*Note: For more information on the prompt that inspired this essay please click here.*
“Identity is a personal process and I’m adamant that it should be a personal decision, not one made by a community, a government or others.” –Kip Fulbeck
In first grade, my teacher had us put together a “heritage box” to educate our peers on our cultural identities—to answer the big question, “What are you?” My mother and I dug an old Nike shoebox out from my brother’s closet and filled it with “my culture”: a silk cloth, a fan, a recording of folk songs, traditional recipes. Later that week, I walked into class, my culture tucked into that box, small enough to carry in my hands. When it was my turn to present, I opened the box, revealing to my classmates “my identity,” piece by piece. Already at age six, I felt detached from my heritage. All of these things that were supposed to represent me felt so foreign. They belonged in that box, but not within me.
My mother is Japanese. My father is German. That makes me a hapa, a term originating from the Hawaiian word for “part.” Today, hapa is a slang word often used to describe a person of part Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
As a result, people often find me racially ambiguous. I see people look at me, examining the almond-shaped curve of my eyes in comparison to the mass of brown curls bursting out of my scalp, and I can hear their question, the question, before they even ask it: “What are you?”
In 2006, I visited the Japanese American National Museum in downtown, Los Angeles to see an exhibit titled “kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa.” The exhibit showcased thousands of portraits, including the one above, which were photographed by the artist, spoken word poet, and filmmaker Kip Fulbeck as part of The Hapa Project. In addition to this traveling photographic exhibition, the project produced a published book, presentations, and an online community, all with the intention of giving a voice to multiracial people and promoting positive identity formation. To each of the self-identified hapa individuals he photographed, Fulbeck asked that same question: “What are you?”
But what does this question mean? Throughout my life, I have automatically interpreted this question as an inquiry about my ethnic makeup—as if the foundation of my entire identity had to rest upon my ancestors’ origins. As if I did not have the choice to decide who or what I was.
Growing up in a world of standardized tests, applications, and census evaluations, I have been conditioned to define my identity through check-boxes. Too often, I, like the woman in the photo above, have been required to fill in a circle or check a box by the words “white” and “Asian”—and too often I have been forced to choose between the two, to pick sides within my own heritage. Every time I check one of those boxes, I think back to that first grade project, remembering how, even then, I knew how little heritage boxes said about my true identity.
Boxes contain and conceal—and I strongly believe that identity is not something that should be contained, nor concealed. It should be expressed. The use of the standard box implies that identity is rigid, unchanging, and absolute—when, in reality, it is always changing. We are always changing.
“I am not ‘half-white.’ I am not ‘half-Asian.’ I am a whole ‘other.’”
To me, the “other” option is not one of race or ethnicity. To me, the “other” option signifies the complexity of my identity. It is my way of refusing to be simplified to a closed box of assumptions and expectations. I would much rather define my identity and my culture based on what I do, what I value, and what I am passionate about—and that, for me, is not necessarily my ethnic heritage.
Rather than raise me with the cultural traditions and practices of Japan or Germany, my parents created for me an environment rich in the arts. As the child of two musicians—my mother, a cellist, and my father, a percussionist—I gravitated towards the violin at the age of five. The Colburn School of Performing Arts, where I studied violin for thirteen years, was my second home. It was and is a world of art: no matter where you are in the building, you can hear the murmur of a cello, the vibrato of an opera singer, or the clicking of a tap dancer. Growing up in this environment, I developed a deep passion and value for artistic expression, and sought other outlets for self-expression among the visual and literary arts.
While I do not know the languages or customs of Japan or Germany, I know how to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I know how to craft a pastel portrait. I know how to tell a story. It is this “other” culture, one of personal self-expression, freedom, and creativity that I choose to practice and identify with.
“What are you?”
I am a hapa. And I am also a writer, a musician, and an artist. I am a student, a counselor, and a scholar. I am a romantic. I am a dreamer. And I am much more than a checked box.
Post submitted by JoAnna