Hapa vs. Hafu
By: Gen Parton-Shin
Hapa vs. Hafu
Did you know that in Japan, where I am from, we don’t call Hapas… Hapas? Having grown up in Japan, I wasn’t even aware of the term Hapa until I came to New York as an adult. In Japan, we say Hafu! This is the Japanese pronunciation of the English word ‘half,’ and is used to refer to people whose ethnicity is half Japanese and half fill-in-the-blank. The word Hafu is so universally used that most Japanese do not know of the word Hapa, and the widely accepted alternative for Hafu is “Double.”
“Double” was born when some parents of Hafu became concerned with the potentially derogatory interpretation of the word ‘half,’ implying that a Hafu is not whole, or is lacking in fullness. The word Double would complement that by adding a nuance of, well, doubleness: a positive association with multiculturalism, bilingualism, etc. Ironically, this phrase never really took off, and ‘Hafu’ is still the word used predominantly to describe Asian people of mixed heritage. I believe this is because, in reality, most people do not have a negative interpretation of the word Hafu.
In fact, Hafu are considered quite glamorous. Most Japanese envy and want to be Hafu. They attach status, good looks, bilingualism and multiculturalism to the word. As a Hafu, it is honestly quite the expectation to live up to. Naturally, if you are a Hafu who only speaks one language, or do not look like the Hafu models that are seen in advertisements, the expectation Japanese society puts on you can sometimes lead to inferiority complexes (which is a whole tangent I shall save for another post). That being said, the word Hafu generally has a positive status attached to it, and although a Hafu may have a hard time seamlessly blending into a homogeneous crowd of Japanese businessmen, it is not the worst thing in the world (as long as you are in Japan).
I now live in New York City, and things are slightly different from my Japanese upbringing. Upon arrival, I noticed immediately that I lost that “status” of being Hafu, and that no one could care less about my mixed heritage or language abilities, and in addition, all of a sudden I was considered Asian. It was an interesting (and daunting) experience of having to adjust my own identity to suit how the world viewed me. I was now playing the Asian part, speaking on behalf of Japan, while desperately trying to assimilate with Americans.
Hoping to find someone who had the same experience as myself, I had a conversation with a Hafu actor friend who grew up in Japan (half-American, half-Japanese) and now lives in New York, about the uphill battle that comes with being part (or full) Asian in the entertainment industry in the US, especially the negative stereotypes that Asian men face. In the most earnest of responses, he looked utterly clueless about what I was talking about, and told me he did not feel any disadvantage from being Hafu in the entertainment industry, and for that matter, not even in his dating life. This was so contrary to the predominant opinion I had heard being echoed amongst the Asian-American community of actors that I knew, that it took me by surprise.
So, how is it that he was maintaining such a positive self-image? First things first, I should point out that he is, objectively, quite attractive, which probably helps. Yet, that fact alone should not exclude him from being boxed into stereotypical roles by casting directors, or make him immune to the microaggressions a minority experiences when living in the U.S. What I really think happened is this: although both of us spent our formative years in Japan, and grew up with a positive self-image, we formed different friend groups after arriving in the U.S. I spent more time with the Asian-American community of actors, and therefore had heard more about their experiences growing up in the US, which reshaped my outlook in a manner that made me notice racism a lot more than he did.
Now, I could go on a rant here about self-serving bias and how self-image is what is responsible for much of the racial oppression one may feel, how racism is all in our heads, and it doesn’t actually affect us—if only this were the case! However, with regard to my friend, I think there is something very important to take away here. I hypothesize that perhaps he is aware of these stereotypes, but does not admit to it, or does not allow anyone to play into those insecurities, which in turn serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy of better performance and outlook in life. This, I suspect, may be the best way to live a happy life, because you are the sole decider of your self-worth. You are not giving other people the power to decide where you stand in society. It is a level of "not-giving-a-f***" I aspire to reach.
I recently came across some great advice on how to handle rejection in dating, which I believe applies to life in general. “Rejection, in its essence, is simply a rejection of the presentation of yourself that you are putting forward.” In other words, it is impossible to be rejected for who you truly are, especially when someone barely knows you. But what if you live your life in fear of rejection, consumed with your self-image, or believe you are not worthy of love? There is no easier way to set yourself up for failure, which ironically becomes more likely when you have such a mindset. This experience led me to conclude the following:
Being Hafu, like all of life, means facing some rejection and stereotyping. However, both can be handled and mitigated by remembering that who one truly is cannot be decided nor rejected by another human, because no human can truly know another human. To take this a step further, one can remind oneself that racism stems from the fear of the unknown, and deep down, those who are racist are just as afraid as you are.
By presenting the version of who you are that is not dictated by past experiences or the stereotypes society throws at you, I believe that Hapa (Hafu) are in a unique position to reinvent and present a version of themselves that could turn fear of the unknown into a curiosity of the unknown. Hapa and Hafu of all creeds, ethnicities and backgrounds should rejoice who they are and at what makes them special, since they are literally made from two worlds, and are in a unique position to bridge the two.
Gen was born in London, raised in England, Japan, and Korea. Gen made his debut in the Japanese musical theatre scene before coming to the US, starring in the Official Japanese cast of RENT (Angel), Next to Normal (Gabe), Rocky Horror Show (Rocky), Dracula (Jonathan), Bare (Jason) and Mitsuko. US credits include Miss Saigon (Thuy), Monte Cristo (Benedetto), 167 Tongues (NYIT nomination) and The History Boys (Akthar), as well as numerous readings and workshops including Other World and Kpop. Gen is also the host of cable show TV Japan Club and NYC comedy show Batsu!. Upcoming releases include TV mini series Hodo Buzz. @genpartonshin