Sharon H. Chang recently released a memoir called Hapa Tales and Other Lies: A Mixed Race Memoir about the Hawai’i I Never Knew. The book is an exploration of her Mixed Race Asian American identity through the lens of being a tourist in Hawai’i, a place with many Mixed Race Asians where Chang was indirectly told she could find a sense of racial belonging.
Different from the trips she took with her parents when she was a kid, Chang’s adult exploration of spaces like Pearl Harbor and the Polynesian Cultural Center tell her a more complicated history of Hawai’i and the indigenous culture – colonization, marginalization of Native Hawaiians, exploitation and appropriation. She spends significant time challenging the use of the term “hapa,” a word that originally referred to mixed Hawaiian natives, but that many Mixed Race Asians now use without any awareness of the word’s origins.
Seattle-based writer Anne Liu Kellor interviewed Chang about this exploration as they shared similar perspectives of being Mixed Race, Asian American women and mothers.
Indigenous People’s Day is Monday, October 8.
International Examiner: In Hapa Tales and Other Lies, you write that this book is a “chapter of your identity story” and “part of a larger, necessary story about the loneliness and challenge of self-defining that Mixed Race people generally face.” When did you start becoming more reflective about your Mixed Race identity, and how has this process of “self-defining” changed for you over time?
SHC: I started becoming more reflective about being Mixed Race when I met my husband (who is also Mixed) at the turn of the century. My husband had been recently politicized and the 2000 Census had just taken place where people could self-select more than one race box for the first time. When we met, he was in the process of reflecting deeply on where to step into the race conversation as a now recognized biracial person. I had never heard anyone talk about being Mixed Race like that, ever, and I was completely drawn in.
When my husband and I grew up no one talked about being biracial, multiracial, or mixed-race. That language didn’t really exist on a large scale. People like us were “half” this, “quarter” that, or you were expected to just “pick a side.” I began to see such concepts as harmfully self-divisive and wondered how things could be different. But what spurred me to go even deeper and actually begin writing on Mixed Race was the birth of my son in 2009.
When I had my son, I knew I wanted to do better by him, but realized I still didn’t have a good, nuanced framework from which to talk about being multiracial in this country. Remember this conversation is still fairly new. So, I went looking for resources on Mixed Race identity and was shocked to find very, very little. It was this void (and mamahood) that lead me to write my first book Raising Mixed Race and eventually to continue on with my newest book Hapa Tales and Other Lies.
IE: What inspired you to write this book with Hawai‘i as the central focus or portal through which to explore your own racial identity?
SHC: In self-defining as an Asian American and Mixed Race person today there are still many unanswered questions and issues to be addressed. It’s a journey, and yes, the journey does keep changing over time. Raising Mixed Race, for example, was the book I needed on my shelf as a new mother of a multiracial child. Hapa Tales, on the other hand, is far more personal. It’s a fleshing out of the ways I’ve been racialized as an Asian Mixed woman in this country.
Specifically, I wrote through the lens of Hawai‘i in Hapa Tales because I have often been assigned belonging to Hawai‘i by others, though I’m not from and have never lived there. That is, it’s a place where I’ve been told, in direct or indirect ways, that I could find a racial “home.” Sure this is because Hawai‘i represents one of the largest Asian American and Mixed Race populations in the U.S. But this is also because the way I look fits into the “hula girl” or “happy hapa” image of the islands promoted by corporate tourism.
I knew that I wasn’t going to make it very far in understanding myself as an Asian Mixed woman if I hadn’t unpacked these racial and gendered messages about women like me funneled through dominant views of Hawai‘i. I had to understand where the messages were coming from and why they were coming.
IE: Many Mixed Race Asian people have found a sense of belonging in claiming the word ‘hapa’ for themselves, and no doubt will resist having it taken away from them. Yet you challenge us to consider how the appropriation of this word serves to echo America’s colonialist legacy. Can you explain how and when the use of the word ‘hapa’ is problematic?
SHC: Hapa is a Native Hawaiian word (adapted from English) meaning “half” or “part.” Historically, hapa was used to describe children and people of partial Native Hawaiian descent. Over time, hapa has become colloquial in Hawai‘i where it is used broadly to refer to anyone of multiracial descent. But then, in the 1990s, “hapa” became widely adopted as a self-descriptor by Asian Mixed people on the continent, particularly along the west coast, and its Native Hawaiian origins were largely erased. Native Hawaiians use hapa to claim Hawaiian Mixed children into their Indigenous community which was almost entirely wiped out by white colonizers. Many Native Hawaiian activists objected to the appropriation of “hapa” by non-Hawaiians as an extension of the same white supremacist colonialism that nearly drove their people to extinction.
The term has since become hotly contested as an identifier for non-Indigenous people; a debate laid out well in this recent article by Joanna Eng, “‘Hapa’: A Unique Case of Cultural Appropriation by Multiracial Asian Americans?” To that end, I wrote Hapa Tales not just as self-exploration but as discovery. In building our identities, I learn every day, it is too easy to step on the identities of others. Hapa Tales is a call-in to myself and to other non-Hawaiian Asian and Mixed folks to examine more carefully how we participate in the takeover of Hawai‘i and dispossession of Native Hawaiians.
IE: You write, “If you decide to use hapa in a non-Native Hawaiian context, I urge you 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. There are no easy solutions to this complicity, but it is important to struggle against it nonetheless.” What other ways might we non-Indigenous Americans, regardless of our race, be complicit with settler colonialism? How can we learn to actively resist this?
SHC: From my perspective as a non-Native person, one of the most important things we need to do to actively resist being complicit with settler colonialism is to stop forgetting (thereby willfully erasing) Indigenous people. I learned this lesson to a profound degree in writing Hapa Tales. I knew about the misappropriation of “hapa” by people like me, but I didn’t really know the history of Hawai‘i and Native Hawaiians. My ignorance, whether intentional or not, was contributing to the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their much-needed stories. I think all non-Native folks can and should be asking questions about the occupied lands we live on. Who lived on this land first? What was their relationship with it and how did they care for it? How was it taken from them? Also, these people still exist — they are not relics of the past — where are they now? What do Indigenous people do to resist and thrive, and how can we show up for that resilience?
IE: What’s next for you and your writing? What other “chapter of your identity story” do you feel called to explore?
SHC: I’m currently working on a book looking at Asian American women, gender and race, which has been extraordinarily difficult to write under the current anti-woman administration. But I’m determined and making my way steadfastly through the chapters. More soon!