Friday, September 18, 2009

If You're Hapa and You Know It, Clap Your Hands!

On Thursday night, my friend, Alfonso, and I attended Kip Fulbeck's solo exhibition at UNC in Chapel Hill. The exhibition featured a series of photographs known as The Hapa Project. Fulbeck photographed several hundred individuals who identified themselves as hapa, or having partial Asian ancestry, and asked each one to answer the question, "What are you?"

The Hapa ProjectShare Your Story

The Hapa Project at UNC

Interview of Kip Fulbeck by Pacific Fusion TV

Intrigued by the premise of the exhibit, I was excited to meet Kip and see his work. I had the event on my calendar for over a month. The idea behind the project was something I could personally identify with, having grown up in this country with a mixed cultural and ethnic background. As I looked at each photograph on display and read each subject's response to the question, "What are you?", I could see myself in each person. Many of their experiences were my own. It was so refreshing and satisfying to see each face and read each person's response to that question.

One of the PiecesMore PiecesAnother Piece
The Hapa Project exhibit at UNC

Fulbeck did a wonderful presentation for his audience in Chapel Hill. He admitted that he did not do this project to "find his tribe" -- instead, he was opening himself up to the experience of meeting people and hearing their unique stories, stories that could alter his perception of the world. Even so, I would argue that there is still some level of preexisting camaraderie that exists between people who have gone through similar hardships with identity, particularly with the struggle of finding one's place in two or more cultures. I think Fulbeck explained it best when he said that when people of mixed backgrounds are asked to choose one category to describe their race on applications, they are essentially asked, "Who do you love more? Your mother or your father?" And if the option of "other" exists as a category, it seems unimportant and not even worth mentioning, let alone needing explanation.

Fulbeck Presenting and Discussing His Exhibition
Kip Fulbeck's presentation at UNC

Kip Fulbeck
Kip Fulbeck

Not only did Fulbeck discuss anecdotes of his time putting the Hapa Project together, but he also showed two short films and performed his own poetry, all of which were centered around the idea of hapa and how hapa cannot be fully defined by the category of "other." I was moved and impressed by the voice and recognition that Fulbeck had given to the hapa community, a community that everyone knows exists but never really discusses. (To see more of Fulbeck's work, go here.)

After his presentation, Fulbeck offered to meet and greet audience members in the lobby and sign copies of his books. How could we resist?

Book SigningTo MeMe and KipAlfonso and Kip
All the book signing excitement!

I left the event feeling a little prouder, having come so far from the days when I wished I was like "everyone else." I'm just happy being me.

Me and the Exhibition Promotional BookmarkMy First Passport Photo

"Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn't rush into it."
- David Quammen


  1. This was neat to read and I bet wonderful to attend. Funny, after living in Okinawa as a little girl, I always wanted to be Japanese! How nice that you get the best of both worlds, even if it was at times a cumbersome set to stradle. Your talent to draw may be rivaled by your talent to write...but then, you incorporate the two...

  2. Thanks. *blushing* I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    It's funny. When I was younger, I always wanted to live in Okinawa, thinking my life would be "easier". And then, as an adult, when I got the opportunity to live there for 3 years, I realized how happy I was that I didn't. Don't get me wrong, I loved Okinawa. But I learned that children in my generation who were mixed had it pretty rough during that time in Okinawa. It's getting much better, but I don't think it's something that people are really encouraged to discuss, recognize, and advertise.

  3. I am glad that you are not like everyone else. That is what makes you, unique! Thanks for sharing the exhibit and your personal story. It sounds like a special experience.



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