch an entire show because it sort've creeps me out and makes me a bit righteous and shows the limits of my own intolerance for large families--of course I'm assuming that these kids were products of in vitro fertilization, and that's I guess what gets my goat--that there are so many kids who want to be adopted in this world and the parents decide to do in vitro because of a biological imperative to produce your own progeny?

I know people feel it, and I want to be open minded and certainly whatever people do is their own business, but I feel like I can't watch a show where these parents may have made this decision. Of course, maybe they were 100% natural--it was a freak of nature. Which would change my opinion about them, but probably not want me to watch the show anymore because it's just exhausting imagining that many kids!

JoAnna said...

I’ve seen parts of Fulbeck’s book and was also duly impressed. If you check out his faculty page at UCSB, there are some interesting films he’s worked on that might be good material to use in future classes on (mixed)race identity politics.

I’m interested in the distinctions you made among inter-ethnic Asians, hapas and non-Asian mixed-raced people. While you didn’t want to split hairs, you did identify some combinations you felt didn’t quite fit the concept of hapa. I think this topic is something important to work through. What kinds of differences and similarities exist across these three types of groupings? Does being inter-ethnic imply that differences in cultures are not as jarring/problem-ridden as differences in inter-racial identities? Does coming from a geographically-close region impart more similarities or affinities than the mixing of people from opposite ends of the globe? Or does a Japanese-Korean individual deal with greater tensions based on the historically controversial and violent political and military relationship of the regions than the mixing of say a Japanese-Irish person? Is it possible that the joining of families from two geographically distant and historically un-connected regions like Japan and Ireland has less baggage, racisms and stereotypes to deal with?

Of course particular generational positionalities(immigrant vs. 1st generation or 2nd generation), the context of racism and racial hierarchies in the United States and other factors come into play. Thinking through these complications could result in some very interesting analysis.

And then there’s the creation of Asia as a region, either by government supported area-studies programs during the Cold War or by people from the region themselves as a way to develop political power in the 1970s…

I guess my overall inquiry is over the qualitative aspects of distinctions or homogenizations among ethnicities versus race…age-old questions, I know...

Jennifer said...

These are great questions and distinctions! I know that the rationale that Fulbeck uses in his book is the one I also alluded to--that he put out a call asking for people who identified as hapa to come have their photo taken and to answer the question "Who are you?" He also, briefly, mentions being surprised at some of the people who came but was pleased at the ways that people were challenging the notion of who qualifies to be hapa.

I guess my knee-jerk reaction is that I would not automatically assume someone of part African and part Indigenous heritage to be hapa. The rationale, I believe, that this person gave was that American Indians and Asian Americans share a common ancestry ala the Bering Straight. And the person who is part Korean and Japanese, also seems to share a racial identity even though they are inter-ethnic, and the reason I'm making that distinction is that depending on generation, where s/he grew up, or even their home situation (perhaps they are Japanese-Korean American but adopted by a black family). Actually, taking this example, a Japanese-Korean American raised in a black family, well, they could very well have a "hapa" state of mind. And going back to the Native American-African American person, it is true, there are roots in Asia for Indigenous people in the U.S. so why wouldn't they be considered hapa?

But I suppose the other thing to consider, is what use is the category of hapa? Because if we are to open it up so widely as to include everyone, then does the category itself become meaningless? It's something I wrote about before regarding Barack Obama and his memoir DREAMS FROM MY FATHER. There is a aphorism he repeats, which his Kenyan sister keeps reminding him of: "If everyone is family, then no one is family"

If everyone can fit within a category, then the category, itself, doesn't seem to hold so much importance. Perhaps that is part of the point of Fulbeck's book--there is a way in which many of us may identify as hapa, may *feel* hapa. And yet, it still raises the question--why is the efficacy of the category?

I do think that it's a complicated and complex subject. And I think people have the right to identify as they want, regardless of what the "look" like or how they were raised. But there are consequences, material ones, for opening up categories, particularly for historically disenfranchised people. In thinking of an obvious example like affirmative action, if a white man decides that he actually identifies with the oppression of an African American man, because he was raised in a black neighborhood, because he identifies with black culture--has black friends, a black significant other, eats black food, listens to black music, in short, for all intents and purposes has immersed himself in black culture and is accepted, among his friends, as someone who relates to African American culture, should he be more or less eligible for this scholarship than a black student who is adopted by white parents, raised in a white suburb, who has culturally grown up white?

My own reaction is that regardless of how genuine the white students' identification of black culture and identity may be, if he is visibly marked by whiteness (regardless of what his actual ethnic background is--perhaps, in fact, he is of partial African ancestry) then there is a way in which he has lived with white privilege and has access to resources that may be different from other black students. I'm not saying that the black student who may be white identified having grown up in white culture is more deserving solely based on his skin color, but if you plop both of these students in the middle of a college campus, you can't necessarily *see* their background and hence the concentration will be on what others' "see" about them--the way they are reflected by our own over-reliance on the visual and the ocular.

Sorry--going on too long, but I've been thinking about this a lot--because while I think there's a way in which the above scenario may seem more clear, for now, for me--I can easily envision a situation where it becomes more complicated--as in, for example, it turns out that both the black and white student are actually of mixed race--are both black-white--then is it solely about visual coding? I'm not comfortable with thinking about the over-reliance on the visual that we place on racial identity, but it is a reality and whether mixed-race white appearing people identify with their whiteness, there is a privilege of white appearance that they accrue.

So again, getting back to the "hapa" issue--I believe that hapa studies, was in part founded on the premise of creating a space that took into account the unique experiences of mixed-race Asian Americans--that they were not the same as mixed-race black or Latino (which is a mestizo category in itself) or Native Americans--that there is something inherently different about the experience about being Asian American and even more so, to be mixed-Asian American. And that the recognition of similarity and familiarity for many hapa people lies in their inability to be recognized for how they identify. Which is why, although I believe if you are half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese, you may, indeed, feel mixed and half, there is a way that visually you could still be coded as "Asian American" and hence have a more coherent sense (if not to yourself than to others) of racial identity, whereas a mixed-race white American-Korean American person may constantly have to face questions about WHAT they are.

But you know, the truth is, there are so many contingencies to all of this--and I think that really, we do have to take people at their word in how they identify and to realize that a half-Chinese half-Vietnamese person who chooses a hapa identificaton is not doing it to take away from anyone but to show a familiar and similar set of experiences that s/he feels and should thus be supported.

JoAnna said...

I knew you had more to say about the definitions, hence my original comment. Thank you for your response and taking the time to outline your thoughts.

Living in NC has warped my own sense of visual I am always looking for a familiar Asian/Asian American face in the crowd. Sometimes I'm looking so hard that I have to check myself and say, maybe this person is acutally Latino, African American or some combination of an unlimited number of backgrounds.

I hear you about the need to defend categories and not open them up to every experience so that the terminology no longer has any meaning. But I also like your acknowledgement that someone who self-identifies with a set of experiences should also be vailidated. But then that begs the question of people claiming similar experiences that just aren't. Argh!

Glad you're working on this and doing some hard thinking for all of us!

Jennifer said...

Wow JoAnna, you actually read that long and rambling and barely coherent response to your excellent questions! Kudos to you! And thank you for saying that I presented an outline for my thinking. I think I was writing and thinking simultaneously, so I'll have to go back and re-read it and see if it does actually make any sense.

It's just so sticky and tricky--thinking through all the implications of race and mixed race. And yet, so important. And I have to remind myself that complex issues often involve complex thinking and complicated analyses and arguments. So while I may long to live in the realm of essentialism and binaries, I force myself to live in the land of indeterminancy and ambiguity, even though I think I retreat to solid ground everyone in a while, like I just think California is the best state in the union! Yes, I'm biased and I'm romanticizing California as being the land of milk, honey, and diversity, but it's home--always will be, even if I never end up owning property there (which, is doubtful given cost of living and competition for jobs, but I guess you never know).