Tag Archive | Asian American

hapa.me

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!

Chinese New Year and More Zines

As I’d hoped, I went to the AAPI Dialogues zine-making workshop in Powell Library with Isabelle last week. The workshop was part of the Common Book events related to Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, which started as zines. Someone explained how to make a zine out of a single sheet of paper (the same technique we’d learned at the Long Beach Zine Fest), and then the rest of the workshop was completely unstructured. There were tables set up with stacks of colored paper, pens, crayons, glitter, and piles of magazines for cutting up. There were a lot of issues of KoreAm, and I also found an issue of the bilingual WAPOW/華報, an LA Chinatown magazine. I made a larger format zine about some of my friendships. It’s all text, no illustrations, except for borders in colored Sharpie. Toward the end of the workshop somebody saw how much I’d written and remarked that I’d produced a lot of “content.”

The next day, I made it to the AAPI Dialogues book club for Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. It was the second week, but they alternate between Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I can only go on Wednesdays. It’s a very small group, but I enjoyed it a lot; it was nice to get out of my department and spend some time with some folks in Asian American Studies. We actually only talked about the book about half the time. The rest of the conversation was wide-ranging. There were other writers, so we talked about our stories, and opportunities for writers of color, and speculative fiction. I’m looking forward to going back!

At the zine-making workshop, I’d folded a single-sheet zine but hadn’t started making a zine out of it because I didn’t have a fully formed idea. I’d had the seed of an idea about preparing for Chinese New Year with new relatives I didn’t know very well, but it wasn’t until later in the week that circumstances gave rise to new material for such a zine. On Thursday evening, I wrote and illustrated most of what would become Chinese New Year with the Cousins-in-law, Vol. 1. I left the last page blank because I didn’t yet know what was going to happen!

Last year, I wrote about going to my mother’s cousin’s wedding in Maui. My cousin’s wife is from Los Angeles, and this year I was invited to join her family for Chinese New Year. My cousin and his wife and my great-aunt from Minnesota, who was visiting them, came down from San Francisco. I got picked up on Friday afternoon and stayed with the cousins-in-law for about 24 hours. On Friday evening, fourteen of us had dinner at a restaurant. We had lobster, crab and fish maw soup, and white cut chicken, among other dishes (I only figured out what some of the food was (called) afterwards). I stayed overnight, and the following morning, my great-aunt, my cousin, his wife, her aunt, and her aunt’s son went to Din Tai Fung at a mall that was well-decorated for the Lunar New Year. We had xiaolongbao and other dumplings and noodles and black sesame buns for dessert. Later that day, my cousin took me back to the Westside, and in the evening, my friend Meng hosted the Chinese and Chinese-affiliated folks from the department for hotpot. So I think I can say I thoroughly celebrated Chinese New Year.

Calligraphy by Andy, my former undergraduate student and current fellow grad student

And here is Chinese New Year with the Cousins-in-law, Vol. 1! Stay tuned for Vol. 2!

Thi Bui at UCLA

A few weeks ago, a cart of free books appeared in the entryway of Campbell Hall, the building that houses the Linguistics Department. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but this time the books were all the same, and the cart was stuffed with them. After making certain the books were really free for the taking, by anyone, I slid one out to take a look. The book was Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do, and when I leafed through it, I realized I’d read an excerpt of it online a while ago. The books were a special edition with a UCLA Common Book seal on the cover and discussion questions inside. I took the copy I’d picked out up to the phonetics lab and told two friends about it. When they saw the book was graphic (a comic book, if you will), they both immediately went downstairs to snag copies for themselves. The book cart was replenished in the days that followed, and I think the campus is actually swimming in copies of The Best We Could Do.

I read the book soon after, over the course of two days. The Best We Could Do is the story of Thi Bui’s family. It opens with her giving birth to her son in a hospital in New York with her husband and her mother. Then it goes back to tell of her mother’s experiences of giving birth, to six children, four of whom survived. The narrative skips around in time, but it traces her mother and father’s very different childhoods and youths against the backdrop of the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of the Vietnam War. It also follows what became of her parents’ parents and grandparents, especially on her father’s side. Thi, her two older sisters, and her parents left Vietnam on a boat, spent time in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and then immigrated to the United States. Thi depicts many different threads of family history, complicated relationships and choices, willingness and reluctance to speak, closeness and distance, and her own inherited fears and instincts and her desire to know her parents better.

I enjoyed Thi Bui’s book, and it also made me envious. She writes about starting the work for this book as a graduate student, trying to interview her parents. It didn’t work that well; they didn’t seem to want to answer her questions. She also writes about how her mother was more willing to tell her (Thi’s) husband things about her past, in English, than she was willing to tell Thi things directly. These difficulties were on the page, but at the end of the day, Thi Bui had produced this family memoir that contained the histories of her parents and some of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She found out what there was to find out. And I envied her because I don’t know much about my family members’ history before they arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong, and before they arrived in Hong Kong from China, and I’m not sure it would be easy for me to find out more. Generationally speaking, I correspond roughly to Thi’s mixed race son while my mother corresponds to Thi.

Last week, Thi Bui was on campus for an author event, part of the UCLA Common Book/First Year Experience programming. I went with Meng and ZL, two friends from the department, both of whom had also gotten the book. The audience appeared to be heavily Asian-American, kind of like at the panel with MILCK, Yumi Sakugawa, and Krista Suh last year. The first part of the evening was a conversation between T.K. Le, from Asian American Studies (down the hall from Linguistics!), and Thi Bui. T.K. had prepared a number of questions, and the discussion was fairly wide-ranging. Thi said something that made me feel less disappointed that I hadn’t learned everything about my family history: her parents were talkers, that is, willing to talk about the past, and the more she spoke with other Vietnamese-Americans the mroe she realized this wasn’t typical. So, maybe not everybody can write a family memoir if only they try hard enough! Thi also said that before The Best We Could Do was a book she took the first chapters to zinefests as zines!

After the conversation, an audience Q & A began. The very first question came from the person sitting right behind me, and when she introduced herself, my heart leaped. It was the film student I’d met at Yumi Sakugawa’s meditation workshop last June, the one who had been working on a documentary on Yumi! After the Q & A (lots of questions from Vietnamese-American students), I turned around and reintroduced myself to the film student. My friends decided not to stick around for the book signing, but the film student and I stayed, and somehow we ended up practically at the tail end of a very long line. During the hour and a half we waited to meet Thi Bui, we more or less told each other our life stories. And she sent me her documentary!

I’m glad I got to meet Thi Bui and get my book signed, but the most delightful part of the evening was the serendipity of meeting the film student again. Also, in the coming weeks, the campus collective AAPI Dialogues is hosting a zine-making workshop and a lunchtime book club on The Best We Could Do. I’m hoping to make the workshop and at least some of the lunch discussions, so you might hear more about that.

My Hapa Story

Family Portrait

My family (Photo credit: Dorothy Kunzig)

This post is a submission to the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s #myhapastory project. You can submit your own story here

I was born in Washington, D.C. to two economists. My mother was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Minnesota. Her parents were from Guangdong Province. My father was born and raised in Minnesota. His ancestors were mostly from Germany and Sweden. For the first nine years of my life, I lived in Maryland, where my best friend was also hapa. We did French immersion and soccer and Suzuki camp together.

Then I moved to Minnesota, where all my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived. I had roots there. My maternal grandfather had owned a Chinese restaurant in downtown St. Paul. My paternal great-grandparents had had a farm in West St. Paul. I can still visit the spots where these places used to be.

I spent my teenage years (not so) secretly writing fantasy stories and playing cello in a lot of orchestras. I didn’t have any close Asian-American friends, but that didn’t matter to me. I did experience the occasional unwanted question (“Are you half?”) or incident that vaguely bothered me (like not getting invited to the Asian table at All-State Orchestra camp).

In high school, I started studying Mandarin in addition to French, despite the class being at the same time as orchestra. (I needed a Time-Turner, but instead I…had no lunch period.) My mother’s side of the family speaks Taishanese, not Mandarin, and I never learned it. But over the years, Mandarin has helped me understand more words in Taishanese.

I went to Swarthmore College, where I studied linguistics, French, and Chinese. I joined the Swarthmore Asian Organization and a group called Multi, and my senior year a new group called Swarthmore Hapa started to form. I wrote papers about the representation of Asian characters in U.S. children’s books and mixed race identity in Francophone literature. I also discovered and fell in love with contra dancing and shape note singing.

Now I live in Los Angeles, where I’m a Ph.D. student in linguistics by day (and sometimes night) and an author of children’s fantasy novels by night (and sometimes day). I used to call myself half-Chinese, but now I call myself multiracial, Chinese-American, hapa. One day, I hope to publish a book about a girl like me.

A Special Stamp Revisited

Today is the 365th day in the life of this blog!

You may recall the stamp a fellow linguistics graduate student made me when she was a prospie visiting UCLA. I brought it to my book signing at Children’s Book World last week, though I only stamped her book (and Andrew’s, because he requested it). She wasn’t entirely happy with the stamp because the phonetic transcription of “writer” is both a little odd for English and doesn’t reflect how I personally pronounce the word because I have Canadian raising (see the old post for relevant linguistic explanations). Well! She made me a new stamp, with a new transcription for “writer” that exactly matches how I say it! The old stamp is on the left and the new stamp on the right:

 Black StampRed Stamp

A few other newsy items:

  • I haven’t linked to any blog reviews of Sparkers before, but I really liked this one at Asian American Literature Fans (you have to scroll down past the reviews of all of Marie Lu’s books). I found the commentary quite interesting–it goes in a different direction than most of the reviews I’ve read–but I’ll admit I was also just tickled to see Sparkers called “part of the ever-growing archive of young adult fiction penned by American writers of Asian descent”.
  • Also this week in being Asian American, there’s a little piece about me on page 13 of the October issue of ChinaInsight, a monthly Minnesota newspaper about Minnesota-China relations (or more broadly, U.S.-China relations). It includes a photo from my Red Balloon launch party.