The Pursuit of Hapa-ness

Jeff Yang, sfgate.com

March 30, 2006

A growing percentage of the Asian American population can trace their lineage to two or more races. In his new book, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” artist and author Kip Fulbeck explores multiracial Asian America through hundreds of hapa quotes and portraits. What does hapa identity mean for the future of Asian America?

A decade ago, the foundations of the American dialogue on race were given a sound shaking—not by a protest or riot but by a sneaker pitch: Nike’s “I Am Tiger Woods” TV commercial. In it, interspersed with footage of Tiger being Tiger, a series of children of all races and ethnicities face the camera and say: “I am Tiger Woods.” “I am Tiger Woods.” “I am Tiger Woods.”

The ad not only injected Tiger into our collective unconscious as the Gen-Next Michael Jordan, it also turned up the heat on the melting pot—highlighting Woods’ self-proclaimed status as a multiethnic mix of Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian. “I don’t think of myself as black,” he told Oprah (and thus the world) in an appearance at the time of the campaign. “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m a ‘Cablinasian.'”

For the first time, a multiracial celebrity had staked a public claim to all of his roots, refusing to give in to the tyranny of easy labels. It was a novel, and yes, controversial place to be. Colin Powell famously responded to Woods’ remark by saying, “In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you’re black.”

But for multiracial and multiethnic individuals throughout the nation and around the globe, Tiger’s TV spot appeared to create a way to claim a space in the racial dialogue from within the limbo of not-quite, sort-of and in-between.

“I remember the ad, and I remember what he said on Oprah, and I remember being happy he was so adamant about his mixed identity, because so many people had tried to claim him,” says hapa performance artist and author Kip Fulbeck. “I thought it was a huge potential turning point. I was really hoping it would open up discussion even further, but it just didn’t turn into anything.”

Though he’d owned up to his ethnic stripes, Tiger’s rising star as an athlete and celebrity quickly eclipsed any opportunity for him to engage the bigger issues around mixed-race identity.

“He cares, but I think he more or less has to be an apolitical person,” says Fulbeck. “He’s got so much money riding on everything he says that he’s got to watch it. So he sticks with being a great golfer. That’s what he does.”

Fulbeck isn’t a pro athlete, doesn’t have any endorsement contracts and has no fear of pulling on social threads until knotty issues unravel. He’s also made the exploration of mixed identity, and the larger issues of race, gender and sexuality it invokes, the core of his life’s work. And that’s why, for biracial Asian Americans — heck, for all Asian Americans — the arrival on bookshelves of Fulbeck’s new book, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” is such a signal event.

“Mixed” Messages

“Part Asian, 100% Hapa” is the product of Fulbeck’s last three years, spent traveling the country and photographing fellow hapas (a term derived from the Hawaiian phrase “hapa haole,” literally meaning “half white”) from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. It’s the book that Fulbeck says he wishes he had growing up.

“I grew up in unincorporated L.A. county, in a town with roads but no streetlights and no police,” he says. “My half-brother was the first Chinese kid to go to my school, and I was the second, so I got the whole ‘ching-chong’ thing, and I got stuffed into trash cans and rolled down stairwells. But when I got together with extended family on weekends in Chinatown, well, me and my dad, we were the only ones who didn’t fit in.”

Musings on hapa identity ultimately became a signature of his artistic canon, along with a hilarious (and sometimes merciless) sense of humor. Fulbeck’s short videos—like “A Critique of Game of Death,” “Asian Studs Nightmare,” “Sex, Love and Kung Fu”—skewer cliches of race and sexuality, while prodding viewers out of their comfort zones.

His latest, “Lilo & Me,” is a brilliant dissection of Disney’s tendency to flatten out racial characteristics in its ethnic animated characters, to the point where they all look kind of the same, and—as he shows by placing Diz screen grabs and old personal snapshots side by side—kind of like Kip.

“The marble just keeps rolling to the center, and I’m the center,” he jokes. (The video’s available for free viewing on Fulbeck’s site, redsushi.com. Kip/Pocahontas and Kip/Mowgli are particularly startling.)

But though Fulbeck had spent the last decade and a half shooting videos, performing spoken-word pieces and writing essays about hapa-ness, he’d long dreamed of doing something on a larger scale—what he called “The Hapa Project,” which would gather together portraits of hundreds, even thousands of his hapa brethren.

“I’d always wanted to do it, but I never wanted to do the work,” says Fulbeck. “Then, four years ago, an old girlfriend of mine said, ‘If you don’t do it, someone else will and you’ll be all pissed off.'”

Fulbeck realized she was right. He launched the project with a simple call for willing subjects. But as the idea built momentum, the number of volunteers burgeoned. So to fund and focus his efforts, Fulbeck wrote a book proposal and circulated it to publishers, finally finding a home for his concept with San Francisco’s Chronicle Books.

The book contains just 116 out of over a thousand photographs that Fulbeck has shot during the course of his journey. A more extensive selection will be exhibited at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles from June 8 through Oct. 29, and travel from there. A complete collection may someday find its way online.

Still, the hundred-plus shots picked for final publication in “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” are representative of the overall project. Each shows the head and shoulders of a subject stripped down to the bare, unadorned minimum, without makeup, clothing or even expression. And each is accompanied by an equally stark facing page, containing the subject’s handwritten response to the all-too-common question, “What are you?”

The photographs are engrossing. As with any album depicting such a wide cross-section of humanity, it’s easy to get lost in just flipping through the pages, staring into eyes and comparing features. What makes the book unique, however, are the statements. Some subjects answered with humor:

“I am part Chinese and part Danish. I don’t usually tell people I am Danish, though, because they think I’m a pastry.”

“People can’t believe I’m Filipina, but then I tell them I’m also Norwegian, and Norwegian blood can suck the color out of anything.”

Some respond with intricate pride:

“I am one of three known Icelando-Thai’s in existence … My middle name is Thor.”

“I’m a mixed-breed multiculti cross-referenced bilingual bicoastal polymorphous smart talkin’ brainiac maniac hapa culture vulture. I’m a New Yorker.”

Some with ambiguity:

“I’m a daily contest to guess what I am.”

“I am my mother’s driving passion and my father’s steady reason … in a Battle to the Death.”

And some—mostly the kids, but not just the kids—reply with the abstract honesty of a doodle, a scrawl or a scribble.

Each statement is accompanied by an ethnic breakdown—”Japanese, Swedish, English, Irish”—but no name, in part to preserve anonymity for younger subjects, but primarily, says Fulbeck, to ensure a kind of perceptual egalitarianism.

There are portraits of notable and prominent hapas scattered through the book’s pages, from Asian American standouts like filmmaker Greg Pak and academic Wei Ming Dariotis, to more general celebs, like cartoonist Lynda Barry, humorist Sandra Tsing Loh, actor Amy Hill and porn star Asia Carrera. But they’re curiously difficult to identify, given the book’s format. And that’s exactly what Fulbeck wants.

“It’s democratic,” he says. “The guidelines were somewhat inspired by driver’s license or passport photos, ID pictures—because, after all, hapas are always having to prove who and what we are. And also, by post office wanted posters —as a sly rip, perhaps, on the stereotype of hapas as the holy grail of hybrid beauty.

For his part, Fulbeck isn’t concerned about people’s reactions to the book. His primary goal was celebration, not political statement.

“Ultimately, I’m making something that means something to me,” says Fulbeck. “I said to myself, ‘What kind of book would I want?’—and that’s what I created. I can’t stand reading race theory, and I don’t want to go to some forum where people are flaming and trolling. I want to see people’s faces, have them write what’s on their mind and let them have their say. That’s what I find valuable as an artist.”

Hapa Like Me

Exploring hapa identity is critical to any consideration of the future of the Asian American community. After all, about 14 percent of the Asian American population is multiracial, and by 2036, that percentage will rise to over a third.

Moreover, hapa issues resonate even with monoracial Asians like myself. “What are you?” is a question that any Asian has heard at least once, or a thousand times, in their lives—a question that blacks, whites and Latinos rarely if ever encounter.

And the question of split identities, the concept of multiple roots, is inherent in the experience of all Asian Americans, both mixed and not. How many times have we heard that old saw about our “hard-working Asian halves” and “wild ‘n’ crazy American halves”? We are hapacultural, even if we’re not hapa-genetic.

In fact, as the world shrinks and converges, the truth of what Professor Paul Spickard writes in the book’s afterword becomes clear: We’re all mixed. Go back enough generations, and we’ll find ancestors from a dozen different shores, a hundred different nations. And when looked at through the lens of culture, our identities increasingly draw from ever more diverse and obscure sources—near, far, real and imagined.

We may not all be Tiger Woods—I, for one, am such a miserable golfer that an ex-girlfriend of mine actually broke up with me based on how embarrassing it was playing together. But white-bread, rice-bred, or cross-bred, we are all, in one way or another, hapa.

And, as Kip writes in his introduction, it’s our time.