Culture, Gender & Identity, Life

“Are you sure you’re not Hawaiian?” they say

I didn’t grow up as a minority, so I didn’t know how to act like one.

I am half-Chinese and half-Caucasian. I am also angry.

But I’ll begin at a time when I wasn’t angry — when I still lived in Hawaii, my birthplace and home for 18 years. Back when I was hapa, or mixed or local, before I became a “hula girl” or “exotic.”

If you grew up on the mainland, you might not see America in my class photos. Lots of spiky black hair, lots of keiki muumuu, lots of radiant smiles — the kind that take over your whole face till your eyes get scrunchy. And, oh yes, lots of eyes that were scrunchy to begin with, set into faces that look like mine.

I’ll get this out of the way first: Asians are the largest ethnic group in Hawaii. Ethnic Hawaiians, actual Hawaiians, are a single digit percentage of the people who live there. Hapa, Hawaiian for “half,” is our term for mixed people like myself who make up the second largest ethnic group. White people are a minority on the islands.

I couldn’t tell you any of this when I moved from Hawaii to Massachusetts 20 years ago. I didn’t have the awareness to answer all these sudden questions about my home and heritage. You might as well have asked a fish why it was wet.

At first, I found the inquires and assumptions to be charmingly naïve. When a girl from Oklahoma asked me who the president of Hawaii was, I smirked inwardly and thought, “How did you get into college?” Never mind that I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Oklahoma except that it looked like a pan.

Then, I was secretly delighted when New Englanders would tell me I looked “exotic” or “Hawaiian.” Hawaiians are awarded a special societal cachet in Hawaii because their ancestors were the creators of the culture we all swam in. You never presumed to know more than a Hawaiian person about their history or traditions, like hula and heiau spaces.

On some level, I think we non-Hawaiians were aware that we were descended from interlopers, but it was hard to care when you got to partake of a culture so beautiful and unique.

So if mainlanders wanted to think I was Hawaiian, I let them. It felt great to have an automatic niche — especially one that was viewed as friendly and desirable. I delighted in butting into conversations with, “Well, actually in Hawaii…”

I set myself up as the spokesperson for a million people. But then I had no idea what to say.

“Well, actually in Hawaii, we eat rice with almost everything.”

“Rice is Hawaiian?”

“Uh…” I knew it wasn’t, but I couldn’t explain why it is a local staple.

“Well, actually in Hawaii, everyone takes their shoes off before entering a home.”

“Why is that?”

“Uh…hmm.” I knew the Hawaiian people certainly didn’t originate this custom. In fact, the term “luau feet” was a term of pride for someone who had such sturdy weather-beaten feet they could walk barefoot on the black lava rocks that ringed our beaches.

It turns out that taking one’s shoes off indoors is a Japanese custom. Many Japanese cultural practices are a good fit for Hawaii. A strong sense of collective responsibility is needed for a large population to co-exist in close quarters on an island.

I can tell you this now because I started studying and reading up on my home state, but back then these practices were just cultural norms that I never thought about seriously. I didn’t grow up as a minority, so I didn’t know how to act like one.

The sharp interest from mainlanders in my background got old quickly. My niche soon became a closed box. By sophomore year, I started telling people I was from New Jersey.

Although I was bored sick of explaining my race and upbringing, people still demanded an explanation. My mixed race face gave me away. Where are you from? But where are your parents from? What kind of Caucasian are you?

The last question stumped me all the time. As a kid I would proudly recite, “I am Oriental on my mother’s side and haole on my dad’s side!” Haole is the catch-all term for white people in Hawaii. Kind of like how haoles use “Asian” as a catch-all term for a few billion people.

When I wanted to feel exotic as a kid, I would inject Europe into my haole: “I’m Scottish, French and Welsh on my dad’s side!” But really, haole is haole, and saying I was haole should have been enough.

I’ll never forget the first time a haole presumed to know me better then I knew myself. I was in my freshman dorm room dutifully reciting my ethnicity yet again, “I’m Oriental on my mom –”

“Oriental is not a way to describe people,” a friend interrupted. “It’s only for objects, like rugs.”

What the fuck? I had been describing myself this way my whole life.

“Haole is a derogatory term, you know,” another mainlander told me.

So, now I was half-wrong and half-slur?

All of this was irritating, but I was not yet angry. I didn’t get angry until I started taking college classes that specifically addressed race and culture. I learned about cultural appropriation and intersectionality. I learned about micro-aggressions and whitewashing and tokenism. I learned ways to turn my ambiguity into fury.

Now a haole saying, “I thought you looked Hawaiian,” would cause me to snap back, “You don’t know what Hawaiians look like. You are trying to socially locate me because I look ethnically ambiguous.”

“But you must be Hawaiian — you grew up in Hawaii…” a haole would insist. And I would snarl, “So growing up in America means you are Native American, huh?”

When haoles actually try to argue with me about my race, my rage is incandescent.

“Oh, you don’t look Chinese. Are you sure you aren’t Hawaiian?”

Am I sure I’m Chinese and not Hawaiian? Am I fucking sure?

You asked me a question and I gave you a truthful answer. Let it bang around in your Wonderbread brain for a hot second so that what comes out of your mouth next isn’t complete fucking garbage.

I hate that the race conversation comes up whenever I meet someone new. I hate that people think they are being subtle with these questions. I hate that when I ask, “Why do you want to know this about me?”, haoles get weird and defensive like I’m the one asking intrusive questions.

I really hate that these questions come from people I’d like to be friends with, more often than not. I hate that I’m forced to gamely chuckle along under duress or I won’t make any new friends.

After school, I became militantly Hawaiian up here in the mainland — I felt like it was my job to aggressively debunk every stereotype and myth. While I was careful to no longer misrepresent myself as Hawaiian after learning about cultural appropriation, I relished the opportunities to pick fights with haoles, thinking I could detonate their pre-conceived notions about my home.

But the truth behind all my bravado is that I was way more comfortable generalizing the people of Hawaii than coming to grips with my mixed heritage.

Yeah, I was Chinese, but I didn’t identify with any of the mainland Chinese, most of whom were first- or second-generation. The fact that my grandparents didn’t speak Chinese was met with incredulity. I thought I liked Chinese food — I worked at a dim sum shop for five years making manapuas — but I didn’t recognize any of the dishes up here.

I definitely didn’t identify with the haoles up here, and I still think it’s bizarre and unseemly how obsessed with genealogy they all are.

“When did your father’s family come to America? Where were they from originally? Where did your last name come from?”

“I don’t know.” And I don’t fucking care.

Growing up, the one and only time I copped to be something I wasn’t was on my college applications. I checked off the Pacific Islander box because I heard colleges were already swamped with Asians for their quotas. Let these mainlanders try to prove I wasn’t a Pacific Islander, since I was technically born on a pacific island. Ha ha! I could rig the system.

What box was I supposed to check anyway? White or Asian — it’s still only half the truth. I knew that since I didn’t see hapas in magazines, on TV, or in movies that we flew under the radar. I wanted to make that exceptionalism work for me, but instead, I found out that the system was rigged against me.

I had to do many years of self-exploration and research to find my cultural identity, my ethnic identity and how the two bucked and twisted together. Growing up I often felt like an outsider because I was bookish and didn’t like the beach. I liked computers and tabloids and sewing. I’ve never been on a surfboard or learned to hula. I don’t speak pidgin, the local dialect. I’ve only ever dated haole guys.

But back home, I was still kama’aina — our term for those born and raised in Hawaii — even if I didn’t always fit in. I would come home on vacations and lie on the beach in the hope that I could recharge the part of me that was sapped by haoles. That didn’t work. I still didn’t like the beach.

I’m obsessed with race now. It started as a defense mechanism so I could explain myself better to haoles. But now I explore racial identity and cultural heritage because I’m mining for my own authentic self.

I’ve always understood that Hawaii is a melting pot even if I didn’t — and still don’t — understand where that term came from. Are we fondue? All those melty cheeses look awfully white to me.

The local term is chop suey, meaning a bunch of ingredients thrown together that could be as varied as the people who make it. That feels right.

I sifted through my own chop suey and only came up with more questions.

When Hawaii police describe wanted criminals, they use the terms “Asian” or “White” or “Local.” But weren’t we all locals?

Race-based jokes are popular and no big deal in Hawaii most of the time. One I especially found funny was a joke about how Asians could stare through the slats of Venetian blinds. Actually, I still think that’s funny. Am I a racist, too?

We used to sing, “Bombs, bombs, bombs, bombs from Japan! They bombed Pearl Harbor, yeah, they bombed Pearl Harbor!” in music class to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann. Even the Japanese kids. What the fuck?

I’ve been told that Asians are the model minority. That’s not true, we’re too short to be models.

That was a joke. Laugh with me — it’s ok.

Don’t even get me started on the kerfuffle around Obama’s birth certificate. You know, that time when the whole rest of the country was treating us like some foreign backwater who scratched out government records on banana leaves? Actually, please do get me started. I could talk about it for hours and then shout about it for quite a bit longer than that.

We gave you a president, you gave us a migraine.

I’ve gotten worn down over the years. Not because I’m less angry, but because I’m tired.

When a car full of Asian people cut my friend off in Watertown, she spat, “Fucking gooks!” then looked at me in the backseat in horror. “Don’t worry, I’m not a gook,” I sighed.

“I heard Asian women have sideways vaginas.”

“Well, I can’t speak for them because I’m only half-Asian. My vagina is a solid diagonal.”

My spiel has gotten longer to preempt the questions I know are coming. “I’m half-Chinese and half-white. My Chinese side has been assimilated for generations so I don’t speak Chinese. I don’t know what the white part is. I grew up in Hawaii, but I’m not Hawaiian. I left ‘paradise’ to come up here for school. I stayed up here because I fell in love. I agree that the weather here sucks.”

That’s what I say when I’m feeling generous. Otherwise, you get, “I’m from New Jersey.”

Seven years into my stint in the Great White North, I called up my best friend from home, a hapa like me. “You have to move here,” I begged. “I can’t stand being the only one up here!” I didn’t have to explain to her what “the only one” was.

She and her sister live very close to me now. Their parents come up to visit during the holidays. When we are all in a room together, it’s blissful. It feels great to be the majority.

We can make kalua pig and mochi soup, and lament how impossible it is to find limu for poke up here. We can wax rhapsodic about how much we miss lau lau and napples and huli-huli chicken, without having explain what they are. We can cheerfully argue who had the best lilikoi chiffon pie (Dee Lite!) and malasadas (Champion!) back home and then ask someone to pass the shou without clarifying that we mean soy sauce.

We can indulge in a bit of reverse racism, too — if that’s even a thing when you are a minority even among other minorities? Mainland haoles are so rude all the time. I know, they are loud and they talk too much. They can’t tell Asians apart! What’s a registry? Don’t they know we give cash at weddings? Why are all the town names pronounced nothing like how they are spelled? They call this strip of cold gray water and stones a beach?

There are haoles in Hawaii too, but they are our haoles. They are our moms and boyfriends and science teachers and bosses and friends and sometimes they have a long-ass Hawaiian middle name for no reason, but that’s okay. They know their place.

I’m angry that with each passing generation there are less actual Hawaiians in Hawaii, even as we eat their food, sing their songs and pepper our speech with their language. I’m angry that the Hawaiian people are dying off — from poverty, from heart disease, from silence. I’m angry that we keep the Hawaiian culture vibrantly alive, while we treat Hawaiians as cultural artifacts instead of people.

I’m angry with myself that I pretended to be Hawaiian. I’m angry at myself for making shit up when I didn’t have the answers. I’m angry at myself for checking off the Pacific Islander box, possibly depriving a bright Samoan kid a chance at an elitist and overpriced education at Boston University.

Dog the Bounty Hunter is bullshit. Lilo and Stitch is bullshit. That Aloha movie was complete fucking bullshit, and Cameron Crowe, your hula hood pass has been revoked.

It’s bullshit that haloes have “discovered” sushi and ramen and dim sum. It’s bullshit that since they did, it’s now twice as expensive and half as good.

It’s bullshit when haoles say, “I want to visit Hawaii, but like the real Hawaii, you know?” Happy to help! Your first stop should be Waianae, and when you get your face busted for being a know-it-all haole, that should be plenty real.

I’m angry when you say “all Asians look alike” and overlook that fact that all white guys are either named Josh, Tom, Peter, Brian, Jack, Tim, Mike, Joe, John, Matt, Robert, David or Ben.

I’m angry that you expect me to care about how you are 1/16th Cherokee.

I’m angry that I have to ask myself, “Is he only dating me because he has Yellow Fever?” I’m angry that you tell me I look “exotic” or that “mixed-race kids are so beautiful,” because while you think that’s a compliment what you’re really saying is, “I’ve noticed you aren’t the norm. You are Other.”

I’m angry that I can’t make Asian jokes anymore up here because I worry they feed stereotypes. I’m angry when haoles fondle my hair without asking because “it’s so pretty.” My hair is great, it’s true, but I must have missed the sign advertising my personal space as a hapa petting zoo. I wish I had a hat that says “kapu” — don’t touch!

I’m angry that living among haoles destroyed and scattered my constructions of self, like a kid kicking over sandcastles. I’m angry that Asian girls in my high school got eye-surgery to make their monolids into bigger haole eyes. I’m angry that I have to parse out pieces of myself for your consumption.

I’m angry because even after all this self-examination, all the scholarship I’ve read and all the soul searching I’ve done, I still don’t know my place. I’m angry that I’m 39 years old and still having the same ignorant conversations with haoles. I’m angry that the only way you will understand what I am is when I explain what I’m not.

I am not Hawaiian.