In the Haziness of Identities: My Experience with the Hapa Project

In 2016, I read Kip Fulbeck’s “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” for the first time. While I’ve heard of the book many times before, I decided to finally check it out after seeing it mentioned a few times in a novel. Flipping through it, I saw photographs of faces young and old, accompanied by their handwritten answers to a common question many mixed race people get: “What are you?”

To say that reading the book was a thrilling experience is a bit of an understatement. I was in awe over the photographs of people, none of them being family members, whom I share a mutual experience with: We are all Hapa.

Hapa is a Hawaiian word that means “half” or “part.” For the most part, it’s a word used to refer to people who are part Asian and/or Pacific Islander. “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” is one aspect of the Hapa Project; a multi-medium, multiracial project by Fulbeck that recognizes and showcases the growing number of faces of this particular identity.

It’s an ongoing project that came back onto my radar later that same year, when I received a notice on Facebook on how Fulbeck and his crew would be coming to the San Francisco Bay Area to take pictures of people for a new iteration of the project called When I learned about it, without giving a second thought, I immediately reached out via e-mail to the assistant, telling them that I really want to take part in this.

As one of many Hapas out there, I knew that being a part of this project would have a lot of meaning for me. I don’t remember the first time I was asked “What are you?” I’ve been asked that question so many times in several different ways – some more politically correct than others – that I can’t even estimate how many times I’ve been asked that. If it’s not that question, then I’m mistaken as being of other ethnicities such as Mexican, Hawaiian, Sicilian, Columbian, Native American, and more. I’ve been told things like “Are you sure you’re not [insert ethnicity of choice here]?” and the obnoxiously fetishizing “Mixed race people are so good looking!” The worst instances have been when someone once called me a Nazi when he found out that I’m part German, and when someone online called me a “whitewashed Indian girl.”

It’s an experience that sets itself apart from people who are just Asian. While there are some shared similarities, it’s different when your appearance is one that can’t be boxed under one specific label. It’s sometimes harder to relate to other people’s experiences with their family when not everyone of your own is of the same race. And don’t even get me started on representation of Hapa people in the media; for of the few already around like Bruno Mars and Chloe Bennett, there’s always space to include more.

All these thoughts and experiences combined are what prompted me to get up early on a Sunday and make my way to the location of the photo shoot, on an unusually hot day in San Francisco. People were coming and going throughout the time I was there, including a married couple and their infant daughter. The level of surrealism I experienced when reading “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” doubled as I sat among people in real life, all of them Hapa, none of them related to me. There were also all really nice to be around and were genuinely excited to be there.

I was handed a sheet for me to write down my answer to the “What are you?” question. While I took a few minutes to think about how to answer, I eventually came up with one that was not only lengthy, but also satisfying to me. I responded by summoning up all the times I’ve been asked that in the past with multiple answers that are all applicable. When I handed the paper back to an assistant, he was shocked by how much I wrote in a quick amount of time. I shrugged, telling him I had to think about it for a few minutes. He responded with, “Yeah, but I’ve seen some people who think about it for an hour, before eventually writing one sentence!”

I met Fulbeck himself a few minutes before it was my turn to be photographed. He was a really laid back person who was just as enthusiastic about that day’s shoot. He took somewhere between seven to ten headshots of me, and I guess we both have a similar sense of vision, for we both agreed on the same take. It was a quick session, but it was definitely worthwhile.

With only a few weeks remaining until Fulbeck’s new exhibition opens, I recently received word that the picture taken of me has been one of the ones selected to be a part of it. I was absolutely thrilled to find that out; to be one of many faces of a unique identity, whose stories that museum goers will learn about, is truly an honor.

I’m proud to have taken part in this project, and I hope that everyone else who has, from the first time around in 2001 to today, feel the same way. I had never heard of the word Hapa until I was in college, and when I did, a flow of satisfactory consumed me, for I finally had a name – not a label – for my kind of identity. The world is constantly changing and with time, more and more people are not going to look one specific way. The fact that I can now say that I’ve taken part in a project that highlights this incredible reality is something I’ll proudly carry with me for life.

Fulbeck’s exhibit will be on display from April 7th-October 28th at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Photo credit: sometimes silent e on Flickr

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Published on: March 14, 2018

Filed Under: Voices of the Community

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