“Your kids are so beautiful!”
“Is their father white?”
“Look at that wavy hair.”
“She has Chinky eyes.”
Those are just a few of the comments parents of hapa kids hear everyday. The phrase hapa haole is Hawaiian slang meaning half-white. Nowadays, the term hapa is used by many Asian Americans as an affectionate term for mixed-race individuals. And for parents of this growing demographic group, it’s often a tricky balancing act between reinforcing their children’s unique identity, without putting them on a pedestal.
Recently, Jenee-Desmond Harris from The Root wrote an article titled ‘Mixed Kids Are the Cutest’ Isn’t Cute?‘. She describes the kind of unsolicited comments and backhanded compliments often doled out to multiracial black kids:
“Awkward. Well-intended. Poorly thought-through. A window into our shared cultural stuff about identity. These statements are all these things at once.”
Mixed-race Asian, or hapa, children, also often receive these kinds of nosy questions or backhanded compliments. When my first-born was an infant, strangers would stop me on the sidewalk as I trudged along with my stroller.
“What is he?”
“Look at those big eyes!”
“Their father must be Mexican.”
“Is your husband Hawaiian?”
“He looks completely Asian.”
“He doesn’t look Asian at all.”
It’s not just strangers. Some of the most effusive comments have come from people we know, even relatives.
“Luckily he has his father’s long eyelashes.”
“Where did he get the blond hair?”
“Such fair skin!”
Photo credit: Hapa Mama
Do you notice a pattern? Many of these “compliments” reveal a beauty ideal that is couched in terms of how un-Asian they look. If you look at Asian American movie stars, beauty queens, even television news anchors, quite a few of them are multiracials. That’s the tricky part for developing the self-esteem of hapa kids: teaching them to appreciate their blended heritage – right down to their unique looks, while not idolizing the traits that make them precisely non-Asian. Parents of hapa kids should be aware of these comments. While I believe that beauty is more than skin deep, society sends young children so many messages about what is pretty or handsome that we can’t pretend those concepts don’t exist. Instead, let’s make sure hapa children know that all their traits are beautiful, and even better yet, that their competencies are valued and their uniqueness (and not just the novelty of their genetic makeup) is honored.
“Look how shiny your black hair is!”
“You are so good at speaking Chinese.”
“What a thoughtful person you are.”
Grace Hwang Lynch writes about Asian mixed-race family and food at HapaMama.com.