What Are You?

'We live in a really lazy society," says author and photographer Kip Fulbeck. "We want things to be cut and dried: 'This guy has a suit, so he must be a businessman' or 'This guy has tattoos, so he must be a biker.' Questionnaires in school [instructed me to] 'check one box only.' I'm Chinese, English, Irish, and Welsh. Essentially, I had to pick either my mother or my father, which is not fair for a five-year-old." On Tuesday, August 15, Fulbeck will sign and discuss his new book Part Asian, 100% Hapa at Book Works in Del Mar. "Hapa is a slang term, the literal Hawaiian word meaning 'half' or 'portion,'" says Fulbeck. On his website redsushi.com, Hapa is defined as a person "of mixed racial heritage, with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry."

Of 1100 portraits taken of Hapas of various ages and ethnicities, 114 were chosen to appear in the book. Each person was asked, "What are you?"

"One kid from an elementary school in Poway asked, 'What do I write?'" Fulbeck recalls. "I said, 'Whatever you want. Whatever you think you are. And don't worry, anything you write is right.' He was Filipino, Mexican, and Irish, and he wrote, 'I'm a very little boy in the fifth grade that has no friends.'

"One kid from Carlsbad had a hard look on his face. He was 14, but he looked 25. He wrote, 'I care about a girl, and I will never hit one.' You wonder what he's gone through in his life that would make him say something like that without any prompting." A girl whose ethnic background includes the Philippines, Yugoslavia, Norway, and Ireland wrote, "I'm a girl. I'm American. I'm seven. I'm Hannah," and drew a star. None of the children Fulbeck photographed under age 11 defined themselves by their ethnicity. "Kids almost never talk about race; they talk about things they like and don't like."

Fulbeck remembers a woman in Brentwood who had difficulty with the question. "This woman sat there with the blank sheet, and I urged her to start writing something, that it didn't matter what it was. Fifteen minutes later she still hadn't written anything, and I said, 'Look, just try to put something down.' Three hours later I was packing up, and I told her I had to leave. She still hadn't written anything. She said, 'I can't do this,' and she was teary, and she put the paper down and left."

Most Hapas, according to Fulbeck, wrestle with their identity, especially when "race is always talked about in terms of black and white." One man wrote to Fulbeck by e-mail: "I struggle between wanting to belong to an ethnic community and wanting to be 'the only one of my kind,' an exotic amongst my black and white friends. Now that Hapa identity and culture is on the rise, I no longer feel as special as I once did. Yet I now feel a new sense of belonging to something that, until recently, did not have a name."

"Some people are used to being the special one," says Fulbeck. "One woman from the Midwest said, 'You need to photograph me; you've never met anyone like me. I'm black and Korean.' She thought she was [one of a kind]. I said, 'I can't afford to come photograph you, and I have already photographed fifty people who are black-Korean mixes.' If you grow up your whole life thinking you're the only Hapa person around, and then you meet hundreds of others at once [at a photo shoot] -- some people get really happy and excited, and some are turned off."

The Hapa community has met with opposition. "One guy sent a pseudoscientific journal about why it's bad for the human species to mix races. If you go back far enough, we're all African." Once, at a truck stop in Los Angeles 15 years ago, waiters would not serve Fulbeck and his girlfriend at the time, a Caucasian. When Fulbeck was out of hearing range, racial slurs and comments were made to his girlfriend. "It's still one of the most difficult things for me to believe. I don't even look nonwhite in my eyes."

It wasn't until 1967, with the case of Loving v. Virginia, that antimiscegenation laws were overturned, and it became legal throughout the country for Asians and Caucasians to marry. "Theoretically, my birth in 1965 was somewhat illegal," says Fulbeck. "It was the 2000 census that first allowed people to check more than one box [for ethnicity]."

Like the majority of Hapas he has met, Fulbeck prefers the term to other existing labels. "I find the terms 'Eurasian' and 'Afro-Asian' to be offensive -- they're so clinical. Saying that Eurasians are a model minority, that they are healthier physically -- it's one step away from saying mix-breed dogs are smarter. 'Hapa' feels a little more down home, a little more family. I learned it here, as a kid growing up in California." -- Barbarella

Booksigning and Discussion: Part Asian, 100% Hapa Tuesday, August 15, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Book Works Flower Hill Promenade 2670 Via de la Valle, Suite A-230 Del Mar Cost: Free Info: 858-755-3735 or www.book-works.com

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