For as long as I can remember, my parents have always told my brother and me how lucky we are to be Hapa. With a mother from Hawaii and a father from Sweden, my brother and I fall under both contexts of the traditional Hawaiian definition and the recently adopted racial term; we are exactly half Okinawan and half Swedish.
Born and raised in California, my brother and I grew up in a school system that desperately attempted to promote multiculturalism. I beamed with pride as my pappa visited my second grade class during multicultural week to read my favorite Lilla Spöket Laban, and I enjoyed my tiny bento that my Okinawan grandma would pack for lunch. However, like most childhood traditions, I was sheltered from the unrealistic expectations of assimilation, and it was not until I grew older that I began to realize the burdens being Hapa had inflicted upon my cultural identity.
As people notice my ambiguous appearance, they are immediately curious of my ethnicity and usually ask one of two questions. The first is the derogatory, “What are you?” I understand this question is of interest to my cultural background, so I politely answer, “Swedish and Okinawan.” However, the other question, “Where are you from?” raises a complicated flurry of possible responses. The subjective interpretations of that question is only the beginning of the problem. I have to decide if they mean where I was born, where I currently live, where I grew up, or what ethnicity I am.
Growing up and constantly battling between answering with Sweden, Hawaii, or America has led to the inevitable epiphany many Hapas default to: nowhere. I am from nowhere. I belong nowhere. Because of our mixed races, Hapas will never exclusively belong to any of the cultures running through their veins. I will never be Swedish and I will never be Okinawan, but people want an answer nonetheless. Sparing people an explanation of my identity crisis, I reluctantly resort to, “I am from America.” No one wants to hear about a Hapa’s internal divide, so it is easy to dismiss an honest response. A Hapa spirit does not differentiate between the cultures in their veins; the two cultures exist together as one.
Everyone has the right to a cultural identity that fluctuates; an identity is a living concept, changing and evolving throughout a lifetime. As a multicultural race with memories and traditions associated with different cultures, Hapas cannot simply identify with one race or the other, but the refusal to assimilate to a single cultural identity has its consequences. Because society has demanded people of multiculturalism to associate with one culture, it is not easy for a Hapa to simply identify as someone who actively considers themselves a “synergy” of two cultures. A person that acknowledges their diverse background can be seen as someone who struggles with identity, as if choosing not to align himself or herself with a single culture indicates an unstable identity.
Responding with, “I am from nowhere,” as in they do not belong to one culture alone, insinuates a critical judgment by society. The uncertainty is perceived as negative, so a fear or self-doubt develops around the idea of not belonging. Instead of embracing both cultures, Hapas begin to view their diversity as defective.
I walk around Stockholm too Asian to be considered Swedish, and I walk around Honolulu too Swedish to be Okinawan. The differences set other Hapas and me apart in society as a minority. The truth can be seen on our physically ambiguous faces; we do not belong. I do not belong in Sweden. I do not belong in Hawaii. I do not belong in America. I am varying degrees of Swedish, Okinawan, and American. I cannot attribute myself wholly to any of those cultures, and society condemns me for it. Many Hapas can relate to the feeling of not belonging, and it can send us into despair, but that is why recognizing that feeling as tied to societal convention is vital to our identity. Despite what society implies about Hapa culture, just because I do not belong anywhere does not mean I am nothing.
I want to challenge the traditional conventions of cultural identity and no longer be ashamed that I do not belong anywhere. Hapas should embrace the diversity that forms their identity and should not be obligated to choose a cultural affiliation. I hope one day Hapas can radiate confidence as they declare, “I am from nowhere,” ignoring society’s condescending view of such an unsatisfying answer. As the definition of “half” suggests, Hapa is a duality of cultures. It is impossible for one culture to exist without the other; one culture cannot dominate or cancel the other out. It is a “synergy,” and that synergy defines us.