Hapa-Palooza 2015 | Talking Hapa With Canadian Broadcaster Margaret Gallager

Posted by Marissa Willcox & filed under Identity.

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Lawrence HillHapa-palooza is here! Celebrating what Vancouver does best: mixed-heritage and blended cultural identities. Drawing from the Hawaiian origin of the word “hapa” (used by many people in Canada and U.S. who identify as being of mixed-heritage) Vancouver is a perfect venue this year’s diverse array of speakers, workshops and family events.

This festival spans over four days and features many mixed-heritage voices, including Vancouver’s much-loved broadcaster Margaret Gallager. An award winning CBC radio host, she joins Lawrence Hill on September 17th for a much-anticipated evening of stimulating conversation at the GoldCorp Centre for the Arts.. Marissa Willcox had a chance to ask her a few questions about her cultural identity and work in Canada’s public broadcaster.

Marissa Willcox: As a broadcaster and community member of mixed-heritage, to what extent is Vancouver’s ethnic and cultural diversity an aspect of the stories you cover?  

Margaret Gallager: As someone who works for the public broadcaster, it’s part of my job (and privilege) to reflect Canadian society through the stories I bring to air. And diversity is a huge part of who we are, especially in Vancouver. So, if you’re doing your job right, some of those stories are naturally going to come from diverse communities.

I’d say that cultural diversity is better reflected in the media these days than it was when I was growing up, whether that is in the stories that are told, or the people who are presenting them. And I think that change came about in part through a conscious effort that has taken years.

Does the media still have work to do in terms of reflecting diversity? Sure, but I think it happens more effortlessly now.

As for how being “mixed” plays a role, I think we’re all drawn to people who we feel have something in common with, whether that be that you’re both Chinese, or that you’re both hockey fans, or whatever. Having a mixed background often means you’re part of multiple communities, and you may be drawn to or have access to stories within those communities that you wouldn’t otherwise. Your perspective on a story that involves, say, racial discrimination, is going to be different if that’s something your family has experienced, even if you happen to look “white.” And looking ethnically ambiguous can mean you seem familiar to a lot of people, which can subconsciously make them more comfortable with you and willing to share their stories.

The bottom line is I look for good stories that make us think about our world, and I want those stories to reflect the diverse society we live in.

MW: Having been involved in Hapa-palooza in the past, have you always had a strong sense of cultural identity? What helped you to learn how to celebrate your individual heritage?

MG: When I was growing up, I definitely felt like I didn’t fit in.

My mom is Chinese-Indonesian, and my dad is Irish-American, and at the time I didn’t know any other kids who looked like my brothers and I, or shared our experiences. Because being mixed isn’t just about what you look like, it’s also about existing in a world where you’re part of different cultures. Where one grandparent cooks you nasi goreng (fried rice) and lectures you about Confucius, and another makes you cambric tea and tells you stories about growing up Irish-Catholic in Boston.

Sometimes you can feel betwixt and between. We lived in a largely Mennonite farming community for a while, and even though I had friends, my family seemed so different everyone else. I just wanted to have straight blond hair and eat “normal” food like my friends! Then we’d go to Chinatown and I couldn’t relate to that world either. But my parents taught me to be proud of my roots, by telling us stories about our families and also instilling a sense of social justice in us. We definitely had to deal with some racism, and my dad in particular was quick to stand up against any sort of discrimination he saw towards us … or anyone else. They worked hard to celebrate diversity everywhere–right down to the dolls I had!

What changed for me?

Well, as you get older, I think you get more comfortable in your own skin, regardless of your ethnicity. And, the world has changed since then. There are so many ‘hapa’ people, especially in Vancouver! Not that long ago, you’d spot another person who seemed like she or he was mixed and you’d subconsciously give each other the “hapa nod,” or you’d immediately strike up a conversation because you’d found each other. Now, being mixed is not that big a deal.

It’s such a different world for my daughter and her peers. A few months ago, this concept struck me when I was at movie night at her school. They were showing Big Hero 6, which revolves two brothers who happen to be half-Japanese. While their “hapa-ness” is part of the movie, it’s not the main part. It just “is.” And I’m looking around the gym and see tons of hapa kids–and kids of MANY different backgrounds–running around just having fun together, and thinking that this is so far from my childhood experience.

I could have never imagined this growing up. And to my daughter (whose dad is also hapa, though an entirely different mix than me) it’s just her world.

MW: You are receiving the Community Builder award at Hip Hapa Hooray this year. How has this contributed to your sense of community building?

MG: It’s such a huge honor! I was so excited when I heard about Hapa-palooza starting up a few years ago. It was thrilling to have this crazy mixed up community coming together because, as I mentioned, growing up hapa in the 70s and 80s could be a bit isolating. I love the multi-generational aspect of the festival, and the sheer diversity of the people involved. There are so many threads between all of us. For example, by sheer coincidence, (organizer) Anna Ling Kaye and I sent our kids to the same preschool. It’s an honor to be recognized by this community, and for doing something that’s really important to me.

I think a healthy sense of community contributes to a healthy society. It connects us, gives us a sense of social responsibility, and helps us support each other. Plus it can be fun.

We all belong to multiple communities, whether you’re hapa or not. Because community isn’t just about ethnicity and race, it’s about your neighborhood. Which bands you like; your faith, community, your sports team, the school you go to, where you work, which coffee shop you frequent … the list goes on.

But being hapa does mean you’re part of at least one additional community, and you’ve experienced the connection between seemingly disparate worlds in a tangible way … it’s in your blood! I mean mixed marriages were still illegal in parts of the U.S. when my parents got married there. Your very existence shows that walls between communities can come down. So hapa folks, be bridge builders! For me, it’s part of the responsibility, and part of the joy of it.



The Book of Negroes – An Evening with Lawrence Hill begins at 7 pm on Thursday, September 17th, at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Tickets available online.

Hapa-palooza Festival is organized by the Hybrid Ancestry Public Arts Society (HAPAS), a non-profit society dedicated to bringing public programming that explores and celebrates mixed heritage.

Festival Website: hapapalooza.com | Facebook: facebook.com/hapapalooza

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