Mixed-Race Asians Find Pride as Hapas

Times Staff Writer

In Chinese restaurants, he was the kid who was always given the fork. In his largely white Covina public schools, he was the one beaten up and taunted as a "Chinaman" and "burnt potato chip."

Kip Fulbeck, a Santa Barbara artist, filmmaker, athlete and art professor who is of Chinese, Irish, Welsh and English descent, was born at a time when several states still banned mixed-race marriages and the children of such unions were routinely stigmatized.

But 41 years later, as interracial marriages have exponentially increased, Fulbeck is now celebrated as one of the nation's leading artists focused on work about mixed-race Asians, known as "hapas." He recently published a book on hapa identity, "Part Asian 100% Hapa," and this weekend opened a related photographic exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

The exhibit reflects an evolution in the perception of multiracial people from the bizarre freaks and "tortured mulattoes" popularized in film and literature a century ago to simply normal. Hapa -- originally a derogatory Hawaiian word for half-breed -- has been embraced as a term of pride.

"Before, people would look at you like you were a science experiment," said Fulbeck, a lanky Fontana native who sports a surfer's tan and a waist-up Japanese tattoo.

"Now, we're everywhere."

Hapas number 1.6 million in the United States, according to the 2000 census, which for the first time allowed people to claim more than one race. Nearly one-third of the nation's hapas live in California, 11% of the state's total Asian American population and the largest concentration of hapas outside Hawaii.

Hapas and other mixed-race groups have their own websites, social clubs, campus groups, films and literature. Their ranks include golfer Tiger Woods, actor Keanu Reeves, supermodel Devon Aoki and musician Sean Lennon. Lennon, son of the Japanese Yoko Ono and the British John Lennon, wrote the forward to Fulbeck's book.

One international newsmagazine proclaimed Eurasians "the poster children for 21st century globalization" a few years ago, touting their ability to bridge cultures in marketing, advertising and entertainment.

And, turning racist ideas of "hybrid degeneracy" on their head, Psychology Today magazine earlier this year featured studies finding that Eurasians were regarded as more attractive than whites or Asians and healthier because of their genetic diversity, associated with a lower incidence of some diseases.

All of which makes Fulbeck squirm just a bit.

It's bad enough that hapas share the common stereotypes of Asian Americans as "model minorities" who are expected to be smart, diligent and well-behaved, he said. "Now we're expected to be superior genetically too?" asks Fulbeck, chairman of UC Santa Barbara's art department.

Although most hapas tell him they're proud of their mixed-race heritage, Fulbeck said, he still gets e-mails from those who write despairingly of rejection and angst.

One parent, for instance, recently wrote for advice about his Korean Mexican child, who had suffered so much social rejection at school that he joined a Cambodian gang.

Paul Spickard, a UC Santa Barbara history professor, said three major factors during the 1960s laid the groundwork for today's multiracial baby boom. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the anti-miscegenation laws that remained in 16 states (California eliminated its law in 1948).

In addition, the civil rights movement and new immigration laws began liberalizing public policies and social attitudes on race.

Fulbeck's exhibit features 80 of more than 1,100 photos he shot across the country of hapas of all ages, sizes, occupations and ethnic mixes.

At Fulbeck's request, all of his subjects bared themselves from the shoulders up and wore little or no makeup, glasses or jewelry. The subjects aren't identified by name but by their striking responses to the question: What are you?

It's a question that many hapas constantly confront. Sometimes, other people try to tell them what they are -- or aren't.

Victoria Namkung, 29, a Brentwood writer of Korean, Jewish and Irish descent, still recalls a painful moment when she was 5, watching a St. Patrick's Day parade while wearing a button that said, "Kiss Me. I'm Irish." A man bent down and told her: "You're not Irish, honey. You're Oriental."

Meanwhile, some Koreans have told her she's not Korean because she doesn't speak the language or go to a Christian church. And although Jews have assured her she's Jewish, Namkung has figured out her own identity: "100% hapa, my whole mom's side and my whole dad's side."

In his project, Fulbeck asked all of his subjects to define themselves. Their responses roamed from baby scrawl to the succinct ("Queer Eurasian") to existential statements about being "millions of particles fused together." There are confessional writings about discomfort with curly hair and constant internal debates over which heritage is "better." Some defined themselves as what they are not: not exotic, not foreign, not half-and-half but fully whole.

One boy wrote: "I am part Chinese and part Danish. I don't usually tell people I am Danish, though, because they think I'm a pastry."

To the Japanese American National Museum, hapas represent the community's future -- a key reason it decided to sponsor Fulbeck's exhibit, according to spokesman Chris Komai. Nearly one-third of Japanese Americans are of mixed heritage, the largest such proportion among all major Asian ethnic groups, according to the 2000 census.

"Our community is changing and we need to recognize that," Komai said. "The definition of what it means to be Japanese American has to be different than it was 60 years ago, if it wants to perpetuate itself."

Komai said the museum and a growing number of other Japanese American organizations are liberalizing ideas about who belongs to their community.

Japanese American youth basketball leagues, for instance, have shifted their standards on who can participate in order to accommodate the community's rising number of mixed-race children. Over time, the rules have been liberalized from allowing children whose parents were both of Japanese ancestry in the 1950s to those with one such parent in the 1970s to those with at least one such grandparent today, according to Dan Nakauchi, commissioner of the 29-team Pasadena Bruins basketball organization.

In fact, he said, someone with no Japanese ancestry would be eligible if he or she were significantly influenced by the culture -- an adopted child, for instance, of a Japanese American parent.

"It's a history and culture we want to perpetuate, not a bunch of people of the same race," said Komai, whose four nieces and nephews are all hapa.

Eric Akira Tate, a 36-year-old Palo Alto attorney, can attest to rapidly changing attitudes among Japanese Americans. The son of a Japanese mother and African American father, Tate said his encounter with UC Berkeley's ethnic politics in 1988 first made him sharply aware of what he was -- or wasn't.

Asian American campus groups handing out recruitment fliers would ignore him. A Japanese American woman complimented him on his skilled use of chopsticks. Small things, he said, but "palpable."

With two other students, Tate decided to start the Hapa Issues Forum, a groundbreaking group to raise awareness of mixed-race Asian Americans through conferences, community events and social gatherings.

Today, Tate is president of San Francisco Japantown's largest community group, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

"In 1992, we had to take the initiative to get a place at the table," he said. "Now we've moved to the head of the table."

Fulbeck too found his voice as a hapa activist in college -- in his case, as a UC San Diego art major in the late 1980s. Stunned by three traumas during that time -- the death of his best friend, a family conflict and his failure to make the Olympic swim trials -- he poured all of his angst into a narrated video project for school. It was the first time he had gone public with his hapa identity conflicts. To his shock, the whole class applauded.

Since then, he has written a novel, staged numerous performances and made several films about the hapa experience, including the 1991 "Banana Split," which boosted him into the public eye.

His latest book, aimed at celebrating the diversity of hapa identity, is particularly personal.

"This is a book," Fulbeck said, "I wish I had as a kid."

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