'What Are You?' Reflections on Asian American and Hapa Identity

There is a YouTube video making its way around this month. In it, a white man begins making small talk with an Asian American woman, and says to her, "Where are you from? Your English is perfect!" Annoyed, the woman responds, "San Diego. We speak English there."

This leads to a downward spiral of questioning, and -- once the man gets the woman to admit that "her people" are "from" Seoul -- he proceeds to bow to her and talk about Korean barbeque and kimchi. When she asks him where he is from, he answers that he's "just a regular American." Finally, he gets it and admits that his ancestors are in fact English. The punch line is that she then begins to imitate all of the English stereotypes she can think of, including repeating phrases like "Top a the mornin' to ya!" and complimenting "his people's" fish and chips.

Many of my Asian American friends have been passing this video around because it is so true to experiences we have all had. People often ask us, "Where are you from?" And it is always slightly infuriating. I've been trying to figure out exactly why I have such a negative reaction to this question. We all know that what people are really asking is, "What is your ethnic heritage?" And really, I don't mind talking about my ethnic heritage. In fact, I enjoy sharing this kind of information with other people. It's one of the things I love best about me.

I think what is so infuriating, then, about this question is that it is always asked by someone who has just met me. So all they really know about me is what I look like. And if they immediately ask me where I am from, it is evident to me that they looked at me and immediately got distracted by the fact that I look different from them. At least that's how it feels. Me looking like this means that there is something foreign about me, and so "where I am from" must be the most profound and interesting thing about me.

There is another question that is similar but even less delicate: the infamous "What are you?" It's something that multiracial people get asked a lot. "What are you?" is perhaps a more sophisticated version of "Where are you from?" because it recognizes that Asian Americans can be "from" the same places that non-Asian-Americans can be "from": San Diego, Missouri, Chicago, Midtown. "What are you?" seeks to get past someone's place right to the heart of their identity. And the heart of one's identity is obviously one's ethnic make-up (unless they're white, of course).

There is an artist named Kip Fulbeck who has created a photography series called The Hapa Project. Hapa is a Hawaiian term that has come to refer to people who are multiracial, with one part of their heritage being Asian or Pacific Islander. In The Hapa Project, Kip Fulbeck photographs Hapa people, and asks them to handwrite below their photograph an answer to the so common question, "What are you?"

Many of the subjects do write something about their ethnicity. For example, a future comedian child writes below his photo, "I am part Chinese and part Danish. I don't usually tell people I am Danish though, because they think I'm a pastry." Others write statements that push back on the identity question. A young woman writes, "I am a person of color. I am not half-'white'. I am not half-'Asian'. I am a whole 'other'." Others challenge the idea that the most important part of their identity is their ethnic heritage. These people write things like, "I am a mom, an architect, a pacifist, an American."

What is so liberating about the way Kip Fulbeck asks "What are you?" is that he is not assuming that the ethnic heritage of people of color is what is most fundamental and important about their identity. Instead, he lets them decide who they are. He turns "What are you?" into a genuine, curious and liberating question.

And he encourages me to wonder what I would write if Kip Fulbeck photographed me. If I could only write a few lines, what would be the most important things I would want to express about my identity? Maybe I would say, "I am Chinese and Hillbilly." Or maybe I would say, "I am a pastor, a wife, a daughter, a cat-mom, and a pursuer of social justice." Or -- and this is what I hope matters most -- maybe I would just say, "I am a beloved child of God."

I invite you to think today about what you would say if someone really asked you the question, "What are you?"

For inspiration, here is one of God's responses.

...Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." She said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)

So...What are you?

If you're in New York City, join The Church of the Village for our Asian American Heritage Sunday on June 2 at 10:30am!