What does “hapa” mean?

I struck up a conversation with a man who was, to me, clearly part Asian and part Caucasian. One thing led to another and I ended up asking him if he was hapa.

“No,” he said. “I’m half Vietnamese, half white.”

“That’s hapa,” I assured him.

“No, it’s not,” he insisted. He volunteered that he was a recent transplant, evident in his Midwestern accent, so I wanted to know what he thought it was.

“Someone told me it means half Filipino,” he explained. I’ve never heard of Filipino as qualifier of the definition. (To the best of my knowledge, by the end of my research I still hadn’t heard of this exact definition.)

“It’s half Caucasian,” I corrected him (or thought I was), “and half something else.” I pointed to my daughter as another example of “hapa.” She’s half Danish, nearly half Chinese, and a bit of Native Hawaiian.

This little conversation got me thinking about the word and its meaning, particularly since I like to say I have “a little hapa baby,” and led to the revelation that it has multiple meanings today. Depending on who you are, those are:

  • Shorthand for the full phrase “hapa haole,” which is generally taken to mean half white (though haole actually means foreigner, and that’s a whole different essay.)
  • A stand-alone word that means “mixed blood”
  • A stand-alone word that means “a fragment, a portion” (people OR numbers, things)
  • A word that’s come to connote, for some, “partial Asian and/or Pacific Islander”

It is a Pidgin word (because of its origins in English) and it is a Hawaiian word. It’s many things to many people.

I have lived most of my life, including much of my childhood, in Hawaii, and to me, “hapa” is the truncation of “hapa haole.” I take the literal meaning of hapa- “half” – and apply it to a person who is half Caucasian, half non-Caucasian.

Since hapa and haole are both Hawaiian words, I don’t consider it Pidgin. I think of Pidgin as words which are actually changed to reflect an overarching application of an accent (the = da); as the composition of a sentence that incorporates both words from standard English as well as other languages (You’re so niele); and/or the construction of a sentence that doesn’t fully reflect the rules of standard English, perhaps borrowing from the grammatical structure of another language or simplified to find commonality (We going school.)

That’s just my opinion, formed only on the basis of being a longtime local and a Hawaii native. I’m not an expert in Hawaiian culture or in languages, so I wanted to learn more.

Kamehameha Schools alumnae Jen Chun, Joy Kamae-Shimizu, Janel Unabia, Lisa Cressman, and Jen-L Lyman use hapa the way I do: A shortening of the full term “hapa haole.” They are all Generation Xers like me, so maybe it’s a generational thing?

Guy DeConte. Courtesy: Guy DeConte
Guy DeConte. Courtesy: Guy DeConte

Apparently not. Guy DeConte is our peer and another Kamehameha Schools graduate and believes “’hapa’ in modern times simply means mixed race. That’s mixed ANY race, without any common one. So, Halle Berry and Barack Obama are just as hapa as you and I.” DeConte is Hawaiian, Japanese, German, Portuguese, French, and Italian.

Dalton Keanu Kim
Dalton Keanu Kim
Kirstin Seal. Courtesy: Kirstin Seal
Kirstin Seal. Courtesy: Kirstin Seal

That’s how millennials Dalton Keanu Kim and Kirstin Seal use the word, too. Kim grew up in Hawaii. Seal grew up in California and moved to Hawaii for university.

ORIGINS OF THE WORD

“Hapa” in the Hawaiian dictionary, according to cultural expert Dr. Sam Ohu Gon III, is defined as “mixed blood. There’s a separate comment directing readers to “hapa haole,” which is defined as “part Caucasian.”

Gon’s professional thrust is as a conservation biologist. He’s a senior scientist and cultural advisor at The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi.

However, the fullness of his cultural knowledge is rounded out by his 21 year role as Kumu Oli and Kahuna Kākalaleo with Hālau Mele. He teaches Hawaiian chant in the hālau created by Kumu John Keolamakaʻāinanakalāhuiokalaninokamehamehaʻekolu Lake. Involvement in the world of hula and chant at this level requires fluency in Hawaiian language, as well as study of the history, stories, and legends that comprise the craft.

Gon unveils the etymology of the word “hapa” as from the Hawaiian word for half. It’s a phoneticization of the English word. Ironically, he clarifies, while in English it means exactly 50 percent, Native Hawaiians used it to just mean “a fraction.”

There are, he points out, specific Hawaiian words to notate exact fractions. Hapahā means one fourth, for example; hapalua means half.

“Pre-contact Hawaiians didn’t think about blood quantum. For instance, in the 1500s, in the time of ʻUmi, there was a supposed Spanish shipwreck off the Big Island, way before Captain Cook. The survivors stayed in Hawaii and intermarried. Their descendants would likely not have been called hapa,” theorizes Gon.

Dr. Marvin Puakea Nogelmeier, who teaches at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa’s Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, echos that point. He recalls a conversation with a part-Native American Indian friend whose grandmother’s approach to her grandson’s biracialism was “You either are or you aren’t [American Indian.]”

Nogelmeier believes pre-Americanization Hawaiian people would have felt the same way about being part-Hawaiian. Hapa status was acknowledged widely, but wasn’t a defining term. “There were no issues with blood quantum until the federal government imposed it to qualify for Hawaiian Homestead Lands,” he hypothesizes.

He calls up a January 6, 1922 newspaper article from Ka Nupepa Kuokoa that questions if haole men who marry Hawaiian women should be able to live on Homestead Lands. Nogelmeier finds the word “hapa” used in a discussion about blood quantum for homestead qualification.

The first possible use of the word, however, comes in a February 14, 1834 article in Kalama Hawaii. In this newspaper’s inaugural issue, the word “hapa” is used – but not to describe people. It’s used to talk about part of a song: “hapa mele,” translates Nogelmeier.

Nogelmeier holds UH Mānoa degrees in Hawaiian language, Pacific Islands studies, and anthropology, while beyond the university, he trained in Hawaiian language, traditional dance, chant, and literature.

Eve Okura, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at UH Mānoa, points out that Wehewehe.org, the online Hawaiian-English dictionary, defines hapa as:

(1) Portion, fragment, part, fraction, installment;
(2) Of mixed blood, person of mixed blood, as hapa Hawaiʻi, part Hawaiian

“Wehewehe.org draws from the original Hawaiian-English dictionaries by [Mary Kawena] Pukui. As seen in definition two, ‘hapa’ alone does not refer to half of any specific race. It just means mixed race. ‘Hapa Hawai’i’ means half Hawaiian; hapa haole means half Caucasian, etc. Hapa by itself just means mixed race,” she concludes.

As Native Hawaiian/Chinese, I’m hapa? Wow, I never considered myself as such.

So where does “hapa haole” come in?

Haole, he says, means “foreigner.” It does not necessarily mean Caucasian, though modern usage holds that strong association. This is why many think “hapa haole” means part or half white, including Merriam-Webster Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hapa%20haole).

Gon elucidates, “In the name chant of Kamapua`a, the pig god, he is referred to as haole. In his exploits, he often travels, appearing on another island where nobody knows who he is. So he is referred to as ‘ka haole nui maka ʻālohilohi’ (the big foreigner with sparkling eyes).”

He says the first use of “hapa haole” was likely in the early 1800s. Gon cites an article from the Hawaiian newspaper Ke Kumu Hawaii, dated December 5, 1838, in which the word “hapa haole” appears.

The article is a philosophical, religious piece that simply lists groups of people. Gon doesn’t believe the term was or is a pejorative, though; like any other word, it can be taken as an insult depending on the tone in which it’s delivered.

Why do so many people today, including myself, think first of Caucasian people when the word haole comes up? “It’s from the Kingdom-era, for sure,” posits Nogelmeier. “That’s when most of the foreigners in Hawaii were white. That would be from the period of Kamehameha I to the overthrow of the monarchy, so 1810 to 1893.”

CONTROVERSY

Perhaps due to the slow and steady diaspora of local residents to the mainland, the word hapa has come to evolve into another definition to another community. Wikipedia details, “Hapa is a term for a person of mixed ethnic heritage… In Hawaii, the word refers to any person of mixed ethnic heritage, regardless of the specific mixture. In California, the term has recently been used for any person of part Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Therefore, there are two concurrent usages.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hapa)

“A language does change and evolve. It is not a living organism, but a good analogy might be a biological species- a single individual organism doesn’t evolve; in each generation, over time, the traits of the species change a little. Similarly, over time and across generations, the shape of a language (some of the words used, the way sentences are structured, the formation of new words, how words are pronounced) can change a bit,” asserts Okura.

Dr. Christina Higgins is a professor and graduate chair at UH Manoa’s Department of Second Language Studies, and the co-director at its Charlene J. Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies. She adds, “It’s true that words change their meaning over time. This is clear in several words that have shifted meaning over time, such as ‘gay,’ which used to mean happy and joyous, and then became mostly associated with sexual preference. These days, almost no one uses ‘gay’ in the former sense.”

In an essay called “Hapa: The Word of Power,” Wei Ming Dariotis writes of her struggle in being Chinese/Caucasian, and the search for her cultural identity. The associate professor at San Francisco State’s Asian American Studies Department calls hapa a “symbolic word used by Asians, particularly by Japanese Americans.” (http://www.mixedheritagecenter.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1259)

If the trend started in California, it has now appeared to spread around the world. A public Facebook group called Hapa (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2204706507) states its purpose as a place for hapas worldwide to meet “for drinks at a Hapa Happy Hour in your city!” Its three tags are “Eurasian, Hapa, Biracial.” As of this writing, there are nearly six thousand members.

November 21, 2016 screen shot of Facebook's public group "Hapa."
November 21, 2016 screen shot of Facebook’s public group “Hapa.”

I posed a question to all of them asking what hapa means to them, explaining it would be for use in this blog. The responses themselves were divided, reflecting all the definitions and associations I’ve outlined in this article. A sampling of this range:

Kazemaru Yukawa-Bacon said, “Hapa mean half. Was used first to describe half Asian Half Hawaiian or Haole (white). And I think it is totally ok to start using it as Half anything else because it is happening anyway…so it has to be ok. Can’t stop these evolutions. Soon we’ve hopefully reached the level when race doesn’t matter anyway.”

Marie Woods answered, “I was only made aware of the word ‘hapa’ when Kip Fulbeck released his photography book several years back. Because of how the book used the word, I’ve always taken it to mean anyone who is half or part Asian. I didn’t think that the term only applied to Asians who were half white or European. For example, I would consider Tiger Woods to be hapa just the same as Olivia Munn is hapa.”

Jayce Haliwell expressed, “I’ve tried staying away from hapa because of the Hawaiian origin, and what I thought was a much more specific definition. I prefer Eurasian, personally, but some have pointed out the possibility of confusion.”

Dazz Dozier posted, “It means half/mixed … Hapa as a term for Eurasians, Afroasians, etc. gained huge popularity at universities on the Left Coast in the 1990s starting with groups like Hapa Issues Forum at Cal Berkeley and then Hapa clubs at UCLA, USC, etc. and then subsequently became common even at unis [universities] in the midwest and east coast. It has crossed borders and used in places like Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong.”

Kevin Valone asserted, “Hapa means that you are part-asian or pacific islander and part non-asian or non-pacific islander. The Hawaiian definition of ‘anyone mixed race can be hapa’ is just a Hawaii thing and not a mainstream Hapa thing. This not only include biracial people, but people that are a quarter asian or white. Regardless the word has evolved into a different context. All words do. … I respect the Hawaiian definition and anyone who believes in it, but for the rest of the world Hapa means part asian or pacific islander.”

Cory Lance Gunz Gaskins wrote, “I’d say the only time I’ve heard the term hapa is in online forums. I’d say I started seeing it around 2007? … I’d say words evolve and hapa now means anyone who are mixed.”

Okura isn’t surprised a specific community would want to adopt an all-encompassing term for biracialism. “It is one of the few slang terms that refers to biracialism without a negative connotation (some might even argue it has a positive connotation), so it would make sense for any biracial community to adopt the word.”

The word has as much power to unite as it does to divide. Dariotis cites a now-defunct website called www.realhapas.com, and attributes someone named Lana Robbins with the following quote:

“When Hawaiians began to mix with Caucasians they began to have offspring who were Hawaiian and Caucasian. That is when Hawaiians of Hawaiian and Caucasian ancestry created a Hawaiian word to describe themselves and people like them. Eventually these Hawaiians of Hawaiian and Caucasian ancestry began to use the word ‘hapa’ for a part, portion, or fragment of Hawaiian people, places, and things. Until [Japanese Americans] began to rape their language. Today’s rape of the Hawaiian language also implies that the Hawaiian language means nothing and thus the Hawaiian people are nothing.

The raping of Hawaii continues with a new group of Colonizers, the California Wanna Be Hapas. As colonizers, California Wanna Be Hapas raped from Hawaiian Hapas their very identity, culture, and history and called it their own. These colonizers justified their illegal actions by creating organizations such as Hapa Issues Forum and other ‘Hapa’ online forums.”

After learning of this vitriol, Dariotis reveals she stopped using the word “hapa.”

Okura counters, “I actually do not entirely agree with this claim… The Asian community never appropriated the word ‘hapa.’ It has always meant ‘half’ in the Hawaiian language and in Hawaiian Creole English (Pidgin), and it still means that. Half Asians-half Caucasians are included in that, as they are biracial, but it does not refer to them exclusively. A half black, half Hispanic person could also be called ‘hapa’ technically, as they are half, as could a half Hawaiian, half Chinese person. Hapa simply means biracial.”

Think about it: Hawaiians borrowed the word from English, who then borrowed the term back, each time changing the meaning.

“It does not mean they appropriated it or stole it. It means they are borrowing the word, just as Wikipedia borrowed ‘wiki’ from Hawaiian (meaning ‘fast’ or ‘quick’). Languages and communities borrow from each other all the time,” continues Okura.

Nogelmeier concurs, “People can be overly sensitive.” To paint Hawaiians as easily-overpowered lemmings in a Caucasian quest for hegemony, he argues, discredits the intelligence and sophistication of the Hawaiian people.

Just because certain communities seem to be using the word to describe only Eurasians, does that change the definition of the word? Or add to its list of definitions? At what point does a movement reach critical mass such that it becomes a generally accepted definition? There are no easy answers.

“Unfortunately, we cannot control how other people use or pronounce a word, even if it’s from our language. When we don’t like how the meaning or pronunciation of word is changing, we can keep using and pronouncing that word the way we think it should be used and pronounced, and we can explain the cultural meaning to others. Language is kind of like art- once it’s out there, all control is lost and you can never really guess what people will do with it,” sums Okura.

Higgins contributes, “Words are often adopted by other cultures, including culturally-bound terminology, which isn’t always respectful or which overgeneralizes aspects of a culture – e.g., to sit Indian style, which isn’t limited to ‘Indians’ of course – a word that has now been replaced with ‘criss cross apple sauce’ in most classrooms. More apparently pleasant uses are also problematic, including ‘pow-wow,’ as in ‘Let’s have a pow-wow’ to indicate having a conversation, which overlooks the cultural significance of what a pow-wow actually is.”

This word is so personal because it speaks to the heart of a person: Identity. DeConte shares, “I have always been proud of being mixed, but it also has given me a slight insecurity complex regarding cultural ambiguity. I was never local-looking enough to fit into the Hawaiian crowd, not white enough to be fully integrated into the haole crowd.”

Seal also likes the descriptor. “Growing up on the mainland, I didn’t really have a specific word to describe my background. I just knew that both sides of my family (Caucasian and Chinese) were very different in their culture and beliefs. I didn’t feel like I quite belonged fully to either side. I didn’t look completely like either ethnicity. Occasionally it did bother me when people asked, ‘What are you?’ or mistook me for a completely different ethnicity, but that just became the norm, as it wasn’t common to meet someone with a mixed background.”

She learned the word when she started visiting Hawaii, eventually moving to Oahu to attend UH Mānoa. “This specific word had so much meaning in it for me; a sense of identity, belonging, and understanding, that many other words aren’t able to pinpoint. With just mentioning ‘hapa,’ people in Hawaii understand right away the basics of how I was raised with Caucasian and Asian parents. They don’t ask for further details or give me surprised looks, they just nod knowingly and the conversation moves on. I consider the word ‘hapa’ a compliment, as it has always been used in a positive manner and is a word that easily describes who I am.”

One word, multiple meanings. Which one is right? Or are they all? To whom does this word belong?

Every time I use the word now, should I also tag on an explainer? If it’s going to be that cumbersome or controversial, should I drop the term altogether and just spell out the ethnicities that I mean?

What started as a simple question has become a more than three-thousand word essay. I’ve certainly learned way more than I expected from this research.

The more I dug, the deeper down the rabbit hole I went, and in many directions – from language, to history, to culture. It would be very easy to get lost in this topic.

The power of language is interesting to reflect on, and it’s more than a little ironic to me that hapa refers to a mix, because the word itself has become a mixture of meanings and emotions.

4 thoughts on “What does “hapa” mean?

  • November 28, 2016 at 10:42 am
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    My kids are hapa, Chinese and haole.

    Reply
  • November 28, 2016 at 11:45 pm
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    My hapa nieces grew up having no knowledge (or being oblivious) of their hapa-ness. When (in passing), I told one that she was hapa haole, she nearly cried as she whined, “I’m not haole!” We had to explain the hapa = half thing, and you’d think it would be obvious to her since her mom is white! When her little sister was old enough and I mentioned her being hapa, she exclaimed, “I AM?!” She looked around like crazy and said, “Who’s haole in this family?!” Her mom was right there and was like hellooooooo.

    OK I don’t know where i’m going with all that, but just had to share.

    Reply
    • November 29, 2016 at 8:50 am
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      Isn’t that funny?? Kids and the way they see the world – color blind – it’s perfect.

      Reply
  • December 1, 2016 at 8:20 am
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    Interesting! My kids are Mexican, Caucasian. Love Melissa’s story about her nieces. Too funny!

    Reply

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