All Mashed Up

(This thing is super rough, I will probably be tweaking at it for the next couple of years until I feel it makes some kind of sense.)

Mash-up – the act of taking two relatively unrelated things and making one new and exciting thing.

When I was really little, I had a little white line down my chest (it might have been an imaginary line) – we used to joke that it was the dividing line between my American half and my Chinese half. The thing is, kids take that kind of conceptual thinking literally. I really felt that there were two separate halves of me stacked side by side, and that line was the demarcation point between the two.

As a youth, I desperately longed to know other people like me. I wasn’t quite Chinese, but not quite white, either.

The first time that I ever heard the term “Hapa” I was in my late 30s at a tech conference in San Diego. I was trying to network and be seen networking and I started talking with an Asian guy and as always the question came up on where I came from.

When I told him that my mom was Taiwanese and my dad was about as White as they came, he laughed joyfully and said, “You are Hapa! I never would’ve guessed!”

I had no idea how to take that, but he seemed truly excited for me for some reason. After he explained to me what it meant, I had a short feeling of revelation – there is a name for me. For what I am. A name with more depth than half-blood, or mix-up.

In Utah, as a teen, I felt like I really stood out (or rather got completely overlooked). It was almost all white people, while the other ethnic kids (the ones that there were) cliqued up pretty closely. The number of African American kids in our High School you could pretty much count on two hands, the Hispanic kids stuck extra close together, and the Asians (American Born Full Blood ones, that is) pretty much kept to themselves when possible.

Add on top of that the extremely homogeneous cultural expectation from a community that predominately share one religious tradition (Mormonism), of which I was not a part of at the time, and you start to get a sense of my childhood.

My mom really wanted me to marry a Chinese girl. Whenever the discussion would come up (which was every time we spoke until my son introduced his Chinese girlfriend to her) she would accuse me of being ashamed of her for being Asian. It was hard to explain to her that it wasn’t that I was ashamed, it was that sending my picture to mainland China and starting a mail correspondence with someone who barely spoke English wasn’t what I would consider a good start to a relationship.

I had just come out of a marriage to a very white girl (blonde and piercingly blue eyes), and we had nothing in common other than language and religion. What would I have in common with a Chinese Girl that didn’t even speak English.

I was never ashamed of my mom, but to be truthful, I was kind of embarrassed by her.

My friends could never understand what she was saying and they always liked to snoop around our fridge and make fun of me for the weird foods that were in there. I subconsciously stopped inviting friends over, just to avoid the subject. My older brother (who disagrees on if this happened or not, but it is how I remember it) got kicked out of the house once for trying to assuage the certainty of his white girlfriend that the room in the house with the Buddha statue and incense and fruit wasn’t demonic – he took a bite of the fruit and when our mom found out, she was scandalized and a bit heartbroken. My dad hit the roof.

At one point in my 20s (this was in the mid-80s, pre-internet) I planned on starting my own networking group called the “AmerAsian Nation”. I figured we would meet once a month, discuss world domination plans and then watch a Kung Fu movie and eat Pizza. Brandon Lee was going to be our honorary chairman. A true representation of us as a people-ish.

Recently on Facebook, I joined a group called “Hapa”. It is really neat to see all of the partial Asians out there in all of their exotic mixes, but the sense of community I had always longed for as a younger person never materialized.

I thought we would all have the same inside jokes, and cultural references – but, as it turns out, we don’t.

Some are very Asian, some aren’t, some speak the languages of their Asian heritage – some (like me) don’t. Some are highly educated, some are not, some are Chinese, and some are Korean. Some are a myriad of other mixed ethnicities, with little in common except regional proximity and complex intertwined history.

“Oh, you’re half Japanese? Remember when your Great Grandparents occupied Taiwan and killed my Great Grandparents?”

I thought there would be enlightenment or self-realization or community if I could connect with others like me. That we would all connect and share an identity bigger than ourselves individually. I thought shared culture would spontaneously exist if enough of us got together. But that is not how culture happens. It happens over time and generations and hardships lived. Not spontaneously.

I still long to know more people like me, but I also know that even though they may look like me, we share very little in common, other than some random cultural references and touchstones.

I love Mash-ups because of the infinite variety of new things they can create. Things that are familiar and different at the same time. Things that can make us smile in a brief exhalation of surprise and joy.

In Oklahoma, back when I was still little, it was very different from what I can remember than afterwards when we moved to Utah. There were a lot of different kinds of kids at school. And, back then, my memory is that mom tried really hard to be the All-American ideal. She worked hard on her English, participated as a Den Mother in Scouts, did her hair up in the (then) current style. Not that it made an impact on me at the time, I was so young, I didn’t notice a real difference – I mean, moms were moms. We knew them by their title and didn’t see differences.

I don’t think I am  going to find “my” people, but I don’t think I am looking for that anymore.

Paraphasing Bruce Lee who, in turn, was paraphrasing someone much older; At first we are all just people, but as we grow older we become all kinds of people – part this, part that, part the other. But in the end, we are all just people.

Peoples is peoples.

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