Wasian

OMG, Am I Wasian?

How a slang term for mixed Asian and white people led writer Maylin Tu down a path of self-discovery

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Words by Maylin Tu

A few months ago, a 15-year-old called me “Wasian” and I cringed.

“Wasian”—a portmanteau of “white” and “Asian”—is a neologism referring to people of white and Asian descent (see also #wasiancheck on TikTok).

It’s true: I have one white parent and one Chinese parent, and I've used all of the following to describe myself: mixed Asian; biracial; half-Chinese, half-white; half-and-half; hapa; and mixed blood child or 混血儿. 

But as an elder Millennial (I’m 37), I’ve never described myself as “Wasian.” From the moment I first saw the word—probably on Facebook—I’ve hated it with a fiery passion.

What’s in a name?

Growing up in Maine in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I went to Chinese school on Sundays after church with my brother and sister and celebrated Lunar New Year with mooncake and 红包 at parties hosted by the Chinese American Friendship Association. I learned how to count to 100 in Mandarin and slurped wonton soup at our local Chinese restaurant.

If there were other mixed kids, I don’t remember them.

According to 2020 census data, mixed race Americans are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. The number of people identifying as multiracial increased by 276 percent, a change driven in part by changes to the questions used on the census.

But even as more and more Americans identify as multiracial, the answer to the question, “What are you?” or less obviously, “Where are you from?” remains a sticking point.

In the past—to fuck with people—I’ve said,

“I was born in Maine.”
“Yeah, but where are your parents from?”
“My dad is Chinese. My mom is white—German American”

The “racial elevator speech”

Turns out there’s a name for that—racial elevator speech. It’s “like an elevator speech—but not for a job, for your identity,” says Monica Heilman, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at Indiana University. She coined the phrase to describe the default scripts mutliracial people use when confronted with microaggressive racial inquiries. 

Heilman, who is Korean and white, found that the scripts people used didn’t necessarily match up with their own sense of self. They’re more of a “How do I get out of this conversation as soon as possible?” strategy.

“They might not want to talk with that person. It might be uncomfortable [or] out of the blue. And so primarily I'm seeing the elevator speech as the way to reduce the harm of that interaction,” she told me. Asking someone to explain their racial identity to you—“What are you?”—is a racist microaggression that entrenches binary views about race.

But in her paper, Heilman describes one participant who used humor in her racial elevator speech to make the interaction more “playful.” Joanna (not her real name) used the script: “Scotch-Korean, oh and don’t forget the German.” Heilman explains: “‘Don't forget the German!’ seems a little silly, but she repeats it during the interview. So for her, it was a fun way to make sense of her identity.”

As much as I dislike the word “Wasian,” it feels like a simple way to respond to the “What are you?” question. But more than that, there’s the deeper allure of being readily legible to other people, no elevator speech required.

*PAGING ALL WASIANS. IF YOU IDENTIFY AS WASIAN, COULD YOU PLEASE COME TO THE FRONT*

Turns out, not all mixed Asian and white people have heard of the word “Wasian.” I know because I asked them.

“I'm guessing it's a portmanteau of white and Asian, but that's me using a big fun Scrabble word,” said David Kwong, 41, magician and puzzlemaker.

“I just remember laughing when I first heard it, honestly,” said Bri Ng Schwartz, 24, who works in arts administration for theater. “I thought it was funny.”

“I kind of cringe at the word because growing up, that word was associated with a white cis male who was really into Japanese culture,” said Alex Chester-Iwata, actor and editor-in-chief of Mixed Asian Media.

Need an official definition? Here you go:

Wasian - ​​wā-zhən

1: a person of mixed white and Asian descent. 2: a dude (and it’s always a dude) with Katana swords on his wall who loves anime.

If Urban Dictionary is to be believed, these two definitions of Wasian have been battling it out since roughly 2003. Safe to say that its origins are, like many slang terms for race, pejorative. But words, even racially charged ones, change and evolve over time.

If you Google “Wasian,” the search engine will ask you, helpfully, “Did you mean: Asian”? Meanwhile, the tag #wasian on TikTok currently has 1.7 billion views. When I first started writing this story, I wanted to metaphorically grab Gen Z Wasians (ugh) by the shoulders, look straight into their eyes and shake them while yelling, “ARE YOU OKAY???” Now, I wonder if this would be the equivalent of yelling at them to get off my lawn.

Is being mixed race a superpower?

Chester-Iwata thinks so. But it wasn’t till she moved to New York City for her acting career that she found belonging. “I would see a mixed Asian gal at an audition. And we would lock eyes. And we would just know that [we] were mixed. And we’d come up to chat and be like, ‘Hey, are you… ? Oh, my God, yes! I am, too!'”

Schwartz, like many mixed Asian kids, didn’t grow up around other people who looked like her. “I'm plus size, so seeing other Asian plus-size humans was never a thing,” she says. “And then in college, I knew one other mixed Asian person, but I didn't identify with her either.”

Schwartz ended up meeting Chester-Iwata and falling in with the Mixed Asian Media crew (at the time it was called “Hapa Mag”). The first time she met them, they went to see the movie The Farewell. “We took a picture at the end … and looking at a picture of all of us was really powerful for me. It was the first time that's ever happened.”

Kwong identifies as half Chinese, half Jewish—his bar mitzvah, appropriately, took place at a Chinese banquet hall. “Stereotypically, Jews love Chinese food, so I always joke, ‘Everybody was happy.’”

In college, there was a club called HAPA, which stood for “Half Asian People’s Association.” He wasn’t interested in joining at the time. But his attitude toward being mixed Asian has changed over the past 20 years. He recently contributed an essay to the book My Life: Growing Up Asian in America where he writes how identity has influenced his career as a magician.

“If someone got me a T-shirt right now that said “Half Asian” on it, I would wear it… I'm not saying I was ashamed before—I just wasn't a fully formed adult yet. And now I am and this is who I'm proud to be.”

It's my childhood trauma and I'll cry if I want to

When multiple mixed Asian people said that their parents or partners had told them some version of “Well, you’re not Asian,” I couldn’t help but flinch.

When I was 9 years old, my family moved to Beijing, China. Three years of Chinese school and learning to count to 100 in Mandarin couldn't have prepared me for the culture shock of suddenly becoming a 老外, a foreigner, an American.

I know it’s PR, but I’m still triggered by Eileen Gu telling the press, “I’m American when I’m in the U.S. and I’m Chinese when I’m in China.”

With all due respect, are you fucking kidding me??? 

In China, I wasn’t Chinese or even half Chinese. I was visibly Other.

Gen Slosberg, a 22-year-old nonprofit professional—“an Asian American Jew” is her elevator speech—lived in Guangzhou, China for the first 14 years of her life. “The constant dissonance of knowing I'm Chinese and then being seen only as American was pretty traumatic for me,” she says.

While it’s easy to bond with other mixed Asians about “What are you?” questions and the constant demand from white people that we explain ourselves, it’s much harder to convey what it’s like to grow up mixed race in a homogenous country like China.

I know it’s PR, but I’m still triggered by Eileen Gu telling the press, “I’m American when I’m in the U.S. and I’m Chinese when I’m in China.”

With all due respect, are you fucking kidding me??? 

To be told by my parents, friends, and strangers that I’m half Chinese as a kid and then to move to China where people treated me like I was 100 percent white—to go from being the only Asian kid to the only American kid—was just brutal.

Talking to Slosberg—someone whose experience mirrored mine—made me want to cry, throw up, and do everything in my power to protect the next generation of mixed Asian kids from ever feeling that way.

Race is a joke

There’s a sentiment, especially online, that goes: If you can’t laugh about it, you better not cry. 

I’ve already been dragged in either the Subtle Mixed Traits or Subtle Halfie Traits Facebook groups for being—and this is a paraphrase—”no fun at parties”—for writing about being fetishized and Othered by white men. And now, it’s as if, by writing about the word “Wasian,” I’m making my entire identity about race.

It’s such a common experience to feel like you’re not enough and you don’t belong as a mixed Asian person that I made a meme about it—as a joke. There's even a term for half Asians who struggle to belong: “Cryracial.” Is it particularly clever? Not really. Do I laugh every time I think about it? Yes, I do.

“White people moan about their ADHD all the time,” quipped Isabel Zaw-Tun, 33, an artist and performer. “I also have ADHD, so I can say that. I'm also part white, so I can say that.”

Zaw-Tun is Southeast Asian and Indigenous Canadian (not Wasian)—her dad is Burmese-Chinese-Indian and her mom is Cree-Métis.

It was only when she started doing stand up comedy that she realized the positive and negative feelings she had about being mixed race, like “feelings of being an outsider and never fully fitting in.” Comedy also allowed her to express things that make other people uncomfortable. “They accept your version of reality more because they're able to laugh about it,” she says. “And they're not like, ‘Oh, she's making generalizations and being offensive.’”

In the #wasiancheck trend on TikTok, mixed Asian and white kids use humor to take on racial stereotypes—there are teens pretending to eat the beloved family dog and choke on tap water because it’s too spicy.

You can’t make fun of us if we make fun of ourselves.

Wasian joy

I emailed Megan Tan, a senior producer and host at KPCC, after I heard her use the word “Wasian” to describe herself on her new podcast, Snooze. “I made up the word for myself,” she told me over Zoom. Growing up in Ohio, Tan, 31, was the only Asian kid in her school after kindergarten. “I didn't really consider myself to be Asian, because I didn't grow up Chinese, really. My dad is Chinese, but culturally, we weren't.”

In high school, she started putting down “Wasian” on standardized tests that asked for her race. “And I would tell people, “Oh, blah, blah, blah, I'm Wasian, haha!” And then they'd be like, “Oh my god, what is that?”, she says. ”And then I'd say, “If you want to get technical, I'm Wingaporean, I'm white and Singaporean.”

Like Joanna from Heilman’s study on racial elevator speeches, Tan uses humor to defuse microaggressive encounters. “‘Wasian’ is a source of power for me because I made it up when I was so young,” she adds. Humor in this case is both subversive—a way to push back against clueless interlocutors—and also personally gratifying, some might say joyful.

“It became a joke between me and myself, but also answered the question that everybody was asking.”

At the end of our conversation, Tan asked if we could take a picture together to commemorate the moment. I burst out laughing when she sent it to me—it captures our respective personalities with stunning accuracy: I’m awkwardly cheesing while she’s throwing up a peace sign and smiling with such exuberance that her eyes are almost completely closed.

Just two Wasians, sharing a moment on Zoom.

A joke between you and yourself

I imagine if someone told Megan Tan that she wasn't fun at parties, she would laugh in their face and then immediately become best friends with them. And it’s true—I find myself laughing at jokes between me and myself all the time.

And it’s not just self-mockery—there’s a defiance in laughing at the presumption behind “What are you?” In the space between how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself, there can be pain, but also freedom.

I didn’t grow up listening to Mitski or Japanese Breakfast or seeing myself represented on TV or in movies. But a 15-year-old called me “Wasian” with not a hint of irony or mockery—only simple recognition of a shared identity—and a word that started as a joke made me feel fucking seen. By a teenager. This is bullshit.

“It's incredible that we're having this conversation and this is something that will be out in the world,” Schwartz tells me. “For so long, I couldn't access these conversations anywhere.”

 

Published on July 18, 2022

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Words by Maylin Tu

Maylin Tu grew up in Portland, Maine, and Beijing, China. After attending Bible college in Fresno, California, and getting her BA in English from William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, she settled in Los Angeles, where she writes about dating, identity, and pop culture.