A Hapa Project: Identity, Outside the Color Lines

Victoria Kraus, Asiance Magazine

May 20, 2006

“I am exactly the same as every other person in 2500.” So says a handwritten response to photographer Kip Fulbeck’s question to mixed Asian hapas, “What are you?”

The Hapa Project is a collection of collarbone-and-above photographs of ethnically mixed Asians by artist Kip Fulbeck at the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Fulbeck is half Chinese and half white (his father is of English-Irish descent, his mother Chinese), and coincidentally goes with the title of his exhibition, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa.”

The term hapa is Hawaiian slang for people of mixed racial heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry. Once a derogatory term of identification in Hawaii for a hapa haole (half Asian and half white person), the term is now embraced by a rapidly growing population of hapas across the United States.

Being hapa is just as common nowadays as having southern fried chicken and a side order of California rolls.

“We constantly have to prove we really are who we say we are through the use of photographs—driver’s licenses, passports, gym memberships, etc.” Fulbeck says. “I wanted to play with this established method of identification, but twist it around by giving participants the power to pick their own images; That’s why I included the handwritten statements.”

Fulbeck’s subjects are bear from the collarbone up. They are not adorned with heavy makeup or jewelry and don’t smile in their portraits. It is a statement of identity at its most human level.

Growing up hapa myself in Los Angeles, my only identity issues were of teen angst and “finding myself” as a twenty-something year-old. I knew plenty of hapas from my youth activities with my Buddhist organization and I was constantly around Japanese people (outside of school) that I comfortably identified myself more Japanese than American, and not Japanese American.

I often did and still do get mixed responses from people I meet for the first time, especially in the West Los Angeles area, for my seemingly “exotic” features. Fair skin, brown freckles, light brown hair, almond-shaped eyes and a button-bridged nose.

The question “What are you?” is not common. It’s too direct and people, in Los Angeles at least, seem to prefer to be as indirect as possible. The more common indirect questions are: Where did you grow up? Where are your parents from? What other languages do you speak? Have you lived abroad? What is your ethnic background?

All to get at the one underlying question they really want to ask: What are you?

It’s always easier to give the short-phrase answer, “I’m half Japanese half white.” Sometimes they ask for details so I tell them that my mother was born and raised in Japan and my dad was born in the Bronx and raised in the Jewish quarters of West Los Angeles.

On my visit to the Japanese American National Museum this month to view Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, I was pleasantly greeted at the Visitor Information desk with “Are you hapa? What’s your Asian half?” “Yes,” I tell them, shyly smiling from the attention I was getting. “Japanese.” “Who?” they ask. “My mom,” I tell them.

I interned at the museum for two years in high school and recognized the two staff who greeted me. They shopped at the grocery store in Little Tokyo I used to work at. They never gave me the same attention I got at the Visitor’s desk, since Fulbeck’s exhibit. It felt like hapas were suddenly born this year, however long we may have been around.

Fulbeck’s portraits do not just give voice to the ethnically mixed, Asian American, hapa community; they serve as a reminder, especially in a country of ethnic and cultural diversity, that the world in which we live is not as far away from us as we think.

With the rising spotlight on American hapas, the question “What are you?” is sure to evolve its way as a standard form of greeting in 2500. Fulbeck’s answer: “I’m an artist, teacher, and student. Mostly.”