“You’re hapa!” the girl shrieked, running at me with arms open.
“What?” I replied, confused as to both what “hapa” meant and who this girl was.
“Hapa!” she repeated. “Half Asian, half white! We’re like sisters!” She hugged me as though we’d known each other forever.
Growing up in the Midwest, the concept of mixed race kids was almost foreign. Everyone was something. The Black kids were Black, the Hispanic kids were Hispanic, and the Asian kids were, well, usually adopted. You weren’t really allowed to be more than one thing. People accepted me, but I was the Asian. You know, the girl who turned red from drinking and whose house was filled with Chinese furniture. It’s probably why I grew accustomed to being asked so often, but where are you *really* from?
I thought moving to the West Coast would be a relief from all that. Finally! A utopia of diversity, where I could finally meet other Asians who related to the gruel of the Suzuki piano regime or shared my love of rou sung, carpet pork. I could bask in my Taiwanese heritage without having to stop to explain what red envelopes were. Sure, I had a White half, but I’d grown up around White people. I’d spent most of my life assimilating to country music, hunting, and inexplicably prominent American flags — for once, I wanted to be Asian without being the Asian who had to answer questions for the entire race.
My Chinese co-workers weren’t the majority, but there was enough of a critical mass for them to feel comfortable speaking Chinese in the office and ordering dou jiang (warm soy milk) in bulk for the company snack closet. I saw them leave for weekly dim sum lunches and choose each other for staff projects, hoping each time to finally be extended an invite. They were professional and friendly, but not do you want to come with us friendly. It left me with a feeling of monachopsis — a subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place — something I was intimately familiar with from my childhood.
Finally, after the umpteenth maybe next time gentle brush-off, a friend took pity and told me the reason for my exclusion. You’re just not Asian enough, she said. They could name their favorite restaurants in Kaohsiung and sang karaoke in Chinese; I grew body hair and had a natural eyelid fold. I could never understand. I was *only* half.
My entire life, I’ve considered myself Asian. Not fobby Asian, like my White peers saw me, but Asian enough to center my identity. To find out that other Asians found my White half as a reason to deny my identity was not only jarring but also offensive.
Who, exactly, decides what Asian enough is?
Who gets to determine whether my experience with Tiger parents and Saturday Chinese school and eating with chopsticks is Asian enough to count? Who is the arbiter of eyes, to tell me whether or not mine are sufficiently almond-shaped? Who concludes how much Asian blood I need to have coursing through my veins before I can claim it? Who does it benefit to create such a restricted definition of who is accepted as Asian? Is there some kind of chicken feet-eating test?
As I was identified by a girl whose name now escapes my memory, I am a hapa. I am often greeted with recognition and overwhelming enthusiasm only by other hapas — those who can relate to the monachopsis of having neither side of yourself wanting to claim you. We find each other like giddy Americans in a foreign nation, relieved to finally be able to comfortably communicate with another person.
I will never fully speak the same language as my Asian brothers and sisters. My struggles will never compare to those of Asians who have seen the horrors of war or endured the stress of emigrating to a new country. I’m not claiming to be the arbiter of all things Taiwanese. But the fact that I look *only* half Asian does not discount my heritage. You cannot nullify my life experiences simply because they don’t mirror your own. You don’t decide my ethnicity.
I am a hapa and I am Asian enough.
About the Author: Anna Gracia is a writer in San Francisco. She is working on her debut novel about an Asian-American girl navigating the complex relationships of young adulthood. You can read her thoughts about recent movies on her blog, TheSnarkyReviewer.com or follow her on Twitter (@hapasareasian).