Navigating Asian hate and whiteness as a Hapa

“Don’t grow up too haole.

While many childhood memories have faded with time, my grandpa saying this to me on the couch of his Alewa Heights home feels as clear as day.

Growing up, summers in Hawaii meant hula lessons, ukulele, trips to Magic Island, and the occasional Japanese “atsui” or “oishii.” Spam musubi lunches at Summer Fun, shave ice pau hana, and dinners of Teri chicken, poi, lomi lomi salmon, and Great Aunt Girlie’s sponge cake. At the time, visiting my grandparents felt like a punishment, an unwelcome exile from my parents’ arms in California, but in retrospect, it served as the exalted hotbed of my Asian American identity.

In Hawaii, “where are you really from” isn’t uttered. If people ask, “what are you,” it’s out of genuine curiosity over your identity, not your foreignness. It’s the only state with an Asian American majority population, and one-in-four residents identify as multi-racial. If you’re told you look like someone else or called by the wrong name, it’s not because you’re one of the handful of Asians someone knows or the *other* Asian colleague — more often than not it’s because there’s an actual resemblance. While others may write this off as insignificant, members of the AAPI community know how refreshing this reprieve feels. Despite the complicated history of Asian migration to Hawaii and its undoubted impact on native Hawaiians, there’s the benefit of an innate Asian American cultural understanding from most people who were born and raised on the islands, regardless of ethnic origin. Though some consider “hapa” an appropriation of its original Hawaiian use, it’s managed to become a wide-reaching term that’s understood by people of all backgrounds. For generations, Asians have assimilated to chase the coveted American Dream and unwittingly uphold the model minority myth, but Hawaii flips the script. Haoles especially are challenged to understand a culture outside of their own to feel connected and a sense of belonging.

But when one is mixed, what does belonging look like?

With glasses that could easily belong to the likes of Milton or Bubbles, a distinctive gait, and a pudgy frame, I became an easy target on my LA grade school playground. Being one of the only Asians in my class also certainly helped. Even if I was half Polish and Ukrainian, that didn’t protect me from classmates aggressively pulling the corners of their eyes, from asking if I ate dog, or from repeating creative chants of “ching chong.” This is the baseline level of damaging racist behavior that my Asian peers experienced as kids. And teachers and parents thought nothing of it — it went ignored because you were meant to brush it off and develop thick skin. And words and actions meant to cause embarrassment and shame weren’t relegated solely to bullies either. In a moment that I’m sure she doesn’t recall, on December 7th in the sixth(ish) grade, an Irish friend asked if I felt guilty given the commemoration of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I stood dumbstruck. My Japanese and Chinese family were in Hawaii for the tragedy, navigating shock and fear that reverberated to the continental U.S.

Though it would be cathartic to list the many racist encounters seared into my memory (and to confront and exorcise some of last week’s pain, I’ve started a list), the point is, as someone who is half Asian, I’m still steeped in Asian pain. Not just my own lived experiences, but of those who came before me. At 12, my Chinese great-grandmother Young Shee was sold and shipped to Hawaii to work as a maid. My Japanese great-grandmother Shun Wada died at 39, having been cast out of Niigata after a failed first marriage to arrive in the Big Island as a picture bride to a kind, but alcoholic plantation worker. She left behind six kids, including my four-year-old grandmother, with their memories limited to her inability to invest in them, too depressed to rise to the role of mother.

Facing our loss last week dredged up generations of anguish pent up in our bones, our bodies increasingly weary from being a site of silenced internal and external torment. Worse yet, the crystal clear face of a murderer liberally splashed everywhere, while details of our Asian sisters are painted in strokes so broad a sketch artist would pause before starting.

After relying on largely non-Asian reporters and law enforcement officers to define the narrative and sow the seeds of justice, we’ve found ourselves further heartbroken. In the quest for acknowledgement, after a year of escalating attacks and violence, there’s still an undermining and erasure of our history and experiences, made more offensive given this undeniable crime. While we shout and sob for our voices to be heard, a culture built on white supremacy grants others the primary power to curate and contextualize Asian experiences.

As someone who straddles both Asian and white identities, I’ve been both called upon to justify my Asian-ness, and been the subject of superficial stereotyping. The same summer a white friend told me I was “so lucky” to be Asian because men are attracted to exotic women, a close white friend repeatedly disregarded my experience as a person of color. I recognize I carry immense privilege compared to the lives of all my great grandparents, our elders who came to this country for us, and the six Asian women killed working at massage parlors. That no doubt, when people see my name without a face, they conjure up a different image than the one they are greeted by in person. Showing up to a babysitting job in college, after the mother deftly processed her surprise over the dissonance between my name and my face, she quickly shifted to asking about math homework help.

I’m Asian enough to have received unwanted attention and advances from a HS teacher who cornered me privately to share that the only woman he ever loved was Asian, but white enough that when filing a police report after my most recent sexual assault, the officer automatically checked the box as white.

I’m white enough to have a white friend tell me I won’t be seeing as much of her because she’s trying to prioritize BIPOC friendships, but Asian enough to be told I was “overreacting” at work when I didn’t want video segments on Filipino cuisine to be labeled “Bizarre Bites.”

I’m white enough to eagerly anticipate a Christmas meal of kielbasa and pierogies, but Asian enough that I felt the stares of extended family at my Polish grandfather’s funeral.

What makes me feel extra connected to other Asians in this moment is attempting to have our experiences legitimized by the culturally dominant and declining white population in this country. Knowing that as much as I’m documenting all of this to embalm my own feelings during this time, I’m begrudgingly aware that I’m writing to an audience, craving validation. That though I name my privilege, I annoyingly still thirst to share my pain. But I write anyway, despite wrestling with feelings of self indulgence and fearing both vulnerability and judgement — no doubt a byproduct of rejecting the implicit mandate/expectation to stay heads down and silent.

Reflecting on the impact of these Asian cultural associations further fuels my strong impulse to revisit the past. My mom and my aunt have regularly questioned this, as they’re less invested in our family history, but when increasingly it feels as if it’s an accepted, unavoidable lot for Asian lives to be deemed unimportant, erased, and forgotten, I want to fulfill my grandpa’s wishes. Channeling what pulled me to suddenly stop in front of my Chinese great grandparents graves when visiting the Nu’uanu Memorial Park for the first time, and being able to close my eyes and vividly recall sitting with my grandpa in front of the picture window in Alewa Heights, spending evenings eating boiled peanuts while watching rainbows as the sun set, I want to honor and recognize what it means to be (half) Asian in this country, and to be counted as part of this legacy.

— Jackie Wasilczyk

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