What exactly is “hapa?” “Hapa” comes from the original word in Hawaiian, which meant “portion, fragment, part, fraction; to be partial, less.” But today, hapa has evolved to mean a person of multiple racial heritage, specifically someone who is of both Asian/Pacific Islander and non-Asian descent. Some even use it to describe anyone of multiple ethnicities, even if one of those is not Asian, as well as those of multi-Asian descent, like someone who is Chinese and Korean.
But beyond the genealogical definition, what does it mean to be hapa? Erica Johnson knows, or at least she’s getting there, with her website Hapavoice.com. She started the photo blog, awareness project, educational resource and discussion forum one chance night when she had the sudden inspiration to start a website for those who weren’t aware of the hapa community. Johnson, who herself is of Filipino and German descent, sits down with Audrey for a one-on-one.
Audrey Magazine: What motivated you to start hapavoice.com?
Erica Johnson: I think the biggest motivator was the fact that I didn’t know anything about the hapa community until I was 17. Until that time, I felt like there was no one else I could share both the joys and the struggles of multiracial identity. I wanted to create something that would bring hapas together, and give them a way to express themselves, to support each other and I guess more than anything is to celebrate their mixed roots
I really want to make hapa a household word. A lot of hapas get “oh, what are you? What is your racial identity?” Most of us say what we are, but we also shy away from saying we’re hapa because the familiarity just is not there. The term seems pretty much nonexistent aside from college campuses and maybe select metropolitan areas. I would say I was really passionate about creating mainstream awareness.
AM: Was it difficult growing up not being able to identify with all your cultures?
EJ: I remember taking the Advanced Placement tests back in high school and feeling outraged that I had to choose just one box. I wondered if there were any other multiracial kids in the room who were also bothered. To top it off, my scores actually got screwed up because they counted me as two separate people for checking different boxes on different exams – of course I self-identified differently before the Spanish and biology tests!
AM: What got you to actually set up the website?
EJ: The idea came to me my last year in college and it was my senior year and I was super busy planning for graduation and moving to New York, but once I got the idea I just couldn’t get it out of my head. So I bought the domain name and started the site on my living room floor one night. I just couldn’t tear myself away from this project once I got started.
I had been thinking and thinking just running names by my friends asking, “Hey, what do you think? Does it sound good?” Once I did have the site up, I started asking personal friends to contribute. As more entries came in (especially from people I didn’t know), it got me really excited to see that completely unsolicited submissions came in from people that I had never met. That was a huge motivation for me to keep working on the site.
AM: What makes hapavoice.com different from any other blog or forum?
EJ: There are little things, but I just noticed other websites out there were just very poorly designed and just crazy and busy where you just couldn’t find what you’re looking for. But more importantly with hapavoice, 100 percent of the content is user generated. So every single entry is written from a very unique perspective. We have students, authors, a member of a pop band, Shakira’s drummer, just people from all walks of life. Another really important thing is that there are no rules aside the basic format where there’s a photo caption and the story. The website instructions are intentionally vague. I just want people to talk and its awesome to see the different things that come out.
AM: How does the website help those who are hapa?
EJ: Simply put, it gives us a voice. It lets people express themselves in a supportive environment, whether they’re sharing their struggles or their love of multiracial identity, and it helps us work toward giving “hapa” a place in mainstream dialogue. I hope that the site will help young people develop a positive self-image, since race and culture can be so influential on one’s identity at a young age. I think it would be great to get more prominent role models on the site and then we can really bring it into mainstream and raise awareness beyond just the college campus.
AM: Have there been people in your life who are hapa and an inspiration to you?
EJ: Kip Fulbeck — he teaches at my alma mater at UC Santa Barbara and is an inspiration to hapas everywhere. I’ve never had him as my own professor, but I did get to meet him once. He is just incredible, he is so talented in everything from film to spoken word. He’s the author of Part Asian, 100% Hapa, the book that introduced me to the existence of the Hapa community. It looks a lot like the hapa site, and played an influential role.
AM: Do you identify more with your Filipino side or your German side?
EJ: I’m Filipina and German by blood, but Filipina, Latina and Jewish at heart because I was born and raised in Arizona and part of my family is Jewish. I recently moved to New York City, where an endless number of different cultures are represented, so I’m very proud to call it my home.
Different parts of my identity manifests differently in various situations. I think that’s the beauty of being hapa — you can bring certain parts out at different times.
AM: What about New York is it that you love?
EJ: Over the past few months, it has been being able to explore the city. New York City — it celebrates an endless amount of different cultures. I can go to different neighborhoods and try different things. I have had things here that I have never had anywhere else.