“What are you?” The question hung in the air, and it took me a few minutes to process what I had been asked. It took me another few minutes to figure out how to answer. The question wasn’t new, and for many of us, it arises on a daily basis. It definitely wasn’t malicious, merely an inquiry. But it’s also not the simplest answer.
For the majority of my childhood, standardized testing had a “Pick One” box for race. Anyone mixed had to do just that; pick one. When I started applying for colleges, I was told to select white, since there’s an unspoken standard for Chinese kids to excel in school. In 8th grade English with Ms. Youngblood Jarman, we had to discuss that internal debate over “picking a race.” I told my entire class that I usually marked Asian on standardized exams because that’s what I identified with more. Now, all I can remember is burning embarrassment for the following three years because I said it aloud. Sure, it was true, but admitting to others that I didn’t consider myself white, especially when I looked so aggressively caucasian, made me cringe. Saying words in Chinese or talking about holidays and foods didn’t feel right either, to the point where it felt like cultural appropriation of my own culture.
When I was asked what I was, I at first offered hapa as an explanation, although it was often a fruitless response. The word itself is rooted in the phrase Hapa Haole, meaning “part Hawaiian, part other,” although more recently, the word has simply meant “half Asian.” There’s also been a plethora of arguments and ambiguity surrounding the word ‘hapa’ itself. While a large community of Asian-Americans self identify with the term, there’s substantial pushback against the claiming of the term to this day. According to an article from NPR, many mixed-race Asians and Pacific Islanders use the word as an umbrella term, though the roots of the word may be considered racially insensitive, a slur used by others to describe someone who isn’t of their own race. Others argue that the word wasn’t originally a slur, but a self-descriptor, but that it should only be used literally, only for those who are half-Hawaiian. Because of the controversy, the self-identification and labeling then becomes the responsibility of the individual, though it’s somewhat daunting of a task.
My mother was the first to use the word “hapa” to describe me. Despite this, I quickly became uncomfortable with it, describing myself with a number of alternatives, from simply “mixed” to specifying the different subcategories of white, adding a “half Chinese” to the end. Physical appearance is another one of the driving forces behind the issue, and being white-passing leads to even more confusion; for a long time, I would call myself white when asked about my ethnicity. I ate American food, I spoke only English (until taking Mandarin at school starting junior year), and I’ve been to China all of three times.
It inevitably led to conflict. The Chinese side of my family was frustrated by my insistence of self-describing as white, claiming it was erasing an important part of my identity– even worse was when they claimed it was a desperate grab at white-privilege. They’re stereotypical as is, personally claiming Tiger Mom status and allowing cultural traditions to create their personalities for them. Having a daughter, a niece, or a granddaughter call herself white was probably their worst nightmare. That’s where a lot of the confusion comes from; you’re always “too white.” You act too American for your immigrant relatives, you don’t speak enough of your native language, you haven’t seen and experienced real racism. On the other hand, you’re never white enough. My family fits into a ridiculous number of stereotypes; our family is notoriously bad at driving, I’ve played piano for seven years, and shoes aren’t allowed in the house. But those have never been my stereotypes to make fun of, nor mine to claim.
That’s what made the introduction of “wasian” a relief, though I always thought I would find more solace in finding a word that fits; there’s always been a bit too much guilt for my liking. Labels can be deceiving too, just like appearances. But having a community to turn to can make everything feel a little bit less bad. Using a mix of more common words helps others understand a little better, specifically those who aren’t mixed race, and using a label that doesn’t come with an angry community behind it is definitely something to be thankful for.