Mixing It Up: Multi-racial Asian Americans Share Views
It’s a fact of life within the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities: the next generations of Asian Americans will be increasingly hapa, or mixed-race.
Within the Japanese, Chinese and Korean communities, the ones who have been in the U.S. longest, it’s common to see plenty of young people who are part Caucasian, African American, and other Asian ethnicities. Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have long been blessed with a mixed-race identity – with a correspondingly poly-cultural perspective. And mixed-race faces are going to be increasingly common among more recent immigrant communities.
It wasn’t that long ago that marrying outside of your race was illegal in many states. As recently as 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in “Loving vs. Virginia” that miscegenation laws prohibiting marriage between races was illegal, 38 states still had those laws on the books.
But illegal or not, people throughout history have fallen in love across racial boundaries. This is the year of Barack Obama’s candidacy for President of the United States, after all, a man whose father is Kenyan and mother European American.
In the AAPI communities, both the waves of immigration from Asia and wars in Asia and Southeast Asia have led to corresponding waves of biracial marriages.
Today, that means a lot of Asian Americans are mixed-race, and they’re ready to take their place in the future of our community.
Asian Avenue magazine surveyed a cross-section of mixed-race Asians in the Denver area and held a virtual roundtable about their identities, their families and the ups and downs of growing up hapa.
What are you?
Mixed-race Asians, like people of other mixed race heritage, have long been forced to choose their identity so society could sort and categorize them.
Michelle Butcher, who is African American Korean, says, “When it comes to government paper work or surveys (that try to fit you into one mold) I generally am forced to check African American, but personally I ALWAYS identity myself as Korean and Black. Both – never just one.”
She’s also constantly questioned about her heritage, something hapas have come to expect. “Within the black community – ALL THE TIME,” she says. “My experience with meeting either new Black or Korean people my age is instead of just relating to me, they are always asking cultural questions about my other ethnic half. Sometimes it can be annoying, but I also feel like people are attracted to me because of it.”
Michelle Tamotsu Trevino, Center for Multicultural Affairs Coordinator at CU-Boulder, who was born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother and a Caucasian father, says, “’What are you?’ [That’s] the never-ending question for so many mixed race people, but also for many people of color. I think for mixed race people though, it comes from all angles, as if there’s a need to place you, or as if you’re a distraction and the conversation can’t continue until you’ve made clear your identity.”
Trevino continues, “I’ve found that in Colorado, it’s assumed that I’m Latina, since I’ve taken my husband’s name. So, I’ve added my mother’s maiden name (Tamotsu) in the hopes that it’ll make me more identifiably Japanese. And actually, I don’t mind the question so much, as long as it’s asked in a respectful way.
“But please,” she cautions, “when someone shares their identity with you, don’t say ‘Are you SURE? Because you don’t look ______.’ Yes, I’m quite sure I know what I am!”
As a hapa, Trevino emphasizes her Japanese heritage. “I identify as hapa,” she says. “For some reason, I usually don’t identify the other part as Irish American unless specifically asked. I guess it’s because I saw/experienced my father’s heritage as being more ‘generic American’ rather than specifically Irish.
“I really like the word ‘hapa’ because it’s catchy and there’s a sense of camaraderie with other hapas,” Trevino adds. “I know for some people, there was a negative connotation to it but fortunately I didn’t experience that growing up in Okinawa in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Jack Hadley, a Denver-area musician who is African American and Filipino, says he’s been asked the “what are you?” question all his life.
“Constantly, and it’s usually by white people,” he says. “They just have to know who/what you are. Most often, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ because they think it sounds better than ‘What are you?’ It’s ridiculous. Some guesses include Hawaiian, Pacific Islands like Marshall Islands or New Guinea, and even Panamanian, Ethiopian, Senegalese.”
Hadley says he doesn’t separate the two parts of his heritage. “I started to self-identify myself as Afro-Asian about 15 years ago,” he says. “I was at a party hosted by an Asian friend of mine who asked me ‘how do you identify yourself?’ That’s when it hit me that I was denying my Filipino side. Prior to that, I identified myself as ‘Black.’
“I don’t think mixed-race people lack a sense of identity. It’s just a little more complicated for us.”
What’s it like being hapa?
Midori Tran, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is Japanese and Vietnamese, a somewhat rare combination. She says her hapa identity has been the source of richness in her life, but also a source of challenge, especially when she was younger.
“Growing up for me was difficult in the process of finding my ‘identity,’” she says. “I felt I didn’t belong anywhere. I mean I couldn’t hang out with Japanese people because there weren’t any around and I was scared to hang out with Vietnamese people because I didn’t feel ‘Vietnamese’ enough. I just felt like a useless mutt.”
She’s much more settled now, she says. “These factors only helped identify that I am nothing more than just human. Being older, I respect my culture a lot more and realize how lucky I am to have wonderful parents despite the cultural differences.”
Being hapa can affect relationships. “Since racial belief in America states any person who is one drop ‘black’ is mainly ‘black,’ I found that dating within the African American community was a little easier,” admits Michelle Butcher, who’s now married. “I would have loved to have dated a Korean guy, but I was always scared of being rejected if I ever tried to reach out.”
Being Japanese and African American helped lead Erma Sampson to a degree in Ethnic Studies. “My struggle to accept myself as bi-racial, and not give into the pressures of ‘choosing’ an ethnicity is what led me to become an Ethnic Studies Major at CU,” she says. “I realized that until I understood my own unique role in society I wouldn’t be a very productive part of society. I was raised solely by a Japanese American mother, thus I knew very little about my African American identity. I wanted more than anything to be able to understand who I was – it just meant more to me than doing what I was ‘supposed’ to do in college.
What was it like for your parents, being in a mixed-race relationship?
Michelle Trevino’s parents met while her father lived and worked for the U.S. government in Okinawa, and her mother worked in the military’s PX (Pacific Exchange) store. “They dated for several years before they got married, because their parents were not supportive on either side,” she says. “They really had to think about the social barriers and the stigma - especially if they were going to have kids. (You know - ‘what about the children?!’)
“And remember, in the U.S. at that time, there were still a number of states with anti-miscegenation laws, making it illegal to marry someone outside of your race. I really see them as pioneers in that it took a good deal of courage for them to make the decision that they would get married.”
Times have changed, and Trevino is now in a mixed-race marriage herself. “Being mixed race definitely affected my choice of partners. One of the reasons I was attracted to my husband was because he was very open to understanding how important my identity was and how my life experiences as a hapa woman has shaped my perspective. He’s Latino (Mexican American) and we have two sons so he’s in this journey now as a parent to mixed-race children.”
What’s the challenge?
Jack Hadley used to think his childhood in the Philippines was idyllic, but he says being mixed race posed a challenge for his family. “I was under the illusion that things were great for us in the Philippines when I was very young and that everyone accepted us,” he says. “Not true at all, according to my Mom. She told me that Filipinos weren’t thrilled with her dark-skinned child and would make comments to her in public. That was a real shock to me.”
Japanese and Filipina hapa, Erika Sarmiento Usui, who’s a student at CU-Boulder, notes that, “For me, one of the most unique things about being mixed is that anywhere I go, I am a foreigner. In Japan, I am seen as a Filipino; in the Philippines, I am seen as a Japanese.”
The challenge of being an outsider is always a possibility, says Michelle Butcher. “There are definitely awkward moments. Sometimes you just want to easily fit right into social situations, but I always feel somewhat isolated because you are a little different from each racial side.”
Brent Keoki Young felt like an outsider when he arrived at the University of Colorado. A hapa who always felt at home in multi-ethnic Hawai’i where he grew up, says that being a mix of Caucasian and Hawai’ian is the “ideal” on the islands. “Once I moved to Boulder, how I identified myself changed greatly. Surrounded by a sea of white faces, I was no longer the desirable mix; I was instead seen as an Asian, a minority, a person of color, an outsider.”
Sam Stromberg, who is Chinese and Caucasian, says context matters. “It’s been interesting, because people close to me see me in all sorts of different ways,” he says. “I was with a group of (almost all white) friends at college once, when during a lull in the conversation, one said, ‘You know, Sam, I don’t see your race at all when I think about you; you’re like just another one of my [white/raceless] friends.’
To which another replied, ‘Really? I always thought of him as our Asian friend.’ I was left speechless, since, I guess, they were both technically correct, but they were also both somehow very wrong.”
Stromberg adds that having a mixed-race background makes him appreciate people’s sense of identity – he admires Barack Obama’s self awareness of his race. “In my own life, I’ve ended relationships because, although I couldn’t always put it into words, I felt like they dismissed parts of me because they just weren’t able to see where I was coming from.”
Having features that are more prominent to one side or the other can also affect relationships. “I don’t feel fully accepted by the Asian American community,” says Butcher, “mainly because my black features are so much more dominant. Asian people usually don’t identify me as Asian when they first see me.”
Butcher is close with her mother, who owns a gift shop in the Aurora shopping center called “M Mart” on Havana, and she helps out at the shop several times a week. “If a Korean person knows that I am Korean, there’s a bond there. But there is still that racial barrier that exist especially with Korean people that I don’t know,” she says.
What’s the great part of being hapa?
Melissa Lee of Parker, a Systems Engineering manager for Raytheon who is a Japanese and Chinese hapa, is married to Alec Lee, who is Korean and Caucasian. They have a two-year-old son, Jason, who is “quapa,” or one-quarter each Japanese, Korean, Chinese and white. She says the family doesn’t give much thought to its diverse Asian mix, but there’s one great benefit, she admits.
One gauge of the family’s cultural richness is in their appreciation for Asian foods. “We gauge our vacations by how good the food is,” she says. “And Asian cuisine, that’s our comfort food. When we go out to eat we eat a lot of sushi, and at home we have bulgogi or stir fry. Jason loves miso and tofu.”
Midori Tran also appreciates her culinary range the most. “FOOD! Definitely! It’s awesome to be mixed, you really do get the best of both worlds,” she laughs. “You get to learn about history of both cultures, traditions, stories from relatives are always different yet the same. To me it feels great to know I am a product of two wonderful cultures.”
Sampson says she embraces her hapa-ness: “I have been given a great gift in that I have the ability to find an identity within vastly different cultures. I feel like I am the embodiment of the ‘American dream,’ I am the physical evidence of America’s claim to being a ‘melting pot’.”
In the end, being a mixed-race Asian American is a blessing, says Butcher. “I definitely feel that it makes my life more interesting to come from such a diverse background. How many black, kimchi eating, hip-hop listening, Korean girls do you know?”
By Gil Asakawa
Asian Avenue magazine