Last updated 3-26-09 at 8:33 a.m.
The people interviewed in this story: David Lai, Heather O’Dell, Kurtis Smoke, Kelly Schalow, and Eric Card
By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
‘Hapa’ is a Hawaiian term that describes somebody of at least half Asian or Pacific Islander ethnic heritage. ‘Hapa’ literally means a ‘portion’ or ‘part.’ Many hapas live in the Pacific Northwest, as Seattle is home to a huge population of biracial people.
Cassie Wada, whose father is Japanese and whose mother is white, never really considered her unique background until middle school. It was during those years that they realized that they were “different” from other people and that race played a bigger role in their lives than they thought.
Wada wasn’t exposed to a dominant group of Asians until she started school in the Federal Way district, which has a large population of Koreans.
Wada also faced a culture shock when she visited China. She found that she had to mask her racial identity. The Chinese thought she was American Indian. Wada was told just to lie about her real ethnic background in order to avoid bringing up any historic racial tension between the Japanese and Chinese.
Biracial facial features can be rather ambiguous. For example, many thought half Korean, half Black Cha Yong Mayner was a Pacific Islander.
“Almost everyone I met thought I was from Hawaii or was a Pacific Islander — even African Americans didn’t know that I was half [Black],” she said.
Mayner didn’t perceive being biracial to be a big deal due to the military base near Tacoma. But she felt differently when she moved to Oregon for college.
Like Wada, moving from one place to another spurred a new perspective on her racial identities. Mayner received more attention in college due to her physical appearance than in her hometown where she grew up in. This was something that was unexpected for her since she was not used to being asked about her ethnicity.
David Lai, who is Chinese and white, has felt irritated because he has a biracial identity. He didn’t have any problems in his relationships with his parents, but it was harder for him when interacting with other people.
“I tried to spend time with both [racial] groups, but it was very annoying [for me] that to Asian people, I was white, and to white people, I was Asian,” he said.
He wished that people could learn to accept him for being mixed so he didn’t have to choose between being Asian or white.
Despite the frustration he felt, Lai says being biracial was a big advantage for him because he would easily be accepted into multiple social groups. He feels culturally well rounded. He observed that biracial people tend to get along really well in different settings because of their ability to relate with more than one race.
Kelly Schalow, who is half white and half Filipino, agrees with Lai. Schalow said that he is visibly white but doesn’t identify himself more as white or Filipino.
“I feel that identifying more with either would be a sign of favoring one more or looking down on the other, but I am proud to be a mix of them,” he said.
In fact, Schalow takes advantage of his Asian side when applying for minority scholarships and grants. His mother told him that he should emphasize how he is part Asian so that he can grasp the opportunities that are available to him because he is considered a minority.
“Being mixed just means you have some of the good and some of the not-so-great of each ethnicity,” he said.
There are those who identify themselves more so with one race than the other due to physical appearances or other factors.
Heather O’Dell sometimes forgets that she is biracial because she identifies herself more with her white side. Her Korean mom is Americanized, therefore, O’Dell isn’t exposed to the Korean culture. She never learned the language or visited the country, and she doesn’t really have Korean friends. Because of those reasons, she often feels left out of the Asian crowd.
Eric Card has a Japanese American mother and a white father. He says he identifies himself more with being white because he looks more like it.
During the first few years of his life in Japan, he had curly, blond hair. Card stood out in a sea of Japanese people. He said he was teased a few times for looking different, but never to the point where he felt bad about it. Though he didn’t have any problems making friends, he also never really felt like he “fit in” either.
After moving to the United States, most people couldn’t tell that he was half Asian at all. When others find out, it’s often a pleasant surprise for them.
“So in a weird way, I’ve felt that I have been more acknowledged than discriminated [against] because of my biracial background,” Card said.
Kurtis Smoke is half white and half Taiwanese. He says he is often the “different” one among his friends.
Despite living in Taiwan for more than 11 years, he still feels more American because he grew up preferring American food and television. His love for American football has even brought him closer to his father.
Smoke also despised learning the Chinese language, something that may have pushed him to identity more with his white side. (end)
Nina Huang can be reached at email@example.com.