Katie Malia Is Almost Asian
By Alex Chester
I grew up in SoCal without ever seeing someone like me represented in TV or film, let alone on the stage. Hell, I was a half-Asian child actor, and in my circle of child actor friends (more like frenemies), I was the only Hapa. It sucked. But you know what's freaking awesome? Today there are so many Hapas out there making themselves known... like Katie Malia.
I am obsessed with Katie Malia and her Almost Asian web series. Obsessed. When I first saw it I was like, “OMG! That chick is Hapa like me, and I totally relate to her stories.” I then proceeded to stalk, I mean email, her on social media.
As you can see, Katie is both hilarious and a wonderful storyteller. She was awesome enough to spare some time to answer these questions for Hapa Mag.
What makes you Hapa? How do you feel about the word? Is it how you identify?
What makes me Hapa is my positive awareness of my multi-cultural half-Japanese, half-White (German, Irish, Scottish) identity. It is more than skin deep. It is the lens through which I view the world. I know some people don’t like the word Hapa for its appropriation of the Hawaiian language, or they deem it a racial slur. Nevertheless, maybe because I have family in Hawaii, whenever I hear the word or get asked if I am Hapa, it makes me feel “at home.” Finally, someone gets me!
The word has never meant anything negative to me, ever. So yes, I identify as being Hapa! It has taken hurdles of self-awareness and stumbling along the way to understand my identity, but my Hapa-ness and I have fully and wholly arrived.
Also, fun fact: if you type in the word “Hapaness,” your computer will autocorrect it to “Happiness.” Pretty nice, eh?
I fucking love your web series. Why did you create Almost Asian? What type of feedback have received?
Thank you so much! This warms my little Hapa heart. Almost Asian started as two short comedic and self-deprecating sketches of self-exploration, directed by my brother Joel Knoernschild. It has has now grown into a full season comprised of thirteen episodes. It's enjoyed heaps of incredible press [ranging] from The Washington Post to Mash-Up Americans to Public Radio International, and [it was] an official selection at twelve film festivals.
For me, the comedic perspective was the only way to mine the multi-layered mixed-race experience while challenging stereotypes and the continued under-representation of Asians in the entertainment industry.
The series just snowballed. The more I mined, the more viewers wanted to see. And the feedback has been incredible! I am continually humbled by the positive and honest responses from viewers opening up about their personal struggles and celebrations being Hapa. Their immediate connection to my content saying Almost Asian makes them feel validated and less alone with their identity. In turn, it only makes ME feel more validated and less alone.
Of course, there are always the sad crazies out there: the White supremacist and anti-miscegenation groups that like to tweet hate at me... but fuck ‘em!
Love wins, and that means more interracial couples makin’ sweet sweet love, which only means more of us mixed babies being born. We exist, and White-supremacist hate groups are [stuck] in the past. We are the present, and Hapas are here to stay.
What’s next for the series? I think Almost Asian would make a fantastic TV sitcom…
What’s next for us is, yes, a half-hour show! I have the pilot and pitch deck written and am riiiiiiiiight about to take it out. The half-hour is a much broader and more linear narrative, contrary to the stand-alone online episodes. But it still very much has the central nugget of Almost Asian: the biracial Asian experience, coupled with physical comedy and awkward racial tension.
It is about celebrating the outsider from a Hapa female perspective. Asian-Americans represent the fastest growing demographic in the US, and the multi-ethnic population is expected to triple in size by the year 2050. Media needs this conversation. We want to see our stories represented on screen honestly and truthfully - not through the lens of a non-mixed writer.
It’s 2017. We have stories of value, and it’s our time to be heard.
I mean, even Kellyanne Conway is married to a half-Filipino [guy] and they have [mixed] kids! Say what?! Yeah. You’d better believe they have stories.
What was it like for you growing up half-Asian? How has it influenced your current identity?
Growing up half-Asian -- ha! That sounds like a great title to a self-help book. How apropos. Well, first off, I am not done growing emotionally, and only recently have I truly understood and accepted my mixed-race identity for all the awesomeness that it is.
But as a child, being half-Asian was (un)fortunately in my school, cool, because it was different and exotic. Now in retrospect, that makes me cringe. For the most part it was innocent, and sure I liked the attention. But truthfully, I just wanted to fit in like every other kid.
I’m still trying to figure out if maybe being Hapa has influenced my desire to perform. I got a lot of attention as a kid, and now as an adult I’m just trying to please my inner child. Whoa. Meta.
When I went to Tokyo for the first time as a child, Japanese high school girls fawned over my brother and I... they couldn’t handle our Hapa cuteness. I knew I was different, and I liked the attention. In college, I leaned into my Asian-ness because guys liked it. Gross, right? And then there were the full-Asian students that never accepted me.
I was confused, naive and totally unaware of the complexities of my identity. Then I got older and started auditioning. That’s when my lack of awareness reared its “mixed” head and slapped me across the face. The entertainment industry is a business, and business is all about branding. “What is your ethnicity or type?” is the first step to becoming a brand. Agents and casting directors want to put you in a box.
But when you’re two or more ethnicities, their heads explode and they cannot compute. They don’t know which box to put you in, so often you end up in neither. Or my personal favorite, you end up in the “ethnically-ambiguous” box only to find out a non-Asian actress has taken the job instead. Good times!
Hence the reason I started Almost Asian: to create my own damn box and carve out a truthful narrative about the mixed-race experience that I related to and hopefully, other Hapas could relate to as well with a laugh… and I think it's working.
Are you first or second generation American?
I’m fourth-generation American, so basically I grew up feeling White, which is such a dumb thing to say because what that really means is I grew up unaware. My Japanese-American grandparents lived through WWII internment, and the last thing they wanted was to be recognized as the foreigner. Or worse, the enemy. Because of this, they raised my mom with a strong sense of Japanese cultural pride but wanted her to assimilate to American culture as well.
They didn’t speak Japanese much in the home, but they did eat the food. It wasn’t until I educated myself about their plight and this ugly part of American history that I began to truly understand the Japanese-American identity and wholly celebrate my Japanese culture.
The White side is there. The Asian side is definitely there. Now I can equally own my Japanese roots and know that I am both because I am aware. Just because I am fourth generation half-Japanese doesn’t mean I’m not Japanese.
It’s more about understanding the roots, respecting the history and celebrating the culture than it is just the ethnicity.
Let’s talk about “ethnic ambiguity.” In your opinion, should an actor be allowed to play a specific ethnic role just because they “can pass for it,” even if they are not?
Oh boy. First off, I think it is very important for storytellers and the entertainment industry to be educated and hyper-aware about the difference between playing a different ethnicity versus a culture. You can be Black but born in Japan. Or southeast Indian raised in Thailand. Or Japanese but born in Brazil.
How much of the character’s ethnicity versus culture is part of the story? And if the person isn't the same ethnicity as their culture, how much of the story is about this? Or affected?
Repeatedly we have seen tone deaf films using Asian cultures as their backdrop, that then plop in some household White actor to play the lead! That makes me think… shouldn’t that disconnect be addressed then? Otherwise, just don’t do it!
It’s so ridiculous that we still have big-name non-POC actors taking on characters of color when minorities themselves can’t even represent their own cultures onscreen. The audacity is astounding. And until studios realize this and wake up, we will continue to see ourselves as invisible and undervalued.
We’re beyond box office numbers now. Now, it’s just about straight-up decency and respect.
The opportunity to play your exact ethnicity as a Hapa is close to zero. The rest of the time I audition for roles that call for "ethnically-ambiguous" actresses, which means anything other than “blonde.”
Yet I still can’t imagine playing a Latina role simply because I’m a brunette, look vaguely ethnic, and have the ability to Google “Latino culture."
This is the lens I view everything from. Authenticity. And if that doesn’t happen, at the very least, call it out!
What are your family gatherings like? Have there been any culture clashes? Any “fun” stories?
Okay. So. My White grandpa (dad’s dad) fought for the US Navy in WWII. He was in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed and survived every major battle in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. He lost friends overseas and narrowly escaped losing his life on the USS Arizona the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Then his son marries “A Japanese.” How do you think my White family reacted when their son brought home a Japanese wife?
Meanwhile, my Mom’s Japanese-American family lost everything in Los Angeles during WWII, and they narrowly escaped the internment camps by fleeing inland. Their businesses, homes, and possessions were all taken by the US government.
How do you think my Japanese family reacted when their daughter brought home a “White Husband?”
Well, they reacted with love and mutual respect. This blows my mind. That both sides of my family who could have easily and justifiably hated one another, chose to overlook their differences and act with love is so beautiful to me.
The only “fun" story worth telling is this one. Of their incredible ability to love. And our family gatherings are still like that to this day. Over heaps of delicious home-cooked food. Gyoza and meatloaf: this is my life on a dinner plate.
What’s your favorite thing about being Hapa? Least?
My favorite thing about being Hapa is the community, our cross-section of cultures, food, and our unique ability to see things from two sides. I love hearing about other Hapa family experiences, and how they came to be. Why do these Japanese cousins have non-Asian spouses versus those cousins that have Asian ones? It’s so fascinating. Everyone is a story, and ours are meant to be celebrated.
I don't have a least favorite thing. I just get angry about misunderstandings, racism and stereotypes that I eventually work through in my art. Everything is a learning experience, even how I deal with my anger. I am becoming more aware and hopefully educating viewers along the way.
Finally, are there any other projects you are working on?
Yes! I started choreographing a bit again (I dance professionally) and just wrapped a short-film starring the amazing Angela Kinsey from The Office. My friend wrote the script, and I can’t wait to see it!
I’m also writing music video treatments with my brother, and we just got awarded a job with a rad band from Sony Records shooting this month. We make a good team.
And of course, there’s the Almost Asian half-hour. It’s time for the series to grow wings, be kicked out of the bird’s nest and fly to a new home. Netflix, u up?
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.