Growing up multicultural and multiracial in a town where there were not many other Hapa folk (I knew one other Hapa growing up) created some confusion for me; I never felt comfortable in the Korean-American community (I look so white) and yet much of my upbringing that was influenced by Korean culture always left me feeling a bit out of place among my very western White American peers.
I remember that the Asian-American kids in school would not believe me when I told them my mother was from Korea and would ask me to prove it with pictures. On the flipside, there were many occasions when Caucasian-American kids would tell me I looked “funnny” and ate “funny-looking” foods for lunch.
I can’t tell you how many times strangers have come up to me in grocery stores to ask or guess my ethnic identity (“Are you part Italian? Romanian?”). Just as many times, people respond to my sharing of my Hapa idenitity with a “Oh! But you look so white. Just white!”
I went through a phase as a teen when my ethnic ambiguity really bothered me; I often felt despair when looking at Korean actresses and wished I could look more like my mom. Other times, I’d compare myself to Caucasian-American actresses and wished I was blonde and blue-eyed.
Now, as an adult, I am very proud to be Hapa and wouldn’t change a thing about myself. The greatest factor that changed my attitude about my Hapa identity was learning about other Hapas! I first learned of the term “Hapa” when I came across an art book called The Hapa Project. It had tons of pictures of other people who were multiracial and I suddenly did not feel confused or out of place anymore. There were lots of people like me! Learning about Hapa culture helped me take the focus away from my appearance and instead recognize and celebrate the values of growing up multicultural.
My parents really created a fusion of the two cultures in our family. We celebrate American holidays, but put a Korean spin on things by incorporating Korean foods into our meals. Every year, we rotate our Thanksgiving feast between traditional Korean and American foods. My mother always makes sure to recognize major Korean holidays with me, even if it means that we just eat some special rice cakes to mark the occasion. And always, tension between handling family matters the Korean or the mainstream American way sparks great conversations within our family from which I have learned a lot about how to be sensitive to and navigate between different cultures.