Identity Crisis: Being Asian in Hawaii vs. Everywhere Else

Chinese dim sum restaurant in Honolulu

Hawaii is often called a place with a "minority majority." It's the only state in the US where more of the population are people of color than white (who make up only about 25% of Hawaii's residents), and a lot of us have been in the islands for multiple generations, making the blend of cultures here even more unique

My family is typical of the kind of Asians you'll find in the islands. My great grandparents from Japan and my great-great grandparents from China came over in the late 1800s/early 1900s to work on the sugar plantations, and we've been here ever since. I'm fourth generation American, neither of my parents speak their heritage language, and while my grandparents once knew theirs, they can now hardly understand them. I grew up celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving, but also Chinese New Year and the mid-Autumn festival. My Japanese grandmother's specialties include nishime and kombumaki, but she can also cook up a mean from-scratch mac and cheese. 

And this is an extremely common experience in Hawaii. As someone whose family came over during the plantation era, you're very much American, but you also practice many of the customs that your ancestors brought over from the motherland. You know where you're from, but you're not exactly familiar with it. And even if your friends are of a different heritage, you know that you all share at least the fact that you're part of a hybrid culture. You all stand perfectly on the middle ground between the US and Asia. 

But because of that, once I got to Chicago for school, I found myself kind of...lost. Sure, there were a ton of other Asian people there, but they were real Asians. First or second generation, they grew up speaking their heritage language, still had family back in Asia, and actually knew the details of their customs. And trying to identify myself with them almost made me feel like an imposter. Compared to them, I felt watered-down, white-washed. But I definitely wasn't white either. 

I always took for granted the fact that I had a similar background to the people around me, and for the first time in my life, I was forced to think about what identity really means. For the first time in my life, I couldn't relate to the people around me, and they couldn't relate to me. It's really bizarre, feeling like you're not part of either the majority or minority. Heck, even when Fresh Off the Boat, a show praised for its portrayal of the Asian-American Dream, came out, I couldn't see myself in it.

I've come to think of myself as being on a spectrum with my Asian heritage on one side and my American-ness on the other. When I'm on the mainland, I'm forced toward the Asian side, as uncomfortable as it is, and when I'm in Japan, I lean heavily toward the American side, though I try my best to always introduce myself as being from Hawaii rather than the US. So far, the only place I find myself in balance is when I'm home in the islands, and maybe one day I'll prove myself wrong, but for now it really feels like it's the only place I can achieve equilibrium.