This piece was originally published in my weekly newsletter on mixed race, Mixed Feelings.
In high school I was president of the Asia Club for two years. The club had members from various Asian backgrounds such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian. We were the crown jewel of every international/cultural event or competition at our public high school in suburban North Carolina. We would really bring it—from colorful dance performances to amazingly delicious, aromatic foods. Everyone knew the Asia Club was a force to be reckoned with, and I was damn proud of that little club for those two years.
Throughout childhood I’ve definitively identified myself as “Asian.” I prided myself in it. “Alisha, you’re so Asian right now,” my non-Asian friends would tease if I ate my lunch using chopsticks. I now understand that these comments were maybe borderline offensive, but at the time I loved it. I was Asian and it was cool and it was different (at least, in my school of mostly white or black students). So it made sense that I was president of the Asia Club. I was really proud of being Asian! Whatever that meant!
My Asian identity and pride radically shifted in college. I’m half Korean. My other half is Dominican and Spanish. When you’re only half of something, things become problematic. While I was identified as just “Asian” in high school, things became much more nuanced in college. In college, I learned the hard way that I had to choose a side. Should I join the Korean club? Should I finally explore my Hispanic/Latino side and join one of the Hispanic or Latino clubs? I eventually decided on joining both clubs, which seemed like a great idea at the time.
I remember trying desperately to fit in with the Korean Students Association. I saw girls and guys speaking to each other in Korean, listening to k-pop, and going out for bubble tea. So cool! My tribe. I’d speak to some of them in Korean to signal my belonging but found that it mostly freaked people out. “Wow I had no idea you could speak Korean!” they’d say to me, fascinated. “I thought you were Filipino or Hawaiian or something.” But this was my first language, I would think, embarrassed and ready to walk away. The same thing happened with the Hispanic or Latino clubs except worse: I didn’t speak the language nor was I exposed to any of the cultural artifacts of being “hispanic” such as appreciating the food or music, or (more embarrassingly) not knowing the basic political and/or cultural history of any those countries. Defeated, I sulked away from that club as well after one or two meetings.
There was one other club though, that I found that helped me find an Asian identity I was finally comfortable with: HAPA, the Half-Asian People’s Association. Joining this particular group of people helped me finally understand where I belonged on the spectrum of Asian/not-Asian. After failing to fit into either side, I found something much better. When I found out about this club, it was like I stumbled upon a magical unicorn I didn’t know existed.
Later I would learn that the word “hapa” is short for hapalua, the Hawaiian word that means “half.” Originally, it was a derogatory term (hapa haole) used toward mixed-race children of plantation guest workers from the Philippines, Korea, China and Japan, and the women they married in Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century. Our club, HAPA, took this negative phrase and reclaimed it, embracing it as our name and identity, as do many other hapas today.
And so my Asian identity began to shift and calibrate itself further. Within HAPA, I felt like I was home for the first time. These people looked like me, kinda. And somehow, I felt like I had found my long lost brothers and sisters. I felt as if I finally belonged. The club didn’t care what type of half-Asian you were: half-Korean, half-Indian, half-Chinese, half-Singaporean, whatever. We all bonded with one another through sharing the same challenges of coming to terms with a mixed racial identity. We didn’t fit into any one racial category so we came up with our own, and that was beautiful. We understood what it meant when a stranger asks, “So…what are you anyway?” (We even planned a conference around this very question.) We understood that it was okay to feel fluidity in your racial identity — you could feel more Asian during your childhood, but feel more distanced from it in adulthood.
Today I’m still in the process of reevaluating my relationship to one of my races over another. More recently, for example, I’ve become more distanced from my Korean identity for various reasons. My racial identity will probably be in constant flux, and I accept that. For now though, I’m proud to be a hapa.
Alisha Ramos is a Designer at Nava, a public benefit corporation working to create software that radically improves how our government serves people. Prior to Nava, Alisha led revenue platforms and products at Vox Media as a Product Design Director. As a speaker, she has shared her passion for diversity in technology and product design at industry events such as CSSConf and AIGA DC Design Week. She writes regularly and publishes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity and politics called Mixed Feelings. She has been recognized as one of DC’s Most Powerful Woman Programmers by DCFemTech, and has been attributed as a thought leader in media technology by Nieman Journalism Lab. She is a graduate of Harvard University.