PEN15 Triggers Your Hapa Insecuritites
By Sam Tanabe
*Contains SPOILERS for PEN15: Season 1, Episode 6*
If you haven’t watched the new Hulu series PEN15, here’s what’s up. Show creators/producers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as the main characters, two 13-year-old BFF outcasts who remind us how horrifying middle school can be. Set in the year 2000, the girls are decked out in Limited Too and surrounded by classmates played by actual 13-year-olds. I started watching PEN15 for the comedy gold, but soon found myself relating to the struggles and ideologies of these faux 13-year-olds. The best part is that Maya Erskine is Hapa, and so is her character in the show.
As I cried through my laughter caused by the unfortunate events that fall upon these troubled teens, I arrived at Episode 6, titled “Posh.” I was tricked into thinking this episode was about the sophistication and class of Victoria Beckham, but was instead witness to Anna and Maya tragically discovering the realities of racism and prejudice. As the episode continued, I couldn’t help but think about the overt and subtle racism I experienced in my own adolescence. What microaggressions did I overlook in middle school, and how would I have handled them? As a millennial hafu (half-Japanese) boy watching a millennial hafu girl at the mercy of her uninformed classmates, I felt moved to reflect on how varied and potentially difficult the mixed experience can be.
Everything is set into motion as the girls prepare to work on a group project at Maya’s house. Before her classmates come over, Maya goes around the house covering up the Japanese features of her home, including her dead grandpa’s shrine. (Mega disrespect to Ojii-chan!) The girls are filming a Spice Girls-themed video on osteoporosis, and Maya calls dibs to be Posh Spice. One of her bitchy little classmates retorts that Maya has to play Scary Spice because she is the tannest. (Damn.) The juvenile racism escalates as the girls force Scary Spice Maya to act as a Mexican Gardener named Guido and “serve” everyone their glasses of milk, to prevent osteoporosis of course! (WTF?!) Anna is clearly uncomfortable but afraid to speak out against the other girls. Maya is upset but doesn’t fully understand the racism at play. Later at dinner, Maya’s older brother calls her out for her racist gardener act. He also tells their mom about Ojii-chan’s shrine. Maya’s mom asks her why she is so ashamed of being Japanese and Maya responds, “I’m, like, barely Japanese!” (Way to bring honor to us all, Maya…)
Anna is racked with guilt for idly standing by and decides to make things right with Maya by staging a public demonstration of racism to teach her pupils how “not to act.” Anna puts a sign on Maya’s locker saying “I am Japanese,” and the whole plan backfires. The “staged students” state that Maya must eat gross foods because she is Japanese, but then two bypassing little fuckboys hurl some seriously racist shit at her. They pull their eyes back, bow at her with prayer hands, and shout out some white nonsense phrases like:
“Me love you long time!”
“Hey Lucy Liu, can I get a $5 hand job?”
“Her eyes are always closed!”
Eventually, Anna is able to apologize to Maya and the girls make up in an absurd PEN15 manner.
I love the humor that Anna and Maya bring to this show while still delivering distinct messages. Watching Maya get teased in that one scene hurt me at my very core. Watching her get bullied, I couldn't help but take it personally. Any minority knows what it’s like to be criticized for their culture in a way that some friends can’t understand. Maya tells Anna in frustration, “You don’t know what it’s like to be me,” and there’s no way Anna can ever truly know. All she can do is listen and be the most supportive friend possible. While watching, I found myself wishing I could defend poor, helpless Maya as these atrocious little monsters reduced her to tears. My natural instincts were to help a younger Hapa in jeopardy.
This specific episode effectively brought forward some traumas of the Hapa experience. I always wonder why Asian-Americans are often presumptuously viewed as “foreign.” A lot of prejudiced slurs and actions come from viewing Asian people in this country as “fresh off the boat.” The boys in PEN15 yell at Maya, “You’re Japanese? No shit, Maya. I’m American!” What exactly can a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian girl born and raised in America do to prove herself as American to her peers? I know from my own experiences that the racial harassment Maya receives can be varied as hell. Some friends may view her as super Asian, while others will believe she presents completely white. She straddles the line dividing two different races, and it’s hard to find where you belong. The Hapa struggle is definitively epitomized when Maya attempts to talk to some of the Asian-American students after being betrayed by her white best friend. She approaches them with Japanese, and one responds, “Oh, we don’t speak Japanese.” She says, “Me neither,” and runs off. How is it that being many things can actually end up being more excluding? It seems easy to be a part of the majority. It seems less complicated not to have to play up a certain side of yourself. America is growing more diverse every day, but until the next generation grows up, it’s the responsibility of those who understand both sides to bridge this social gap, foster discussions, and lead with an example of acceptance.
Thoughts on this episode? Relatable or no? Comment below to share your experiences and opinions.
Sam Tanabe is a NYC based performer and writer for Hapa Mag. He has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatres across the country. His passion for the arts has led him to fight for diversity and representation on stage. Follow this kawaii yonsei hapa bb on social media @Tanablems.