“Hapa Tales:” Mixed Race memoir probes colonial legacy of a Hawaiian word

Author Sharon H. Chang and the cover of her new memoir, “Hapa Tales and Other Lies.” (Courtesy photos.)

Why should we care about stories of Mixed Race people? Well, for starters, between 2000 and 2010, people who reported as multiple races on the census grew by 32 percent — faster than any other racial group in the United States. These numbers will only continue to grow as more people wrestle with their complex, multiracial identities, seeking to understand themselves through new narratives and names.

Sharon H.  Chang writes in the opening to her new provocative memoir, “Hapa Tales and Other Lies,” “I challenge myself to keep searching for a transformative Mixed-Race identity that is not built upon the oppression of others.” Throughout “Hapa Tales and Other Lies,” she interrogates her evolving relationship to her identity, to Hawai’i, and to the problematic use of the word “hapa.”

“Hapa” means “part” in the Native Hawaiian language and originally was used to refer to those who were half Hawaiian. But the term later came to refer primarily to Asian and white mixed people in Hawaii, and eventually to mixed Asian people throughout the world. Many “hapas,” myself included, welcomed this term when we first learned of it, as it seemed to reinforce our existence in a racialized world that all too often is framed through simplistic, monoracial lenses.  But Chang pushes herself to question the appropriation of this term, just as she pushes all of us to look more closely at our participation in other settler colonial mindsets, steeped in our shared history of being raised as Americans.

Throughout “Hapa Tales,” Chang interrogates her own identity story through her relationship to Hawai’i, the state with the highest population of Mixed Race people, and many mixed Asians and whites. Chang admits how she too was once tempted to drift into a false sense of belonging when visiting Hawai’i, simply because many people looked like her. Yet she acknowledges that she is a tourist in Hawai’i, and that any examination of her own story through the lens of Hawai’i would be incomplete without also looking at Native Hawaiian history and culture, and white America’s history of annexation, colonialism, and exoticized projections.

Chang also allows us to glimpse moments of her own confusion and shame as she navigates her awareness of how she is seen by others and by herself — whether admitting that she feels she looks more Asian when she dyes her hair or confessing to her increased sense of belonging as a Person of Color when her skin is darkened by the summer sun. We also witness the painful encounters she has had with both white people and People of Color who have questioned her insistence upon holding space for Mixed Race narratives, and the newly unfolding questions she has around how to teach her eight-year-old mixed son about his identity.

As a multiracial person myself, there is much I can relate to in this book. Growing up with a Chinese mother and white father, no one in my life understood how to help me view, name, or claim my identity. Never was I in a room full of people who looked like me. I often unconsciously felt I had to pick a “side” that I aligned with. And so, of course, I can understand the appeal — to finally go somewhere where many people look like you; where you, for once, do not feel like the “other” in the company of white people, of monoracial Asians or of People of Color. “Welcome back,” the airplane captain beamed at Chang’s family as they arrived in Hawaii. “I could pretend I belong here,” Chang mused.

But Chang reminds us how the history of one place — or one word — contains so much. I first learned of the word “hapa” in college in the ‘90s. A friend, who was Filipino and Japanese, used it to describe me and him. “Us hapas,” he said, and I remember the feeling of surprise and pride that there was a word that not only described me, but also looped me into a larger community who shared a unique lens. This was huge.

But I never knew the origins of the word. It was once used only by Native Hawaiians as a way to claim their mixed children into their fold amidst the decline of Hawaii’s Indigenous population— which went from somewhere around 900,000 in 1778, when Captain James Cook “discovered” Hawai’i, to less than 40,000 by 1890. By then, the white settlers had introduced diseases, seized land and created a lucrative economy based on sugarcane plantations. The settlers began to import Asian laborers, moving from Chinese to Japanese, to Koreans, to Filipinos. Any time one group threatened to organize, they’d turn to another.

Eventually, “hapa” went from referring to mixed Native Hawaiians to any mixed people in Hawai’i, especially Asian and white, as mixed people came to dominate the state.

Readers picking up “Hapa Tales” and expecting to find a traditional memoir might be disappointed. But it won’t be a disappointment for those willing to dig into social justice history and a complex weave of intersectional narratives. It is a book for those who, like Chang, also want to understand how they can claim their heritage and further the conversation around race without resorting to naive “post-racial utopia” dreams. Throughout “Hapa Tales,” Chang illuminates the way in which Hawai’i shares the same history of settler colonialism as the “mainland” states do, but how many are tempted to overlook this legacy due to the Hawaii’s unique non-white, Asian and Mixed-Race majority population.

Although “hapa” may now be a widely accepted term in Hawai’i, Chang pushes all of us to consider why knowing the roots of the words we use matters. While some have pushed back at her, claiming that racial issues are not the same in Hawaii as they are on the “mainland” or that “language migrates,” Chang urges those who insist upon using the word to “not rush to explain away the problems with it, but hold them in tension. Examine the ways living in the United States can make you complicit with settler colonialism.” Hawaiians may feel they live a world apart from us “mainlanders,” but, she reminds us, we all share the same president.

Chang acknowledges that she is no expert on Hawai’i and that it is “a fragile delicate thing to write about a group that you are not a part of.” As a fellow Mixed Race woman, I appreciate her willingness nevertheless to continually step into the forefront of racial- and self- interrogation with her work, including her first book, “Raising Mixed Race,” which is a sociological study of Mixed Race children and their parents, despite its potential for criticism from many sides.

Chang writes, “As physical embodiments of the racial hierarchy’s two top-positioned groups, we (mixed Asians and whites) often face a tremendous amount of resentment that disregards our diasporic histories, testimonials, and lived lives. Because we are light-appearing mixes with close white family members and near generational ties to whiteness, it is incredibly difficult for communities of color to imagine us as People of Color, and much easier to envision us as honorary inductees into the world of white privilege.” She also pushes against the ideas that mixed people are either “hybrid heroes” or the “tragically downtrodden”— two binary narratives that many are tempted to uphold.

“Hapa Tales and Other Lies,” fittingly, is a hybrid narrative — both in subject matter and in form. Moving between her candid, vulnerable stories to her interrogation of our present-day white supremacist American culture, Chang tackles timely, essential questions of cultural appropriation, racial categorization, intersectionality, and non-binary thinking. Conversations around Mixed Race identities are often highly charged and fraught with pain. Chang applies both a critical social justice-fueled lens and a heart of vulnerability and curiosity that does not claim to know all the answers.

“Hapa Tales and Other Lies” is a brave book that may make people uncomfortable — whether those who cling to using the word “hapa,” those who claim Hawaii as their favorite vacation destination without considering its history, or those who have yet to examine the way Indigenous erasure is steeped into our shared American identity—no matter what race you claim on a census box.

Ultimately, Chang asks us to receive “a chapter of her identity story” at the same time that she shows us her efforts to understand another group of people’s stories. This strikes me as incredibly fitting structure for a Mixed Race memoir. For this is precisely what it feels like to tackle our identity stories as Mixed Race people — writing about what is both intimate and “othered” within our own selves. “Silencing is a major way in which the hierarchy remains intact and injustice prevails,” Chang writes. “One of our greatest struggles, then, in undoing racism is learning how to receive the stories of others non-predatorily and with true attempts at understanding.”

Appearances

Sharon H. Chang will talk about her book “Hapa Tales and Other Lies” at Hugo House on Oct. 22 and at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience on Nov. 17. More information on her website.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Captain James Cook, the British explorer who landed in Hawai’i in 1778.  

4 Comments

  1. I believe there’s a typo: you write “Captain James Hook”, as in the Peter Pan character, rather than “Captain James Cook”. Excellent work regardless.

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