Growing up a 'Hapa Girl' in America

A young woman of Chinese-Irish descent feels the sting of racism in an intolerant South Dakota town.

Hapa Girl: A Memoir is a disturbing book in that the author is younger than I am, that the harrowing events are hardly distant, and most of all, that I have young hapa children of my own.

The word "hapa" originates from the Hawaiian pidgin hapa-haole, literally meaning half-white. Today, having lost its derogatory overtones, hapa connotes an Asian-Pacific American of mixed race. Some Asian-Pacific Americans even claim it's an acronym for Half-Asian-Pacific American. While predominantly used on the more ethnically diverse West Coast, the word is not uncommon among Asian-Pacific American communities elsewhere, especially on college campuses.

May-lee Chai is hapa of Chinese-American and Irish-American descent. Her memoir opens with a short prologue that foretells what's to come: "When we first moved to South Dakota, we would stop traffic just by walking down the sidewalk.... I didn't know then, when I was twelve, that they were staring because they'd never seen a Chinese man with a white woman before, and a blonde woman at that. I didn't know they thought we were brazen, flaunting our family in public. It was 1979, and we had imagined that the segregated past was just that, past."

But the story really begins with Chai's happiest memories, living in a New York City suburb with her esteemed academic father, her glamorous artist mother, and her younger brother. Chai shares the whirlwind love story of her "movie-star parents" and their seemingly effortless lives as a family, first in California and then New Jersey.

When Winberg Chai accepts the position of vice president of academic affairs in 1979, making him "the first Asian American to hold this position in the continental U.S.," the family moves to an unnamed small town of 5,000 residents and 5,000 state university students in faraway South Dakota. The family is anything but welcome in the xenophobic town, historically infused with anti-native American hatred and violence.

Winberg's big-name job proves to be big in name only. When he unexpectedly resigns, he is unable to find another academic position – because, a trusted friend learns, Winberg is blacklisted as a "maverick ... troublemaker." Eventually, he commutes as an educational consultant, first to Houston, then to Chicago.

The family is unable to sell their farm; every loan application by potential buyers fails, and only a state lottery winner is eventually able to buy it outright at a loss for the family almost a decade later. With nowhere to go, they remain trapped in the suffocating town. While they directly survive everything from murdered pets to ferocious school fights, they are haunted by the gang rape, the suicides, the senseless violence that surround them.

Ironically, experiencing firsthand the 1988 anti-African student demonstrations in Nanjing, China, puts Chai's "years in South Dakota in perspective": "Their fears of change, of economic uncertainty, of racial anxiety ... were the same as China's," she concludes. Chai realizes that what her family endured "had not been my fault. We were all unique individuals, yet we had been labeled as some kind of enemy."

Throughout "Hapa Girl," Chai's mother proves an impressive heroine. Always her family's champion, she carves out a "place in our town": she forms her own "Irish gang," throws exotic Hawaiian luaus, and eventually helps a young man named Tom Daschle get elected to the US Senate. Chai herself adroitly balances her worst memories – at 17, keeping a Tylenol bottle in her dresser drawer as her "way out" – with her family's triumphs – "in 1988, my father fulfilled a personal dream, becoming a state-elected delegate to the Democratic Convention in Atlanta."

"Hapa Girl," Chai's fourth title ("The Girl from Purple Mountain with Winberg," "Glamorous Asians: Short Stories & Essays," and "My Lucky Face" came earlier), is itself a direct result of Chai's mother's initial efforts. From a two-page outline for an unfinished novel her mother intended, Chai begins "to write about things I thought I would never tell another soul as long as I lived, because ... I realized that my mother would have wanted me to do so."

Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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