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ELPS 743

Jennifer Ng

Growing Up Biracial: A Fusion of East and West

Tracy Cheng

The United States has a rapidly increasing diverse population. Throughout the

country’s history, people from all over the world have been moving to the United States. With

the country over time becoming home for many different kinds of people, modern day United

States has been also seeing an increase of interracial marriages. With such kinds of marriages

and relationships occurring, the percentages of multiracial children are also increasing posing a

very different perspective as well as challenging the stereotypes and very concept of race. The

actual amount of multiracial people in the United States is inaccurate and generalized because of

a few issues that can come with being multiracial. First, the United States Census did not even

allow people to identify as more than one race until the year 2000 and second, some people may

not even identify as being multiracial even if they are. “For the multiracial population is a

rapidly growing, complex meld of people and experiences, and as such may influence

Americans’ racial realities for years and generations to come.” (Jones & Smith) Each person

holding a multiracial identity will completely vary due to a number of factors. The most

important factor would be that of which ethnicities they are composed of and how cultural

influences and physical appearance effects or shapes that person’s life. For this paper, I will be

focusing specifically on biracial people of a first generation Asian parent and a White American

parent who grow up in America, their experiences growing up with a fusion of Eastern and

Western cultures and looks, and how such experiences shaped their racial identity.

The word used to describe people of a mixed Asian and Caucasian ancestry is “hapa.”

The words origins come from Hawaii which in Hawaiian literally means half. In Hawaii, people

who were half Hawaiian and half white were called “hapa haoles” and then later the term was

shortened to represent people of half Asian and half white ancesetry instead of being limited to

Hawaiian ancestry only. Originally the word served as a racial slur and used in derogatory

contexts to impose negativity towards the mixed person. Since the year 2000, hapas represent

the United States’ largest biracial population (Kelley) and bring with them a variety of cultures

since being Asian encompasses a wide range of regions. Although each Asian culture might be

very individually distinct in terms of language and culture, most Asian cultures (specifically East

Asians as opposed to South Asian Indians) share similar physical traits. The most notable

stereotypical features East Asians have in common is straight black hair and dark narrow eyes.

When such prominent features mix with a race in which such features are practically non-exist,

the genetic mix is something in between and often results in a display of features that have only

small traces of their parent cultures. Therefore, a hapa can have a wide array of physical features

all which usually are difficult to categorize as mono-racial especially within their parent cultures.

In Kip Fulbeck’s book, Part Asian 100% Hapa, we can see through the photographs, the extreme

differences in all the variations of hapas. Some hapas can have very Asian features while some

may feature more Caucasian features such as blonde hair and blue eyes. Depending on how a

hapa looks, begins the initial and one of the most crucial elements to forming identity as it may

not only effect their personal perception but also the perceptions of strangers.

While physically presenting challenges for the sake of categorization, another factor that

presents challenges is culture. In today’s American society, America has been deemed by most

sociologists as an “individual” society. This contrasts largely with most Asian cultures being

labeled as a “collective” society in which core values and focus is largely stressed on the

importance of working together as a family or “collective” unit rather than pursuing purely

“individual” interests. When mixing two different kinds of cultures together, the outcome can be

just as widely arranged as the physical aspect but is often shaped and influenced by society and

the communities lived in. For example, a hapa living in a community consisting of a large Asian

population might carry more cultural values that are more in line with their Asian side. This also

in turn has possibilities of shaping the person’s racial perception of themselves by identifying

more closely with the Asian culture since their community would definitely create influence on

them in that aspect. What makes this difficult, however, is that hapas regardless of how closely

they identify with one specific culture, White or Asian, will still be bound to the challenges they

may encounter due to their physical appearance.

Despite the fact there are growing numbers of biracial children, the difficulties

constantly relate back to the idea that “society still expects people to fit into one racial group.”

(Kelley) Persons holding ancestry of Asian and Caucasian races often experience questions and

situations that force them to think differently of themselves especially in a society where not

only people are expected to fit into one ethnic group but also where communities are shaped on

one ethnic group. The physical aspect of racially trying to categorize somebody into one specific

race interestingly has its own concept called “border patrolling” or acting as “race police.”

(Dalmage) In this theory, those who act as border patrollers “claim that race is a simple concept,

demand that others comply, and make their presence felt through various actions. The most

common action, by far, is the stare. Other forms of border patrolling include probing questions,

“What are you?” which is one of the most common questions faced by multiracial people. Many

times, however, people will not ask, and will label the multiracial person based on assuming one

race.” (Dalmage) Border patrolling can actually have very devastating effects on hapas or any

person of multiracial heritage because it indirectly forces them (for those who try to deal with it)

to be conscious of another aspect of identity in ways that many other people don’t. For example,

a person normally doesn’t give much thought to their choice in hair, makeup, clothes, and other

in reference to how they look racially. Often times, a mixed person will, with their already

culturally ambiguous natural appearance, find additional physical aspects can either contribute

or take away from however it is they want themselves to appear. If the person is seeking to fit in

more with one of their parent cultures in order to get acceptance, they might adjust their hair or

makeup in hopes it will help them “pass” as a certain member of an ethnic group. In this sense,

the individual almost has to “negotiate their racial identity” (Dalmage) every day. Border

patrolling can also lead to more serious concerns such as in healthcare. Very little research has

been done on hapa individuals in terms of genetics and specific ailments that are unique to them

since most races do have specific ailments that differ from each other. For example, Jaundice is a

very common problem among Asian babies and not so common with Caucasians. The

percentages of babies of both Asian and Caucasian ancestry are more prone to Jaundice than

Caucasians alone but less prone than Asians which makes sense. However, the rate of those

hapa children getting Jaundice is more common when the father is of Asian ancestry rather than

the mother which this reasoning has not been firmly established. More serious concerns with

hapas and multiracial individuals is that which deals with surgical transplants in which exact

matches in the aspects of genetic makeup needs to be taken into consideration. In Glamour

magazine’s 2012 New Year’s edition came out, an article was posted about a young half

Japanese half White woman who was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome which effects

the number of white blood cells her body produces. Left untreated, this usually develops into a

form of leukemia and in most cases, has deadly results. Most people with this syndrome can be

treated if they receive a bone marrow transplant but donors are matched by ethnicity. Full

blooded siblings have only a 25% chance of matching most of the time, a stranger needs to be

sought after. In the current registry, Caucasians have an 80-85 percent chance of finding a

donor. Ethnic minorities have only about a 35-45 percent chance and since 2007, around 3

percent of mixed race donors registered. Out of that 3 percent, hapas become an even smaller

number. With hapas serving the fastest growing mixed race population, medical treatments

require exact ethnic and genetic matches become more of a problem. (Glamour) More

commonly, however, is misdiagnosing a patient based on the medical staff’s assumptions of race

when addressing the medical concerns of a mixed person. For the same reasons discussed above,

explaining how different ailments are unique to each ethnic group, a doctor could ride off a

possible symptom based on how they decide to racially categorize the patient. A personal

example of this was at an eye doctor appointment. The end of my appointment, my doctor

recommended I get tested for an overactive thyroid reasoning that my eyes were too large for an

Asian.

Several other factors contribute to a hapa’s continuously changing self-identity.

Community, circle of friends, education, and family life all contribute to how a person identifies

culturally. In families which either culture is not prevalent in terms of traditions and other

cultural norms, such kinds of absence may contribute to how a hapa feels about themselves in

relation to one of their parent cultures. Without cultural knowledge, it can be hard for a hapa to

better understand why they are considered different and may become frustrated when they face

acceptance. External factors can influence how many hapas may feel about their Asian identity

such as how Asians are represented in schools or media. In schools in which Asian cultures are

not explained in depth enough to grasp an understanding on the culture and history, peers may be

more prone to resorting to negative comments on specific heritages placing them as “weird” or

“alien”. In our society’s media, we can see Asians mostly in films that portray an ancient culture

that has no relevance to today’s Asians or Asian Americans. In Justin Lin’s independent film

Better Luck Tomorrow, I saw for the first time a cast of main characters all Asian American

portraying second generation Asians growing up in California. I felt it was the first time a movie

highlighted the struggles and possible lifestyles an Asian American may have in today’s society

which is far removed from the flying sword wielding martial arts experts we normally see.

Therefore, in a society where Asian stereotypes are continuously perpetuated in a manner that

gives little room to explore and understand their culture further, self perception or identity of any

person holding full or partial Asian ancestry may be affected by the stereotypes society

emphasizes. For a hapa, finding pride and strength in community to overcome stereotypes is

severely hindered since they are usually rejected by their own parent cultures and left alone to

resolve internal feelings associated with their ethnicities. Educational settings and material

should help cultivate a positive outlook and perception of different cultures so no shame is felt

by any belonging member or person holding any ancestry to a culture portrayed negatively in

society.

Growing up hapa has forced me to challenge and face many aspects in life that revolve

around my physical appearance and cultural practices. Being of Asian (Chinese) and Caucasian

ancestry has implemented many ideas about me as I grew older and encountered the perspectives

of myself through the eyes of other people. My physical appearance, similar for most hapas,

represents a kind of cultural ambiguity in which most people cannot place me into one racial

category. By looking neither fully of my White or Asian counterparts, I not only experience

alienation from my parent cultures but also have to answer the same question over and over

again from all people: “What are you?” Such kinds of alienation and such kinds of questions

continuously forced me to “feel different” from the rest of regular society. Hapas also do not

have and will not be able to have the kinds of communities other ethnic groups share in order to

maintain a specific culture or provide support for one another. There is not hapa language,

music, religion, culture, or even shared physical appearance due the variations of Asians

themselves. It is due to such differences, that feeling “unique” had become part of my everyday

identity.

Physical appearance, I believe, is one of the core factors is shaping anyone’s

identity. Most of the time, people belong to a shared similar set of values or cultures based on

shared appearance. For the sake of categorizing, most of us can observe a person’s physical

traits and already have some clues onto what language they speak, religion they practice,

countries of origin, foods they eat, etc. With such clues and traits, identities are established and

therefore communities of each specific identity are also established. With the underlying idea

that hapas have no core or home, developing new ways to feel proud and even to the extent of

feeling valid as an ethnic human being becomes an ever changing quest. The rejections I used to

face from family regarding my ethnicity and constantly viewed as not “Asian” enough (yet my

Caucasian family members referred to me Asian) made me feel that unless I was more in touch

with my Asian culture, I would never be accepted by them. My reaction was to become more

involved and more knowledgeable in my culture. I sought after Chinese movies, pop music, and

enrolled in Chinese language courses which I took all four years of high school and two years in

college in hopes this would make me more “Chinese”. This didn’t exactly give me the outcome I

had originally pursued. However, by having such a new understanding and knowledge on one of

my cultures, I therefore felt I understood more on how it impacted and influenced my daily life.

However, recent research suggests that, rather than trying to fit themselves into just an Asian

identity or just a White identity, multiracial Asian Americans report the most happiness and the

least stress when they create their own unique racial/ethnic identities that combine all of their

ancestries. In other words, instead of trying to "pass" as a member of a single racial group, they

may be better off when they actively create their own definition of fitting in that is based on

synthesizing their unique and multiple characteristics. “ (Le, C.N.)

Coming to this understanding made dealing with biracial identity easier as well as realizing that

my acceptance is limited to mere physical appearance which can never accurately represent a

person on the inside. My newly instilled confidence in understanding and knowing my cultures

in turn instilled a deep sense of respect with each culture which ended up creating another

conflict I continuously face. In fact, I am usually the most offended when (the rare times it

happens) I get placed by the “race police” as looking full Asian or full White. This usually

happens with an Asian person telling me I look White and a White person telling me I look

Asian, but it is when I feel the most frustrated. It is due to feelings that my experiences,

knowledge and identity construction based on one of my ethnic groups gets immediately

destroyed. Other internal conflicts I feel that may have an effect on my life is who I choose to

marry and have children with. I’ve noticed I tend to shy away from potential partners who are

full Asian or full White as if by choosing one, I may as well be choosing that ethnicity as a

preference over another. Choosing, immediately devalues the half that is left.

Other aspects of life have also come up with age in relation to this internal conflict such

as dating, friends, and the company you keep. With many hapas, their racial identity might be

judged in correlation to these aspects in one’s social life. This continues the idea of the race

police or border patrollers as hapas can be subjected to racial remarks, assumptions and even

questions about their authenticity that may or may not have anything to do with their actual

ethnic make up. What is interesting about a hapa’s relationship with a different ethnic group

other than their own is that it is directly intertwined, yet again, with the idea that hapas do not

have a racial community. Analyzing my own group of friends made me realize just how

comfortable I am with keeping a diverse group which is probably a reflection of the fact that I

could never become an exclusive member of any ethnic community. Instead, like many hapas, I

begin searching for any element that makes us similar whether it personality traits, cultural

traditions or values as these are often core elements crucial for establishing a good foundation

with anyone. It is important to acknowledge all aspects of a person that are important to them as

it makes it easier to find those similarities.

Identity becomes very important in society whether it is in regards to race or any other

element because it is so personal to each individual. Through reading the experiences of hapas

and through examining my own, the overall tone seems to be lonely. But the lack of community

and inability to fit in which channels into this loneliness can always be slightly altered. Schools

can begin formally introducing hapas or other multiracial people as valid people in society that

also have unique lives. By bringing awareness to some of the harmful stereotypes and exclusion

mixed people face or with any ethnic group, perceptions and therefore interactions with various

people might be more positive. Any person of multiracial ethnicity should have a good

foundation of knowledge on both parent cultures as it will help define who you are. With a

strong sense of who you are, the others who get to know you will also understand who you are

and what is important to you rather than being the product of a confusing assumption. The social

constructions of developing ethnic boundaries between different groups is something that can be

hurtful to hapas or any person of multiracial ethnicity as these all can indirectly devalue who we

are. It is probably why so many haps seek out to live and thrive amongst communities and

friends that are diverse. This way, we don’t ever have to feel left out or uncomfortable as a non-

member of a group. Everyone is different and we all have to overcome that in order to find what

can bring us together as people.

“It would serve humanity best to find the ways in which we are the same instead of what

makes us different.” –Sean Lennon.

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