Being a hapa, I’ve always enjoyed playing that guessing game (you know the one): “Bet You Can’t Guess My Ethnicity.”
One by one, many people list off every Asian race under the sun, sometimes throwing in the wild cards of African, First Nations or even Icelandic for good measure. Most people ask, but some people assume, often by coming up to me and conversing with me in their native language. During one such encounter, a nice elderly man finally explained why I constantly get pegged for Korean. He said, “It’s because you have a happy face and smile a lot, like a Korean.” Who can get mad when someone puts it like that? Not me.
The curiosity has always been welcome, perhaps because I’ve never been a stranger to having a multi-layered sense of cultural identity. Born half-Japanese and half-Filipina, I moved with my mother to Canada at age 2 and was raised by a Slovakian stepfather in the tiny mining town of Port Hardy. I grew up around a surprisingly diverse group of friends whose parents were all attracted by what was once a booming industrial economy of mining, fishing and logging. Being a tomboy, much of my playground was the wilderness of First Nations reserve land where beavers, maple leaves and deer weren’t just images on currency.
Like many people, my sense of being different than others started to develop when I started elementary school, not through the typical schoolyard bully scenario but through the school system itself. In grade one, I remember being pulled aside with all the ethnic kids (Canadian-born and immigrant alike) and told that we were to take part in a special English class designed for kids from different countries. Had they taken the time to find out, they would have realized that the only words I knew in Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, were the kind that people shouldn’t say in polite company. Despite the fact that English was the only language I’d ever really known, I found myself excused each week from regular class to work with a special aide worker on English and other group learning activities. Though the intent was seemingly innocent, this attempt to further integrate me into Canadian culture ironically prompted me to become one of the most widely joked about Asian stereotypes in human history: spelling bee champion! Yes, it’s hard to admit, it’s true.
Growing up in a small town had its advantages, however, mainly because, like the theme song from the 80s TV series Cheers, “everybody knows your name.” Because there were so few of us, it was difficult to get pooled into a generalized “Asian” group. Instead, I found that I stood out for my individual unique attributes and history.
The thing about being hapa, however, is that your whole life becomes an exercise in negotiating this fine balance between your different cultural identities. Oftentimes I’ve found that it is your commonalities, rather than your differences, that become invisible in the grand scheme of things, particularly amongst people of your own race. Having sought out my own roots in Japan, there’s nothing that compares to feeling like a complete stranger when you’re with people of your own ethnicity. Or when the person who’s asking, “No, where are you really from?” is a member of your same community. The opposite reaction, however, can be instantaneous: sometimes, it’s a flicker of recognition in someone’s eye when you shift from being a foreigner to someone who shares a common ethnic identity. This sense of connection–of being grounded in your origins and sharing that with others–is a powerful experience unlimited by borders or nationality.
For the same reason that Canadians put a flag on their backpacks when travelling abroad, we all look for signs that identify others who share the same cultural identity. We all want to feel we belong to something as a whole, whether it’s an interest, ethnic background or professional community. Hockey fans wear team jerseys so they can cheer when they meet each other on the street; gang members get tattoos to be initiated; engineers wear iron rings; Sikhs proudly wear turbans as a symbol of their religious fidelity. Though not always visible, our connections and bonds to a broader community and cultural heritage have always been the building blocks upon which we create our sense of identity.
The more time I’ve spent learning about my culture, in all its forms, the more I see crossroads and similarities to other people and their cultural experiences. I can laugh about suffering through the dynamics of a big family with my Spanish and Turkish friends; I can appreciate the similarities of Filipino food to Malaysian and Chinese; I can understand the words being yelled in my favourite izakaya restaurant; I can tell you about much-loved Slovakian bedtime stories or where to find the smoothest beer. At the root of it all, I’ve come to understand that our sense of cultural identity is not static or innate. It is personal, contextual and realized, a multi-layered tapestry that we redefine and evolve through experience and relationships. When people ask me where I’m really from, I never hesitate in giving them the full story. After all, the answer is something I’ve spent my whole life cultivating and knowing.