This is what I look like: olive skin, which rarely burns; dark brown hair, wavy, a few split ends; wide-set, almond-shaped eyes—the DMV calls them “HZL.” My cheeks are perpetually flushed, my nose is small, and I have very short eyelashes. I stand at 5’5”—give or take half an inch.
Compiled together, those features seem to confuse people. “Where are you from?” strangers ask me. When I say “California,” they’re never satisfied. “But where are you from?” They’ll ask again—clarifying this time: “ You know , what are you?'
What are you? The question plagued my childhood, my adolescence, my college years abroad, and continues to follow me into my twenties. I’ve never understood why it matters, but nearly every day, someone, somewhere (on the street, on the subway, in line for coffee) will ask. As a second grader, I answered the question easily: “Half Japanese, half regular,” I used to say. My 7-year-old ignorance was laughed off at the time, but as I grew up, the question became complicated to answer. My mother is Japanese-Hawaiian, my father is Swiss and Welsh. I'm not “Japanese enough' to be considered Asian, and I'm not “English enough' to be considered White—so I was taught to simplify: I’m Hapa.
In Hawaii, anyone who is mixed-race—primarily, though not exclusively, those who are “part white” and part anything else—is called Hapa (aka mixers, multiracials, mutts, 'halfies'). It’s a pidgin-slang word to give the ethnically ambiguous breed a label. The physical stereotypes of any one specific race don’t apply to us, and that makes it difficult for people to pinpoint what exactly they find beautiful.
It’s amazing to be at the intersection of two (very different) vibrant cultures—and yet, being multiracial comes with its own set of problems. I'm not just talking about when I had to check “other' under the race box during standardized tests: I'm talking about beauty problems. Sure, someday we’ll probably mix and mix until we’re all a nice, universal, beautiful shade of beige. But until then, we face many misconceptions about what it looks like to be Hapa—and I'd like to set the record straight.
Hairstylists always assume, because I’m at all Asian, that my hair won’t curl. But here’s the rule when it comes to Hapa hair: There are no rules. My hair is incredibly wavy, and holds a curl for days. My sister, however, has enviably straight hair. I took after my dad, she took after my mom. What’s interesting is that when I leave my hair curly, people have a much harder time guessing what ethnicity I am. Whereas, when my hair is straight, they immediately think Japanese. There are so many ingrained social triggers that go off in all of us when it comes to race and hair. But in the same way we shouldn’t assume all blondes are dumb, we shouldn’t assume straight black hair infers one single race. I swear by Davines Love Shampoo and Conditioner because it’s made from natural ingredients and keeps my hair from drying out (it’s prone to getting brittle, rather than oily), and it keeps it super smooth so even the waves and random kinks look healthy. I also use Kevin Murphy Resort Spray , which amplifies the natural texture no matter what hair type you’re working with.
Whenever I’ve had my makeup done by an artist, they always seem to want to emphasize my almond shaped eyes—putting liner on the inside, making them look smaller, because my eye shape and size don’t seem to match up. It’s frustrating because I actually hate how it looks to have inner liner. Instead, I stick to a light brown liner on the outside of my eyes, and the Shu Uemura Eyelash Curler (sticking with the Japanese on this one)—it’s the best for people with short eyelashes. Because Hapa eye color often varies from brown to green, depending on the person, it’s great to try out natural palettes made for hazel eyes—something with nudes, purples, and browns.
I know from first hand experience: people love to exoticize Hapa skin. I can say I’ve heard, “you look like you’ve just vacationed!” (when I hadn’t been further than Brooklyn) more times than I can count. It’s true, most Hapas I’ve met have pretty insane complexions—there is something about the mixing tones that gives us the notorious glowing, even skin tone, but there are pitfalls as well. My skin, for instance, hates the winter. I swear I’m bred for island weather. It acts up when it hasn’t seen sun or it gets too dry, which means oils work really well to keep my skin hydrated. I use Caudalíe Polyphenol C15 Overnight Detox Oil, which is great for all skin types as it clarifies, prevents aging, and hydrates. Also—and maybe this is where my Hawaiian bit comes into play—I tan incredibly easy. During the day, I like Eve Lom Daily Protection + SPF 50 underneath a Medium shade of Glossier's Perfecting Skin Tint or By Terry Cellularose CC Cream. As for masks, again, hydrating ones are best. I’ve found Kora Organics' Hydrating Mask works on anyone! Another universal gem for Hapas of ever-changing coloring is Lipstick Queen's Hello Sailor, which adjusts to the color of your lips based on your natural pigments.
The beauty of the Hapa is that there’s no list of features to cover us all. While I can show you what works for me and what seems to universally work for others I know, the exceptions to the beauty rules are the most exciting part about being mixed. Sure, it gets annoying to answer the question “What are you?”—but at the same time, when they ask, we’re given the opportunity to introduce people to a new cultural standard—one in which you, rather than your background, define what’s beautiful. So for the mixers out there, I beg, answer the question with a little bit of pride.
Photo courtesy of the author.