How Mixed-Race Asians Embrace Multiple Cultures and Identities

Photos courtesy of the subjects

"What are you?"

It's the question that 25-year-old Kim Quitzon was asked by classmates as a Filipina-Salvadoran girl growing up in a majority Hispanic community in Van Nuys, California.

The same question is asked of 24-year-old Kiera Johnson - who is Chinese, Irish, German and Swedish - every time she boards an Uber where the driver is confused by her appearance versus the name on the call.

College student Kamilah Zadi, 20, remembers when customers would ask her that while she worked in the restaurant run by her Korean mother and French-Algerian father in South L.A.

Quitzon, Johnson, Zadi and more than one and a half million people in America identify as hapa, a word commonly used to describe a person of mixed racial heritage with partial roots in Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry.

But many people of such lineage said having more than one culture often opens up feelings of having to prove their allegiance to one or both cultures, being treated as an outsider on either side of their heritage and harshly questioning their own ethnic and racial identity.

These sentiments became apparent on a public scale before the release of this summer's box office smash "Crazy Rich Asians." The film faced slew of criticism over the casting of its male lead Henry Golding and supporting actress Sonoya Mizuno, who are both mixed race, in a movie that was being celebrated for having the first all-Asian cast that Hollywood had procured in 25 years.


Golding is Malaysian and British while Mizuno is Japanese, British and Argentinean. Comments on their casting being "not Asian enough" and the film committing "white-washing" flooded online blogs and op-eds within the past year.

In an "Entertainment Weekly" interview last year, Golding told the magazine: "How Asian do you have to be to be considered Asian?... Aren't we meant to strive together for something bigger than these boundaries that we're putting on ourselves instead of bullying each other?"

A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 60 percent of multiracial adults in the U.S. were proud of their background. But 55 percent said they had been the subject of jokes and racial slurs.

In the most recent studies done by the Pew Research Center, data showed that the population of multiracial children grew from one percent in 1970 to 14 percent in 2015. Social trends researchers in the studies said they only expect that number to grow.

Step by Step Charts

According to scholarly articles from the University of Connecticut, Asians are the largest group to marry outside of their race, making them one of the most commonly represented groups in the mixed-race community.

But despite the size and growth of their population nationwide, some individuals said their experience of being mixed still feels widely unknown.

Manhattan student and playwright Andi Grene, 16, said she remembers when a classmate nonchalantly asked her "What hardships do you face?" when her peers were working on a video for a school project about being multiracial.

"Feeling lost is a very common thing for mixed people," Andi, who is Indian and Irish, said. "You never feel fully one or the other, so sometimes you feel like you don't count as anything. But for me, the fact that I'm mixed doesn't negate the fact that I'm Indian."

When people of mixed heritage like Golding and Mizuno claim a place of belonging in spaces that are considered "Asian," it counts for a lot, Andi said.

Those who are mixed said embracing a multicultural background is a different journey for each person that involves creating conversations about what it means to be mixed, confronting the conflicts that come with having multiple ethnicities and consolidating the different identities of each heritage.


"You're different parts of everything. But you can be a whole 'you.'"

- Mariko Daisey

Four women of mixed heritage describe how being multiracial raised questions about beauty standards, personal safety and identity.


For Quitzon, the internal battle between her two cultures often presents itself during the holidays when she celebrates with both parts of her family.

Her father's side, which she mainly grew up with, usually lines up a parade of Filipino food for Christmas, like chicken adobo, pancit noodles, lumpia spring rolls and a roasted pig. But being the only one there with part-Salvadoran blood, Quitzon said she couldn't help but not feel "Filipino enough."

But for her mother's side, Quitzon said she braces herself to be the only one there who family members call "La Chinita," a word for "little Asian girl."

Quitzon shared how the clash between her two bloodlines even went skin deep as she grew up with conflicting beauty standards from both sides. By Filipino standards, lighter skin is typically preferred, which contested with her darker skin tone, she said. Quitzon remembers when a family member called her "dark" and "dirty" after she spent the afternoon playing in the sun. It was a seemingly harmless but stinging joke that stuck with her until adulthood.

"For a while I really believed if I was lighter I'd be prettier," Quitzon said. "But when I got older I started to understand whatever we have to work with is beautiful and it's better to accept yourself than to be something you're not."

Effie Makrygiannis, 24, describes herself as "Japanese and Greek with a sprinkle of Hawaiian."

"If I'm in my group of friends on the east coast who are white, I know I look distinctly Asian," Makrygiannis said. "However, when I was in fifth and sixth grade hanging out with my friends who are Asian, I look distinctly white. If you put me in either one of the homogenous populations, I stand out."

"If you put me in either one of the homogenous populations, I stand out."

- Makrygiannias

In Greece, where she has visited for every summer of her life, she said people automatically assume she is a tourist.

"Every single year, without fail, I'll be walking down the street and hear men or women say 'Look at that Chinese girl here for vacation' or make a comment about my outfit," Makrygiannis said. "Then I look at them and say [in Greek] 'I didn't hear you could you say that last part again?'"

But not being solely Greek did not inhibit her ability to speak the language with proper grammar, cook traditional dishes and know the different islands that comprise part of the nation.

"I do feel like I have to prove myself because I want so badly to be accepted on both ends," Makrygiannis said.

Actor Naren Weiss, the son of an American father and Indian mother, said he makes efforts to avoid being typecast as the terrorist or the "tech guy" in television. But casting directors for other roles sometimes deemed him as not being "Indian enough" just by the sight of his last name.

It's a tightrope Weiss said he has tried to balance on for nearly his whole life living in America then India.

"When I was in the U.S. I was only considered Indian," Weiss, 27, said. "But then I had to go to India only to be treated as American. You are always the other, which is fine because when you get older you find out that it's so much more fun not to conform."

"When you get older you find out that it's so much more fun not to conform."

- Weiss

Now living in New York City, Weiss was cast in Andi's play that ran this summer about a three generational Indian family where the youngest children are biracial.

For Andi, mixed representation in media is lacking, which is something she works through in her writing.

Another instance of feeling "other" that reoccurs for people of mixed race is when forms attached to college applications and standardized tests ask individuals to choose a box in the ethnicity category.

"I have to sit there and think which one am I today?" Makrygiannis said. "That's really when being hapa gets a little hard because I don't feel like I should have to choose. When I choose one, I feel like I'm letting down the other."

The Census Bureau only began allowing people to select more than one racial category in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.

Student Mariko Daisey, 22, said filling her college applications in 2014 was the first time she could finally check all that applied to her.

"For a while, I didn't want to check one box, so I checked 'Other,'" Daisey, who is Black, Japanese and Nanticoke Indian, said. "Then I thought 'No, I want people to know who I am' and having that option helps me reaffirm my identity."


"Both parents came together in differing odds. But they got through it."

- Naren Weiss

Here are photos that show individuals who are multiracial with their siblings, parents and grandparents.

The photos include families that are Japanese and Greek, Chinese and Irish, and more.


The complexities and long explanation that comes from being a multiracial Asian trying to answer "What are you?" can often be summed up by a two-syllable word of Hawaiian origin - hapa.

Though it's currently and popularly used to describe someone who has partial Asian ancestry, the word "hapa-haole" is traditionally defined as someone who has "part-foreign" and "part" aboriginal Hawaiian ancestry.

Keala Losch, a professor of Hawaiian and Pacific Island studies at Kapi'olani Community College, said other communities adopted the word because of its longstanding positive connotations in Hawaiian culture.

'Hafu' - a word meaning "half" in Japanese used to describe a child of a Japanese and a "foreign" parent - has not necessarily carried the same reputation.

In the "Hapa Japan" essay collection edited by USC professor of East Asian cultures Duncan Williams, psychologists and sociologists said "the person labeled as 'hafu' is vulnerable to depiction as different, making it difficult for them to be treated as individuals or ordinary Japanese."

According to the essays, the word has gained favor amongst Asian communities mainly in Hawaii and California over the past few decades.

But Losch, who has studied the origins of "hapa" by examining Hawaiian-language newspapers, said as the use of the word strays from its original meaning, the antiquity is being forgotten.

"I think it's important for people to understand there's a bunch of us who feel like we can't stop trying to fight for the history," Losch said. "If this is about being proud of your mixed ancestry then to make it more authentic, you have to pull something from your identity and ancestry."

"...there's a bunch of us who feel like we can't stop trying to fight for the history."

- Losch

In 2015, Pew Research Center data indicated that in Hawaii nearly one-in-four residents identify as having more than one race, making the state home to the nation's largest share of multiracial Americans.

Josh Fukagawa, who was born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii, said being mixed and using the term "hapa" does not draw much attention in the area.

"It wasn't anything I was forced to think about at all and it's not as much of a conversation as it is [in the U.S.]," Fukagawa, who is black and Japanese, said. "I don't ever recall anyone thinking it's appropriating a Hawaiian word. To me, I understood that as word to describe someone as mixed."

Williams said while "hapa" seems to have longevity in Asian communities, that may change.

"Any kind of language or terms that help people feel fluid is generally a good thing and I think 'hapa' does that," Williams said. "But it's important to note that some things go in and out of favor over time for whatever reason. There's always more discussion because people get more complicated."


When Keira Monuki was a freshman at UCLA, she said she remembers walking through the campus' activities fair and having a person ask if she was mixed-race.

The question was not prompted from a prying or intrusive stranger, but from a board member of the school's Mixed Student Union, an organization that discusses topics relating to cultural identity for multiracial individuals.

The student club, which Monuki said has approximately 50 percent people who identify as hapa, talks about code-switching, interracial dating and how to address microaggressions.

"[Microaggressions are] when people don't understand their own inherit stereotyping and don't realize things are offensive," Monuki said. "It's not overtly violent or something that causes you to fear for your safety. But it's like tiny papercuts that you get numb to after a while."

Students in the organization said microaggressions can be embodied in different kinds of comments, like "You don't act very Asian" or, depending on the context, "No, where are you really from?" and "What are you?"

Club members said spaces such as this can benefit younger generations by allowing them to confront their mixed identities.

"A lot of mix people 'never think about it,' so instead of embracing both cultures you forget both," Monuki said.

According to Monuki, the student club is working on making itself more accessible through school networking and social media.


Some ways to find organizations for mixed people include looking at college clubs and community events on social media.


"I always say I'm half, but I also feel like that's diminishing a part of me, so I'm adamant about saying I'm both," Quitzon said.

As a Filipina and Salvadoran woman, Quitzon said she finds peace in knowing that her specific heritage makes her unique.

Many said embracing both cultures involves learning about their family's backgrounds, even if they greatly differ from one another.

"Greek culture is overwhelming, but beautiful and loud and very extroverted," Makrygiannis said. "But the Japanese culture is quiet and respectful. I feel really blessed because both cultures are amazing and I draw from both of them."

Others said that one's ownership of a multicultural identity comes with time. For Andi, she is hopeful that the public's understanding of mixed people will do the same.

"I do think as generations get older, the more interracial mingling there is," Andi said. "Someday, it won't be such an anomaly to be mixed."

To Weiss, it's important to find patience while answering the questions that the mixed community contends with on a daily basis.

"It doesn't hurt to explain 'This is my background' because it could be a great teaching moment," Weiss said. "I think it all comes down to understanding that people are complicated. The answer to 'What are you?' is 'I'm a lot.'"