“What are you?”
If you’ve never been asked that, you are probably not “hapa,” that formerly derogatory, now friendly Hawaiian term meaning “half” that describes people of mixed heritage, including some part Asian or Pacific Islander. Fulbeck asked that question of several thousand people over a period of three years, then published photos and answers in the book part asian, 100% hapa in 2006. Now 36 photos are part of a traveling exhibit that is on display at Asia Society Texas Center.
“What are you?” is the question that comes up with many mixed-race people, which, as Fulbeck points out, is most people. But the book and the widely applauded photographic exhibit will challenge your expectations.
There’s a foreword by Sean Lennon, a Hapa by virtue of being the famous progeny of Beatle John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono. The rest of the featured faces include lots of adults with attitude or no attitude at all, but there’s also the young kid on page 148, a blonde with grey-green eyes and his self-identifier: “I’m a football player.” (Also, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, English, Puerto Rican.) And the young man who looks, well, like most young men, who claims a heritage of Thai, Lao, Irish and Italian, and who writes “I am Yes. An American kid who celebrates Hanukkah with his Jewish stepfather, prays to Buddha with his Buddhist momma and then goes to midnight mass with his Christian father and waits for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Yeah.”
Fulbeck says this is the book he wishes he’d had as a child, so that the separateness he felt could have been easier to bear. He recounts his experience in second grade when children were asked to put a pin on a map spread across the blackboard, denoting the origins of their ancestors. The British empire, where he placed his first tack, was loaded with tacks from his fellow students. But he was the only one who then walked all the way across the length of the map to place a tack in China. He remembers snickers from the class. And now 30 years later, he says, he still remembers: “If there’s a better way to visually isolate a kid in class, let me know.”
You can come and admire the portraits or you can have a bit more fun by becoming part of the interactive exhibit. Have your photo taken and provide your own description of who you are and it will become part of the art. (That’s for everyone. You don’t have to be Hapa to be included.) That’s the generosity of spirit that makes sense in Houston, notes Asia Society Texas Center communications director Patsy Yoon Brown, the city recently proclaimed as the most ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the country.
What are we Houstonians? We’re everybody.
The exhibit runs through April 14, 2013, at the Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Blvd. On display in the Center’s Fayez Sarofim Grand Hall, the exhibition is free of charge.