A big part of being mixed race is always hearing the question, “What are you?” One can reply with “human, American, female” but it isn’t the answer people want to hear. Many multiracial individuals have found it easy to define themselves as “hapa haole.”
Hapa is pidgin, a popular slang in Hawaii, for the English word “half.” Over time, the meaning has changed from half, to mixed or part. Haole is what people of Caucasian heritage are called in Hawaii. More specifically, haole means “foreigner.” Hapa haole can be used to describe a person as part white, but is also commonly used to identify music with Hawaiian tunes and English words.
Recently, Kevin Miller, Jr. of the Amerasian Foundation, wrote a statement about the “hijacking of the term Hapa” and that Hawaiians are the “rightful owners of the cultural term.” His opinions seemed to stir up controversy. Miller claimed that many on the West coast were “stealing” the term Hapa to identify themselves because “they have the power and money.”
A Hawaiian Hapa’s response to the California mixed Asian Americans’ use of “Hapa,” found on RealHapas.com, states: “Many people from California like to call themselves ‘Hapa’ in order to seem more exotic.”
Everyone agrees that Hapa means half or part. Websites like RealHapas.com and HawaiianWannabes.com argue that one must be Hawaiian and Caucasian in order to actually be Hapa or use the term. They both speak of the irony that multiracial Asians complain about being disrespected due to being mixed, yet they disrespect Hawaiians and the Hawaiian culture by using their terms inappropriately.
Samantha, a 19 year old from San Jose, thinks this is silly. She has been to the Hawaiian Islands on vacation, and has expressed her respect for the island and for the people. However, she doesn’t understand why, as a Californian, she can’t use the term Hapa to describe herself.
“Hapa was the first ‘race’ that I felt like I could associate with,” she explains. “It’s hard enough for mixed people to feel like they belong … Being of a mixed race should bring cultures together –not separate them.”
Jordan Lee Jing, another Californian agrees. “Back in the old days, ‘queer’ used to mean weird and the word ‘weed’ meant dandelions and crabgrass. I say these people should get with the times now and we’re all Hapas here.” And about being exotic? “I laugh at that one,” he says. “It’s not about being exotic. It’s about finding something to call yourself.”
Kalani Mondoy, raised in the Hawaiian Islands, says she doesn’t live by labels. “I don’t say that I’m of Asian, European and Polynesian decent, but rather Filipino, Portuguese, Chinese and Hawaiian,” she explains. Mondoy asks the question, “Why is it necessary to find one word that may or may not encompass a group of people? Why fit oneself into labels?”
Along with many individuals calling themselves Hapa, organizations are using the term as well.
Hapa Sushi is a restaurant with multiple locations in Colorado. Like the name, the food reflects the combination of Asian and American cultures. The menu is explained as “Hapa,” because of the traditional Japanese cooking fundamentals mixed with other influences.
Meaghan Dawes brought up the “hapa issue” at a recent Hapa Sushi manager meeting. The four head chefs label themselves as Hapa from Hawaii. The common consensuses was that Hapa means half Asian, half white –regardless of whether you are from Hawaiian or not.
“The name of our restaurant reflects this definition,” Dawes states. “As far as words go, they are muted and meanings change for different people and for different reasons. We respect and acknowledge to history of the word as Hawaiian but things change and evolve.”
Language can be a living thing, and constantly changes. What Hapa means now is different from what it used to mean, and its definition will continue to change.
Wei Ming Dariotis, the Chapter Facilitator Hapa Issues Forum in San Francisco, has changing feelings on the matter.
“I think in some ways that it is too late to change it,” Dariotis says. “There has been [substantial] movement for the use of the term Hapa and it has been widely adopted on the West Coast to mean an Asian and or Pacific Islander American of mixed heritage.”
Yet, while Dariotis woke up one morning to prepare to give a speech at Berkeley on mixed heritage, he found he could no longer support using the term Hapa for himself personally. He believes that stealing this term is unacceptable. And he feels guilt.
Dariotis has known about the issues over the term hapa for several years. He explains, “My reaction in the past had been, ‘Yes, I know all these problems, but I like the word and I’m going to keep using it.’ This sounded so much like ‘White Privilege’ that I decided I couldn’t use this word for myself.”
Dariotis started using the word Hapa when he was about 22 years old. He remembers “how empowering the word Hapa was for [him] when [he] was younger” so he has “no desire to try to get others to stop using it.”
This debate will probably not change the name of the Hapa Issues Forum, or other organizations using the term. Many Hawaiians acknowledge that they can’t ban people from using their words; they only hope that there may be a personal and social choice to change.