Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Interview About Being Hapa That Never Got Published

Who ARE you??
by Sharon H Chang

At the end of last year I was asked (via Twitter) to interview for a smaller Asian publication about being multiracial. Of course I immediately said yes. I mean, exploring mixed race Asian identity and giving that exploration a voice is what I do. And of course I was excited to have a chance to speak and be heard. The writer contacted me with her credentials (very good) and writing samples (also very good). But then it got really weird, really fast. According to her, HAPA was an acronym for "Half Asian Pacific American" (she'd never heard of the Hawaiian hapa). In a short list of questions following she then wanted to know which race I identify with most and what opportunities my racial mix has offered. She then asked if I would send a picture of myself in "ethnic garb" or with "ethnic cuisine."


Talk about uninformed, divisive and objectifying. I felt completely misunderstood. And angry. SO angry. What am I, some pieced together puzzle of a person who can be described in partitions and shoved into ethnic descriptors? She set a deadline for me to write answers and I totally biffed it. Somehow got the idea in my head that it was due 10 days later than it actually was. By the time I sent my responses the piece had already gone to print and it was too late for me to be included. But I usually never miss a deadline and in reflecting back, it was hard not to wonder if I had subconsciously sabotaged my inclusion in a piece that didn't feel inclusive at all. I apologized to the editor for missing the deadline but then felt I had to point out (as tactfully as I could) that her writer had been fairly insensitive on the subject. I noted I was happy to discuss further -- but never heard back from either of them.

So in the name of the conversations we still find it difficult to have around mixed race identity (which include honoring and hearing the lived experiences of multiracial peoples) and in the hope those conversations can move forward in this New Year and all the years that follow, I share with you here my answers to the Interview About Being Hapa That Never Got Published:

My father is from Taiwan and a 1st generation American immigrant. My mother is white American of Slovakian, German and French Canadian descent. Culturally, I was born in the U.S. but raised bi-coastal transnational. We lived the 1st half of my youth in New England, spent a transitional year in China, then ended up in Los Angeles for late elementary, middle, and high school. Throughout all those years we visited family in Taipei frequently. As a result, Taiwan figures prominently in my childhood memories, is a place of deep nostalgia, and a culture with which I identify fairly strongly at times (alongside being American).

I don't. Race labels plague me as a mixed race person. I'm always "trying on" different styles for size and fit but frankly, something's always off. The cut, the length, the material. Too wide, too short, too tight, too itchy. These days I'm enjoying identifying as multiracial Asian. But my identifier is fluid and changes based on context, environment, life circumstance. For example, when around other Asians I typically refer to myself as Hapa or Asian (i.e. Asian American) to express solidarity. If I'm hanging with a mixed group or other non-Asian folks of color, I usually place myself as multiracial, mixed-race Asian, or a person of color, not only to demonstrate my minority heritage but also to avoid being constrained monoracially. If I'm in a roomful of whites, I either avoid self-descriptors completely by describing my parents' ethnic backgrounds instead, or reluctantly allow "half Asian" (which makes me cringe internally because it feels so divisive). My experience is that more detailed or specific terminology like mixed race, multiracial Asian, Hapa, and Asian American is often unknown or confusing to whites which can then lead to probing/personal conversations I often don't feel like having. A lot of it too has to do with what labels I'm allowed by others (i.e. what my "ethnic options" are). For example, I've been accepted as biracial, multiracial, Asian, Asian American, Hapa, sometimes a person of color, but never white, European, Canadian or Taiwanese. It is all simply put, not that simple.

Hands down, the greatest challenge I'm struggling with right now being Hapa is being the invisible "invisible minority". Not only am I (in)visibly Asian (a group  often dismissed, overlooked and ignored as successful and therefore presumably problem-free) but multiracial as well (a group struggling greatly to gain even some visibility and recognition in the public eye). Doubly whammy. Though I see myself more and more reflected in the faces of others walking down the street and in advertising, I still don't much see myself or the members of my nuclear family, who are all also Hapa, anywhere else: TV/film, children and adult's literature, represented in academic research, race discourse, statistics, news and journalistic articles, etc. Places that would especially lead us to feel important and included, not just that our bodies are an excellent marketing commodity/strategy because mixed race appearance appeals/sells to multiple races simultaneously. You name it, we're usually not in it. I think there is some attention (still not enough) allowed multiracial people with African American heritage. But if, like myself, you are a person who happens to fall outside the Black/white binary, you are likely to find yourself lost in a racial No Man's Land. There is still a great lack of affirmation for mixed race people.

My answer to this question needs to begin with a caveat. I think any time we start talking about opportunities given based on race, we need to acknowledge that we are actually talking about privilege, racial hierarchy, and racism. A tricky and very sticky place to go. Do I perceive racial advantages based on my multiracial phenotype? Unfortunately, sometimes yes. Sure I have found myself at the receiving end of looks-based benefits and praise. Does such attention superficially inflate my ego? Yes. As a young woman, did being viewed as interesting, unusual and exotic get me to the front of long lines and into VIP sections at clubs? Yes. Did it get me dates? Yes. Jobs? Yes. But none of these supposed opportunities have ever felt good. Why? Because...
(a) They have been given based on my racial appearance, not on my experience, qualifications or the essence of who I am

(b) They have never stopped others from ultimately treating me as a woman of color (e.g. sure I got the jobs, but then endured my white male bosses endlessly wrapping me into their Asian fetish fantasies)

(c) These supposed opportunities are ultimately given at the expense of others
There is a growing popular excitement around hybrid vigor, the idea that mixing races produces more exceptional offspring; healthier, stronger, more beautiful - a sort of "master race" if you will. In recent decades, multiracials have often been cast in sci-fi films as the post-apocalyptic saviors of humanity (e.g. Pitch Black, the Matrix movies). Mixed race people are plastered all over advertising. "Mixie babies are the cutest!" is a common compliment showered on expectant interracial couples. All of this is grounded in what many call "postracial America", the now widely held conviction that since we have elected a Black president and the number of multiracial people is exploding, we must be transcending race to become a race-less and at last equitable society. But what does, "Mixie babies are the cutest!" imply about  monoracial babies? "Postracial America", for which mixed race bodies have involuntarily been chosen as emblems, has become a power-evasive strategy to avoid addressing the racial inequities that persist in this nation (e.g. growing poverty & homelessness, achievement gaps, school resegregation, etc.). It is never okay to say one race is better than another. I think any system of advantage and disadvantage based on race, is one we don't need.
Perhaps then in answer to your question, my greatest opportunity being Hapa is not about opportunities given, but rather the involuntary opportunity to straddle the fence -- and find it extraordinarily uncomfortable.

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