Ethnically ambiguous

Angela Kimi Hickman. photo courtesy of Angela Kimi Hickman

Sometimes it is hard to fully grasp that you have been living on an island until moments after you have left its gravitational pull.

Last week, I watched as the place I will always consider home rapidly shrank in size as my plane lifted higher, the blue vastness of the ocean soon overtaking the views from the window seats.

The pandemic had blessed me with an unexpected gift this year, allowing me to spend a few months back in Hawai‘i with my parents. I was met by familiar faces half concealed by cloth masks, greeted at a safe distance by friendly waves instead of hugs.

These bonus months back home also allowed me to step back into local culture in a way that brief visits never allowed.

I realize now that growing up as a mixed-race Japanese American in Hawai‘i is different than what many experience elsewhere. A majority of my classmates in school were Asian American and it was not uncommon to be hapa, a Hawaiian transliteration of the English word “half.” (Although this was a very common term throughout the Islands when I was younger, referring to people of half Asian descent, using this term today is often seen as a misappropriation of Hawaiian culture.) To be mixed race was not unusual, it was just one of the ways people were. To me, my situation always felt very normal, until suddenly it did not.

Moving to the mainland for college on the East Coast, I received attention for my appearance that was not familiar. Suddenly I was “exotic” at best and “strange” at worst, neither label of which I felt comfortable with. As with many individuals who are not a part of the mainstream in appearance, I became used to being asked, “Where are you from?” or the less preferred “What are you?” While random strangers guessed that I might hail from countries as varied as France, Ireland, China and Korea, others saw something more familiar in me. Native people across the United States asked if I shared their culture and a man from Afghanistan once smiled when he said I looked like someone from his country.

When I moved to New York City, I decided to take advantage of the unique opportunity of working on television shows and movies as a background actor or extra. The new term for my appearance was “ethnically ambiguous,” which allowed me to chameleon my way into different roles. While casting agents decided I could convincingly portray someone of Hispanic or Middle Eastern descent (or occasionally a darker Caucasian), I was very rarely cast as Asian. It seemed so strange to me that I did not have the right look to work on an Asian wedding scene while attending ceremonies for my Japanese American cousins was a regular part of my life.

Being home in Hawai‘i allowed me the chance to work on new productions and have a different experience on set. The background there was filled with faces that reflected the islands, with a diversity that I rarely saw in New York. Two recently debuted series based in Hawai‘i also feature multiracial Asian American leads, with Vanessa Lachey at the helm on “NCIS: Hawai‘i” and Peyton Elizabeth Lee as the title character on “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.”

One of the most special experiences of working on set in Hawai‘i for me, however, took place behind the scenes. Unlike when I moved to the Mainland with people remarking how I was different, local background and crew members acknowledged me as one of them. We would often have conversations where they would mix in Pidgin English, our local creole that originated as a way of communication between cultures on the sugarcane plantations, or make references that only longtime residents would know.

These were phrases that I had not heard for years but were always a part of my life growing up. I chuckled when I saw the sign on the fuse box at the Kalaeloa Film Studio where “Magnum, P.I.” is often filmed. “Abunai! No touch!” it warned, reminding me of something my grandmother would say to us when we were little. Japanese culture is a big part of our collective culture in Hawai‘i and I miss that deeply when away.

I am back in New York now and still shaking off the jet lag. When my mind is fully clear again, I will realize how much of myself that I have packed away again. Parts that are not fully understood in this place, far away from my home in the Pacific.

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