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Hapas: The New Face of America

Novel Explores Multicultural Americans, Identity, in Multicultural America

Author Charles Smith didn’t have to imagine a multicultural world for his new novel I-State Lines. He’s been living in one—his own family—for decades, as marriage has united his Anglo heritage with Mexican-American, African-American and Asian-American bloodlines in a single generation. As if that wasn’t diversity enough, his brother married a French woman.

“Given the rise of mixed-race marriages and people in the U.S., she may be the most exotic of the bunch,” he says.

Mixed-ethnicity offspring are practically the norm in long-diverse Hawaii, where Smith spent his youth. “It’s not that unusual for people to have four, five or even six different heritages,” he says. “Most Native Hawaiians are ‘Hapas’ like the character Alex in my book, a mix of haole (Caucasian), Hawaiian , Chinese and Portuguese.”

The result is a choice of identity which is both freeing and challenging. Though not mixed himself—“nobody counts English, Scots and French as anything but ‘pure gringo’,” he says—he has seen his nieces and his friends’ children deal with issues of multiple-choice identity.

“The core value of American culture is the liberation of identity from tradition,” Smith says. “In traditional societies, the cobbler’s eldest son becomes a cobbler whether he likes it or not, and the daughter’s marriage is arranged based on the family’s color, class and creed. Immigrating to America has always held not just the promise of a better material life, but freedom from the shackles of traditional identities.”

The “melting pot” mixing of Americans is gathering steam, Smith notes, as more marriages mix ethnicities and more children are born of those unions. The numbers are already significant; in the 2000 Census (U.S. Census Bureau), 22 million of the 281 million U.S. citizens described themselves as mixed race.

Acording to the Miliken Institute, recent census data shows that mixed-ethnicity marriages are an increasingly common slice of American life. Nationally, multi-racial unions rose 65% from 1990 to 2000, totaling 3.7 million interracial marriages. Nearly a third of all marriages including Hispanic or Asian Americans is a mixed-race union. While a third of all marriages in “melting pot” Hawaii are mixed-ethnicity, multiethnic marriages also increased 113% in Tennessee and 120% in Nevada in the past decade.

While this explosion of mixed-ethnicity citizens offers tremendous opportunities for expression, Smith observes, it also presents a daunting challenge to each individual.

“The implicit promise of America is that identity and success are both earned rather than bestowed,” he says, which places the burden of forging one’s identity on the individual. This process presents a uniquely American challenge to those with multiple heritages; that struggle is the heart of Smith’s story of two young men, one part-Hawaiian and other Hispanic-Anglo, working their way across America.

“While many mixed-heritage people are indistinguishable from Caucasians, my characters are like my family and friends, distinct shades of brown,” Smith says. “We are not yet a color-blind society, and there are as many shades of ethnic identity as there are shades of skin.”

Just as important in identity as race, Smith says, is the financial class of the family. As a recent report from The Edward W. Hazen Foundation titled “U.S. Demographic Trends & Implications for Young People’s Development” noted, “Although ethnic differences are important to consider historically and politically, class differences may prove to be more important in dealing with future outcomes of youth.”

Though the 19-year-olds in Smith’s novel are middle-class, that doesn’t relieve them of the pressures of identity politics. “Every ‘pure’ ethnic group—never mind that all ethnicities have been mixes since time immemorial—can subtly or not so subtly demand allegiance of mixed-race individuals,” Smith says. “Alternatively,” he adds, “a group can exclude a mixed-race person as ‘not us,’ a very painful rejection for someone who identifies with all of their heritages.”

To insist on an individual identity puts one at risk of feeling isolated, Smith says, which is partly why his characters formed such a ready friendship.

Based on his friendships with mixed-heritage people in Hawaii and California, Smith’s Hispanic-Anglo character, Daz, does not even speak Spanish. “Statistically, by the third generation, most people no longer even speak the language of their grandparents, be it Spanish, Chinese or Russian. ‘Californios’ like Daz may be five or ten generations removed from the language of their surname.” This is true not only of Hispanics, Smith notes, but also of Chinese-Americans, many of whose ancestors arrived in California or Hawaii in the 1850s.

This is not to say, Smith adds, that Hapas don’t relate to their various heritages; it’s that each individual arrives at the meanings and traditions of their heritage on their own terms and in their own time. “People with Native American or Hawaiian blood clearly tend to identify with that heritage most strongly,” he says, “but they may well explore or draw upon their other heritages at various stages of their life.”

Despite being a mix of races; Alex is described as “being Hawaiian in the same way he breathes oxygen”—without any awareness of the Otherness of being mixed-race. A famous example of this seamlessness can be found in Tiger Woods, Smith notes, who is equally a hero to Thais, African-Americans and sports fans of all backgrounds.

Smith believes that work, more than ethnicity per se, helps young people forge their own identities. “The process of trying jobs and roles on for size is the crucible of American identity,” he says, and as a result, his characters take a variety of jobs as they work their way from California to New York and back.

“It’s the glory of America that one’s identity is not defined at birth,” Smith says, “but nobody said that finding or creating one’s identity is easy. That freedom is a responsibility which at times can feel like a burden, and that forging of a uniquely American identity is ultimately what my book is about.”

(975 words)

I-State Lines publication date: April 2006


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All content and coding copyright © 2006 by Charles Hugh Smith, all rights reserved. The right to reprint or adapt this feature story is expressly granted to professional journalists working in any media or language.


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