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Multiculturalism Explained In One Word: Hapa

In a guest commentary, the program's outgoing Intern, Kristin Lee, describes how she explains her multicultural roots, and why she embraces the term "HAPA" to describe her heritage.

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

Well, being a part of the Tell Me More team is a real workout for any young journalist. Our summer intern, Kristen Lee, could tell you that. She just recently ended her time with us and as part of our program's tradition, she finished her tenure with a commentary. And what's on Kristen's mind? Dealing with the curiosity - and occasional ignorance - of people confused by her multiethnic background.

KRISTEN LEE: What are you? People say this to me as a pickup line in a bar, or a question to prove their own assumptions about my race. I answer with a formula. I'm a quarter Chinese, and the rest is Swedish.

From my appearance, people assume I am Asian, but how could a quarter measurement define who I am? So can I just tell you? I am a hip-hop-loving, piano-playing, dancing diva who grew up on a ranch in rural Michigan with some horses, dogs, and every kind of hand-sized pet imaginable.

I flaunt all of my cultural mix, but so many people want me to pick a label. So if I have to choose, I choose hapa. It means half-Asian, and half another race. It's actually Hawaiian slang that I picked up in college. It's meant to be slightly derogatory, but I embrace it as a source of empowerment.

Hawaii is one of the country's most multiracial states and when I studied there, I was viewed as a local because of my racial features fit the Hawaiian template. I have almond-shaped eyes; fine, dark hair; and olive skin that turns butterscotch in the sun. I was a confident and proud hapa in Hawaii but when I came back to Michigan, my predominantly white peers still saw me an a model minority statistic, exotic foreigner, and a token Asian in the classroom.

My style is not as simple as those stereotypes. No, I don't clunk around in Swedish clogs and no, I don't speak a Chinese dialect. And that can be a problem for Asian people who pressure me to prove the legitimacy of my Chinese heritage.

Still, I feel like I've benefited from white privilege because of my lighter skin. I've avoided most racial discrimination, but I do face a different kind of prejudice when walking around with my black boyfriend, like the occasional hard stare or intimidating remark. I feel like a society that focuses on black and white doesn't recognize my unique multicultural experience. So how do I explain who I am, and what being hapa means to me?

LEE: rice pudding. Just as the white rice is baked into the yellow pudding, I, too, am mixed into the U.S. melting pot. Yet as the pudding bakes, the rice retains it consistency, like I keep my own, unique, hapa identity.

And yeah, I'm tasty, too.

NEARY: Kristen Lee, with Tell Me More summer interns. She recently graduated from Michigan State University majoring in journalism. That's our program for today. I'm Lynn Neary, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues
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