Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Growing Up a 'Hapa Girl' in America

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Growing Up a 'Hapa Girl' in America

Article excerpt

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 . …

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