By Aaron Leaf
Published in 16.3
THERE WAS A MOMENT IN HIGH SCHOOL when I was fascinated with mixed-race identity and the word “Hapa.” Using this Hawaiian term meaning “half” as in “half-white” to describe myself felt empowering, somehow. My mom is Malaysian and my dad is American and, yes, the cliché of mixed-race kids held true for me: Who am I? Where do I fit in?
Through my brand-new internet connection I learned that “Hapa” had been adopted by activists trying to fashion a sense of community and identity out of a new generation of mixed-race Asian kids. At the time, about a decade ago, I was listening to rap music about identity politics, black nationalism, and authenticity. In my grade 11 history class I was learning about colonization and the upheavals of the 20th century. I desperately needed to come from somewhere; I needed an identity to anchor myself, and “Hapa” seemed like a way to do that.
But the moment soon passed.
My Vancouver high school was so predominantly Asian that even the white kids had Asian Avenue accounts, a kind of ethnic proto-Facebook. Many of my classmates were mixed, but I had no more connection to them than I did my white or Chinese friends. We just looked kind of similar. And how far does that get you?
When I lived in Shanghai as a child, Central Asian-looking Uighur merchants in skullcaps peddling animal pelts and baskets of golden raisins would laugh and give me raisins. I looked Uighur I was told. In my teens when I went camping in rural British Columbia I was never asked to pay tax at First Nations-run stores. People just assumed I had Indian status.
When I moved to Toronto for university I had a roommate, also a Vancouverite, who hated how at Toronto parties the first question was always, “What do you do?”
“Vancouver,” he said, “is better because people are more interested in who you are.” I felt the opposite. Toronto was liberating for me. I found my identity in music, subcultures, and my interests. Heritage still came up, just less so. As my roommate got deeper into discovering “who he was” by going to synagogue and getting involved in Middle Eastern politics, I took the opposite route, going to indie rock shows and becoming obsessed with Jamaican dancehall culture and literary non-fiction.
My dalliance with the term “Hapa” seemed juvenile. I soon forgot about it.
When people ask me what I am there is no easy answer. Malaysian is a very complicated idea and my mom’s ethnic group, the Nonya, are themselves a mixed people—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Batak, Portuguese—and not confined to Malaysia. My mother’s father, for instance, is from Singapore. Historically Babas and Nonyas speak Malay and believe in Chinese religion, making them ineligible for affirmative action programs designed to break the power of ethnic Chinese business interests. In Malaysia, to be ethnic Malay means being Muslim.
My dad’s father was born in Japan in a kind of Jewish ghetto in Yokohama: a community of refugees, merchants, and migrants from Russia and elsewhere that had been there for decades. His father, my namesake and a refugee from the Tsar’s army, looks remarkably like me: dark haired and vaguely Central Asian-looking. My grandfather moved to America speaking Japanese and Russian. My grandmother was born in Wisconsin to Lithuanian immigrants but had a Polish stepdad.
Here’s the thing though: I am no way unique for my complicated background. Make people examine their heritage a few generations back, even the “waspiest” of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and you get incredible tales of migration and cross cultural unions or you get suspicious blank spots where embarrassing moments have been scrubbed from the family history. Sufficiently cleansed, they become “white.” I think this simplification process is one of the cornerstones
of bigotry. “Hapa” in that vein, feels like an oversimplification.
Mixed groups under European colonialism usually formed identities as a response to racism. They inhabited an uneasy middle space, clinging to their privilege and fighting to distinguish themselves from “native” populations.
In 20th century South Africa, people who weren’t “White” and weren’t part of an indigenous African group were classified by the white supremacist government as “Coloured.” Often a mix of Javanese, Dutch, San, Bantu, Indian, and French ancestry, their lack of clear racial identity was a threat to the racial order. Their special status under apartheid gave them privileges above “natives.” From the fifties onward much of the “Coloured” population of Cape Town was exiled to the sand dunes outside the city known as the Cape Flats while their central Cape Town neighbourhoods, the colourful mixed-race laboratory from which they sprang, were demolished to make way for whites-only development. If, as a mixed person, you didn’t feel a particular identity before, now it was official: you are “coloured” and you live in the Cape Flats.
The group, once distinguished as not really being a group and thus dangerous to the racialist order, turned inwards. “Coloured” identity now, as many Cape Coloureds will admit, is not open to outsiders. In the first democratic election after apartheid, they voted overwhelmingly for the old racist party, preferring the safety of middle status minority above “blacks.”
For much of the last three years I’ve lived in Zambia and Liberia in southern and western Africa. In those places I’m referred to as “White.” Sometimes I’m “Chinese.” It’s all the same to many Africans I’ve met: affluent foreigner with access to wealth and the outside world, regardless if you’re Asian, blonde, or a light skinned African American, is just “White.” In that context, to have some sort of mixed-race Canadian chip on my shoulder seems ridiculous.
Today I searched for “Hapa,” which Google accidentally auto-corrected to “Hapa babies” and was given a plethora of websites and message boards where parents in mixed relationships talk about their mixed-race offspring as status symbols, like they are the ultimate step in yuppie-dom: the job, the condo, the Hapa-baby.
And there it was: the weird Hapa-chauvinism that always emerges in these discussions. Many times in my childhood, in China, Indonesia, the US, and Canada I had people say to me, “Mixed children are the most beautiful. And smart too!” Sometimes followed by “But just Asian and Caucasian mixes, others are so ugly.”
The funny thing about Hapa-chauvinists is that, they are, for the most part, not mixed themselves. They are phrenological fetishists, creating the race of the future: AsianWhitesuperAmericans as if each side was correcting for the other’s racial deficiencies.
Uh, no thanks.
Aaron Leaf has worked with Journalists for Human Rights in Zambia and Liberia, and has worked at and written for a variety of publications including Outpost, This, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Check out aaronleaf.com or follow him @aaronleaf.