Valerie Takahama, Orange County Register
May 29, 2006
When Ken Radomski was in Japan a couple of years ago, he got a kick out of the little kids who spotted his mohawk, thought of British soccer star David Beckham and shouted, “Beckham! Beckham!” at him.
The lanky Southern California teenager had a little fun of his own when he engaged locals in conversation and surprised them with his fluent Japanese.
“As soon as they hear me speak, they’re pretty impressed. It’s pretty unusual for a gaijinto speak Japanese,” he says, referring to the Japanese word for “foreigner.”
Radomski, 19, a UC Irvine sophomore, is accustomed to tweaking cultural expectations, challenging stereotypes and inspiring curiosity at home and abroad, and he carries it off with a self-confident nonchalance. Half-Japanese and half-Polish in heritage, he’s one of a growing number of people who take pride in calling themselves “hapa.”
Derived from the Hawaiian term “hapa haole,” or “half white,” the label was originally derogatory. Over the past decade, it’s been adopted by a wide range of people whose ancestry is part Asian or Pacific Islander. They can be Eurasians or Latin Asians, African-American Asians or multi-ethnic Asians such as Filipino-Chinese or Japanese-Thais. They can also be Korean and Chinese children who are adopted and raised by white parents.
They can be as famous and talented as Keanu Reeves, Tiger Woods, Apolo Ohno, Norah Jones and Ann Curry. And they’re among the 2.1 million people of mixed Asian heritage counted in the 2000 Census, the first time the U.S. Census Bureau allowed people to classify themselves into two or more racial and ethnic categories.
In Orange County, of the more than 100,000 people who reported mixed racial heritage, more than 40,500 marked Asian or Pacific Islander as one of them. The percentage – 1.42 percent of the total county population—is roughly the population of the city of Brea.
What’s more, hapa-ness is spreading quickly through the culture. Young hapas post photos and share experiences on Web sites such as Hapas.com and halfkorean.com. Hapa graphic artists and entrepreneurs produce and sell multiracial and multi-ethnic wedding invitations and birth announcements.
Hapa authors such as Aimee Liu and Lisa See explore their mixed ancestries in well-regarded works of fiction and biography, and artist Kip Fulbeck has just published “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” a book of portraits that demonstrates the amazing diversity of people who call themselves hapa.
“I’m not asking for hapa history month, but how about a weekend?” writes musician Sean Lennon, the hapa son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in the introduction to Fulbeck’s book. “How about Keanu Reeves Appreciation Day? At the very least I propose someone writes a how-many-Hapas-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb joke. Think about it.”
WHAT ARE YOU?
Fulbeck, for one, has already thought a lot about it. The son of a Chinese mother and an English-Irish father, he was born in Fontana, grew up in Covina and felt like he never fit in anywhere.
“I was always the American, the white kid in Chinatown. And then in Covina, all of a sudden, I’m super-Chinese,” says Fulbeck, 41, a mixed-media artist and professor and chairman of the art department at UC Santa Barbara.
“I got called a hybrid and a half-breed. Even ‘hapa’ had a negative connotation. I had no positive identity until later in life.”
Growing up in the late 1970s, Fulbeck said he felt as if he were the only hapa. Making matters worse was the dearth of media images of multiracial people—Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” aside, he notes wryly.
A few years ago, he set out to create the kind of book he wished he’d had when he was growing up. When he put the word out asking for hapas willing to have their portraits taken for a book, he was overwhelmed by the response.
For some hapas, particularly those living outside the West Coast, Hawaii or New York, the idea of such a project was a revelation.
“They’ve never met anyone like themselves,” Fulbeck says. “I had one woman say, ‘You have to fly out and take my picture, you’ve never seen anyone like me. I’m black and Korean.’
“I had to tell her I had pictures of 30 people who are black and Korean.”
In all, he shot more than 1,000 portraits and winnowed those down to the 116 in the book. Those who made the cut include media figures such as playwright Sandra Tsing Loh, cartoonist Lynda Barry and actress Amy Hill.
Whether of celebrities or senior citizens, all the photos are the same: They show people devoid of identifying markers such as clothing and jewelry, and are accompanied by the subjects’ ethnic background and their answer to the commonly asked question, “What are you?” Their answers are as varied as their ethnic makeups:
“I am YES. An Amer-Asian kid who celebrates Hanukkah with his Jewish stepfather, prays to Buddha with his Buddhist Momma, and then goes to midnight mass with his Christian father and waits for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Yeah,” writes a young man identified as Thai, Lao, Irish, Italian.
“I am part Chinese and part Danish. I don’t usually tell people I am Danish, though, because they think I’m a pastry,” writes a young boy.
“I come from whalers, trappers, adventurers, nomads—all trails led to a point: me,” writes a woman who is Athabaskan, Inupiaq, Finnish, Japanese, Swedish, English.
Not all the reaction to Fulbeck’s work has been positive.
“There was one woman who said, ‘My God, one more minority to deal with,'” he says. “She said she was the mother of two hapa kids and she was calling them ‘American.’ I wonder about those kids.”
Fulbeck says he would like to live in a color-blind society. “If the world didn’t keep making us choose or keep asking, ‘What are you?’ I wouldn’t have to make a book like this. But as long as we are judged and we are identified, let us say who we are.” Radomski says he gets asked, “What are you?” all the time.
“I’m always glad to tell people,” he says. “Most people are smart enough not to guess a single race. A lot of people guess Hispanic.”
The son of a first-generation Japanese-American mother and a father of Polish descent, he grew up in Torrance surrounded by hapa friends, schoolmates and neighbors. He says he’s always had a kind of hapa pride.
“Being hapa in history, there have been a lot of negative things that went on, but for the most part, I’ve never had anything bad to deal with,” he says.
His circle at UC Irvine is a microcosm of the burgeoning new hapa nation. His girlfriend is Laotian and Pakistani, his freshman roommate and childhood friend is Japanese and Polish, the residential advisor of his dorm is Malaysian and Colombian, and he is a member of the campus Hapa Mix club.
If there is a down side to the diversity of hapas, it is that diversity may inhibit the formation of a widespread, long-lasting hapa community, some say. “We don’t have a culture. We have every single culture in our club,” says Tricia Suzuki, president of the UCI Hapa Mix club.
She points out that when the club held a food sale recently, it ended up selling chicken strips by default. Consider the other choices:
“There’s musubi, but that’s Hawaiian,” she says, of the snack made from Spam and rice. “There’s a restaurant in Irvine that has a hapa plate. What is it? It’s chicken katsu, and that’s Japanese. So there is no real mixed food.
“I guess that’s why you have potlucks.”
Still, it’s clear to Chris Komai of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles that hapas are key to the future of the museum and institutions like it.
“If you look at the last census, when people were finally allowed to check more than one box, that’s when you begin to see how America is changing and how the Japanese-American community is changing,” he says.
He points out that during the 2000 Census, about 800,000 people checked only the Japanese box, and almost a half-million more checked the “Japanese” and some other box, but those who checked more than one box tended to be younger.
“The question for all ethnic communities now is, what’s the future? The answer is going to come down to how are children going to identify themselves,” Komai says.
“Are they going to say, ‘I’m only half or a quarter or an eighth Japanese, so I’m not really Japanese’ or are they going to say, ‘That’s part of me, too’?”