Hapa Girl: A Memoir

Hapa Girl: A Memoir

Hapa Girl: A Memoir

Hapa Girl: A Memoir


In the mid-1960s, Winberg Chai, a young academic and the son of Chinese immigrants, married an Irish-American artist. InHapa Girl("hapa"is Hawaiian for "mixed"), their daughter tells the story of this loving family as they move from Southern California to New York to a South Dakota farm by the 1980s. In their new Midwestern home, the family finds itself the object of unwelcome attention, which swiftly escalates to violence. The Chais are suddenly socially isolated and barely able to cope with the tension that arises from daily incidents of racial animosity, including random acts of cruelty. May-lee Chai's memoir ends in China, where she arrives just in time to witness a riot and demonstrations. Here she realizes that the rural Americans' "fears of change, of economic uncertainty, of racial anxiety, of the unknowable future compared to the known past were the same as China's. And I realized finally that it had not been my fault."


When we first moved to South Dakota, we could stop traffic just by walking down the sidewalk, my mother and father in front, my brother and me trailing behind. Cars and pickups slowed, sometimes in both lanes, and the passengers turned to stare out their windows. Our town was small: just five thousand residents and five thousand students. Apart from the university, there wasn't much to it except tiny family-owned shops, a funeral home, a combination steakhousebowling alley, and nine bars.

In the beginning, the stares made my parents laugh. “Now I know what it's like to be famous!” my mother exclaimed, throwing a hand on her hip, another behind her head, starlet-fashion. My brother and I giggled. My father smiled and took her by the arm. He may have nuzzled her neck, he may have kissed her shoulder. “Why shouldn't they stare?” he said. “They think Catherine Deneuve has come to town!”

In those days, when they were still young, my father liked to call my mother by movie star names. Deneuve, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Bain. All the sexy blondes.

At first, I thought people stared because we were from New Jersey. In a town this small, I figured, they must have known we were strangers. I didn't know, at age 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 . . .

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