HomeHAPAGrowing up mixed: Hawaii vs the mainland

Growing up mixed: Hawaii vs the mainland

By Allyson Pang, AsAmNews Staff Writer

(Editor note: This is one of a series of stories looking at interracial marriage. Reporters from 20+ ethnic media outlets including AsAmNews turned the lens on multiracial couples in their communities. The stories offer intimate portraits of how people from California—as well as from all over the world—find and marry one another, creating a cosmopolitan culture in the state that has never existed before. While racial hate continues to rise, the epic story in California is one of love across all color lines. Visit California Love Stories to see more in the series.)

Being in Hawai’i all of her life, Taylor Miyashiro felt she fit right in along with everyone else being Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, Chinese and Irish. She says she blended in with the rest of the island population where almost a quarter of the people identify as mixed-race- the highest of any state.

Unlike Miyashiro, Erin Ertunga had a different experience growing up as White and Turkish in Alabama.

After living in France for a couple of years, Ertunga returned and decided not to mention her ethnicity unless she was comfortable with the person. She acknowledged she is White passing and often hid her mixed-race identity.

“Well, Alabama…it’s not too easy being different,” She told AsAmNews. “People just aren’t too kind. To a lot of little kids in Alabama, just ’cause of how adults are, they are aware of the Middle East and they don’t like it.”

According to the 2020 U.S Census, the mixed-race population increased over 200% since 2010 to total 33.8 million multiracial people.

Having mixed-race people is not something new, University of Washington communication professor and researcher LeiLani Nishime said to AsAmNews. Mixed-race people and intermarriage have been around since the country started.

Being mixed-race in Hawai’i is common, Miyashiro said. So she rarely thought deeply about her own ethnicities because being mixed-race was widely accepted across the islands.

Growing up, Miyashiro felt most connected to Hawaiian culture, which she attributes to attending a Hawaiian-specific preschool and eating Hawaiian food.

On the other hand, Washington-state resident Gabi Sanesi explained to AsAmNews how being surrounded by her different cultures shaped her comfort in being Native Hawaiian, Native American (Choctaw tribe), Italian, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese.

With her Hawaiian side, her dad taught her pidgin and she traveled to Hawaii to connect with family; her Italian side took her to Italy where she got her dual-citizenship; her grandparents spoke in Choctaw and cooked Native American foods for her as a child; and any gaps in her cultural knowledge about her other ethnicities was filled by doing research into them.

Sanesi was also surrounded by mixed-race cousins in Washington, so it was easy to be herself. Only in elementary school did she recognize how little mixed-race children there were.

“I don’t think people realize how much toxicity is embedded in certain cultures,” Sanesi said. “You get to choose like ‘I really like this tradition and this one.’ And you don’t have to take anything that may be a little toxic in any way with you.”

Ertunaga Family

“What” are you?

For people who are mixed-race, they may be asked to continually “prove” their ethnicity or race.

Nishime said her mixed-race students sometimes feel the need to declare or convince people of their racial identity in ways that other people might not.

“If you grew up in a place where there is lots of mixed-race people, people are already expecting to meet other people who are mixed-race,” Nishime said. “You don’t feel pushed into that position where you have to constantly declare your racial identity.”

In Washington, Sanesi had to navigate the assumptions made based on her racially ambiguous appearance.

“Being confused for one race was more frequent than anything else,” she said. “All of my life, people have this pre-assumption that I’m Hispanic or Latina. People would just walk up to me and start speaking Spanish.”

Similarly, Miyashiro has also felt needing to “prove” she is “enough” of her ethnicities.

Despite close ties to her Hawaiian ancestry, she said she does not have as much Hawaiian blood for her to consider it as “enough.” She also admitted not being well-versed in Hawaiian culture or fluent in the language.

“I have no understanding of any of the other cultures that I should be a part of, [so] where does my value come from? Do I even have value anymore?” Miyashiro said. 

Acceptance of being mixed

“Part of the reason that mixed-race people aren’t recognized so much is because to learn about mixed-race people, you have to learn about the racial history of this country,” Nishime said. “And I think we just don’t want to pay attention to that.”

Miyashiro said she did not feel devalued for being mixed. Instead, she appreciates being a variety of ethnicities because she believes there are not a lot of people with her exact ethnic breakup.

“At the end of the day, being mixed isn’t everything. And that’s because being mixed is not something that any one of us chose to be,” she said. “It is what it is and that can’t really define who I am. I think what’s more important is the culture I was raised in and a part of.”

For Ertunga, she was appreciative for learning empathy and a broader mindset towards other perspectives as well as cultures. She expressed that being mixed has allowed her to approach new things without apprehension or fear.

“Growing up in Alabama, absolutely did a really good job of me being empathetic but not forgiving of people who do not view me with any value,” Ertunga said.

Sanesi said there is importance in her being able to identify and compare the positives and negatives with intergenerational trauma from each culture. This allows her to pick and choose what traditions to continue and which ones to end.

Ultimately, mixed-race people are just people.

“Every person who is mixed is gonna have a different story,” Sanesi said. “Even though we have all these cultures, you can feel very lost for a long time in just trying to find yourself with it. Let people take their time figuring out, but also hear them out.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Please take advantage of a $30,000 matching grant challenge. An anonymous donor has offered to match dollar for dollar every tax-deductible donation made to Asian American Media Inc from November 1, 2023 until the end of the year. The money will be used to fund the addition of a new reporter and to produce content for limited English-speaking Asian immigrants. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am mixed race, Japanese mother and White father. The worst racism I faced was in Tacoma, Washington. I look mostly White, so most of my classmates hated me for “passing” as White. I, on the other hand, desperately wanted to be more Japanese. The only place I ever felt accepted as “hapa” was in Hawai’i. My dad was in the Air Force and was transferred (back) to Hawai’i in 1969. I lived there until 1997. Married a Hawai’i-born Japanese man. When we moved to the Mainland, I again faced racism in Indiana, Michigan, and now in Florida. I make it very clear to people that I am mixed-race and proud of it. I hope my sons are proud of their being mixed-race. Our younger generations are even more mixed than I am, and my sister and I love it.

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