By Kai Braden
The 80s and 90s were two decades in America that really began to see an influx of interracial couples. Especially in multi-cultural cities like San Francisco, mixed babies began to pop up here and there. Yet because mixed-raced people were still uncommon at the time, growing up as a half-Chinese and half-German boy had its challenges. I specifically remember the school cafeteria being one of those places that forced me to define my identity as a child. Kids seemed to naturally sit with those to whom they felt could relate. The white kids sat with each other, the asians with the asians, and the smaller minorities of black and latino kids happened to clump together as one. And because I was “the asian kid” at the white table, and “the white kid” at the asian table, I felt most at home with the blacks and latinos. I don’t think most people realize that being mixed is more of a minority than the stereotypical racial minorities.
Flash-forward to 2014, mixed-raced figures are now prevalent in politics, sports, and entertainment. What once made me feel limited, now makes me feel versatile. Being mixed as a model in the fashion industry has opened up doors to places I would never have been otherwise. I have learned that Los Angeles loves the “ethnically ambiguous” look, where models that book the major campaigns tend to look like they could be almost any race. This look thus targets multiple demographics, enabling brands to connect with mass consumers.
Asia, similarly, loves Hapas. Hapas, or those with only half-asian blood, are becoming more and more influential in fashion, commercials, and pop culture. Being fortunate to work in Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jakarta, and Singapore as a model, I understand what clients prefer when marketing their brand. The consumers need to relate to the brand, yet the brand still needs to express certain attributes that are coveted and unattainable so that it stands out from the ordinary. For instance, marketing a cosmetic brand like Nivea in Thailand would require having a Thai model so that the Thai people can relate. However, use a model that looks Thai yet has a prominent nose and round eyes with double-eye lids, and everyone is looking to buy the product.
Yet something I hear more often than not when I introduce myself at castings in Asia is confusion as to how I am half-Chinese and half-German but grew up in America. Perhaps people forget that America is made up of many different cultures and races, and that nationality can differ from ethnicity? For instance, models often have to “slate” (introduce themselves on camera with name, height, and race) at castings for a photo shoot. When casting asks where I am from, I of course say “America.” They then look at me as if I am forgetting to tell them that I am of some Asian race. So when I then say that I am half-Chinese and half-German, they then correct me and say that I am half-Chinese and half-American. We then look at each other with squinty eyes in our miscommunication and laugh it off.
Whenever I go to a street vendor or local restaurant to eat, the seller assumes that I only eat the most westernized food they can offer. If I am in Bangkok, that usually means pad thai. If I am in Singapore, then it’s chicken rice. And in Hong Kong, they are already handing me a char siu bao (aka barbecue pork bun) before I’ve made my decision. They’ll laugh if I try to eat anything else, but to their surprise I usually order the local’s favorite.
When getting into a taxi cab, I like to pretend I am a local so that the driver doesn’t take advantage and drive “the long way” because I am foreign. So I will usually play off of my Asian race and learn a bit of the local language so that it appears that I am local. Yet when they start talking to me, there’s only so much smiling and nodding I can do before they figure out that I have no idea what they are saying. So toward the end of the cab ride, you can bet they are playing Aerosmith or Beyonce on the radio and asking me questions about why people are so fat in my country.
So what is it really like being of mixed asian in Asia? I’d have to say:
1) Hapas are also a minority, just like in America!
2) Hapas are sought after, especially in entertainment media!
3) Hapas confuse people, mostly when first being introduced!
My advice to my fellow Hapas would be to:
1) Just have fun with it. People will always try to figure out what you are, no matter the country you are in. Have fun blending in with the people, and standing out at the same time.
2) If you are a model, take advantage of the fact that you are sought after. When clients are looking for an Asian model, go to the casting. When clients are looking for a white model, go to the casting. Perhaps more opportunities await.
3) Be open to and patient with people asking you questions about your race. Enlighten them about your ethnic origins, and celebrate it.
Kai Braden, also author of “Picture (Not) Perfect: A Male Model Memoir” (https://kaibraden.com/author/), is currently based in Los Angeles.
He is pursuing an acting career in Hollywood while simultaneously traveling back-and-forth to Asia for modelling jobs.
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