Yesterday I went to the Japanese American National Museum to see Kip Fulbeck’s exhibit hapa.me: 15 years of the hapa project. I’ve blogged about what hapa means before and also about seeing Kip Fulbeck at the LA Times Festival of Books in 2017. For this exhibit, Fulbeck took new photographs of the participants in the original Hapa Project and again asked them to respond to the prompt, What are you? The result is about 40 double portraits separated in time by fifteen years, accompanied by the subjects’ original written statements and their new ones.
I wanted to see the exhibit because I’m always interested in explorations of mixed race Asian (American) identity, but I was also particularly looking to see how Fulbeck’s subjects engaged with their identity and the label hapa fifteen years later. I was curious whether some of the participants, like me, felt more ueasy claiming the word hapa than they used to in light of a growing sensitivity to the appropriation of a Hawaiian term. On this front, I was rather disappointed by the double portraits. There was basically no engagement with this specific question. I still enjoyed the photographs and the statements, though.
Only after I’d looked at all the portraits did I realize there was a panel on the wall on “The Etymology of Hapa.” Here, I thought Fulbeck might have wrestled with the question of who gets to call themselves hapa. I was again somewhat disappointed. The text recognized that different people think hapa means different things and some people argue that there is a right way (and thus implicitly a wrong way) for the term to be deployed. This appeared to be an oblique acknowledgment of the controversy over mainland multiracial Asian Pacific Americans identifying as hapa. But the text read as defensive to me, emphasizing as it did how language is constantly evolving. Sure, that’s true, but I don’t think that’s a shield we can step behind to avoid having to really question our claiming of hapa.
In the next gallery, there were eight albums of additional portraits with written statements. I believe these represented work from Fulbeck’s ongoing Hapa Project (I actually tried participating at the Japanese American National Museum a while ago, but they didn’t need any more people). The walls were also covered with miniature photographs of exhibit visitors, with accompanying answers to the What are you? question on half sheets of paper. (This interactive component only happens on Saturdays.) I read a bunch of these, and finally I found one that expressed what was on my mind: “I used to ID as ‘hapa’ but don’t feel like it’s my word to claim anymore as a mainland mixed kid.” I was honestly surprised not to see more of this. That said, in my experience, it’s younger (say, under 30?) multiracial Asian Americans who are more likely to choose not to call themselves hapa anymore. In any case, thank you, anonymous museum goer!