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Hapa Girl

A Memoir

May-lee Chai

Publication Year: 2007

In the mid-1960s, Winberg Chai, a young academic and the son of Chinese immigrants, married an Irish-American artist. In Hapa Girl ("hapa" is Hawaiian for "mixed") their daughter tells the story of this loving family as they moved from Southern California to New York to a South Dakota farm by the 1980s. In their new Midwestern home, the family finds itself the object of unwelcome attention, which swiftly escalates to violence. The Chais are suddenly socially isolated and barely able to cope with the tension that arises from daily incidents of racial animosity, including random acts of cruelty.

May-lee Chai's memoir ends in China, where she arrives just in time to witness a riot and demonstrations. Here she realizes that the rural Americans' "fears of change, of economic uncertainty, of racial anxiety, of the unknowable future compared to the known past were the same as China's. And I realized finally that it had not been my fault."

Published by: Temple University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-2

When we first moved to South Dakota, we could stop traffic just by walking down the sidewalk, my mother and father in front, my brother and me trailing behind. Cars and pickups slowed, sometimes in both lanes, and the passengers turned to stare out their windows....

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1. The Wearing of the Green

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pp. 3-7

I’ll begin where I’m happiest, or most clueless—either adjective could be equally appropriate. I’m a child, eight, maybe nine, years old, living in the suburbs, part of the megalopolis twenty-five miles outside New York City, where my father is chair of the Asian Studies...

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2. The Sexy Artist Meets the Boy from New York City

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pp. 8-18

One of the rumors floating around town in South Dakota, as people began to speculate about my parents, was that my father was a white slaver. He must have somehow kidnapped my mother and forced her to marry him. Why she didn’t just up and leave, since she...

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3. How to Charm a Mother-in-Law

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pp. 19-25

My maternal grandparents were so happy that their eldest daughter would be spared the convent and was getting married, they couldn’t have cared less that she was marrying a Chinese man. My grandfather had been convinced for years that she would marry a...

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4. California Dreamin’

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pp. 26-35

Naturally there were some people who warned my parents that they should not have children. My parents married in 1966, not long after the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned the antimiscegenation laws of old and a year before the Supreme Court confirmed the ban in the...

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5. The Banana

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pp. 36-42

His first day on campus, as he walked from the parking lot to his office in the series of Gothic-style stone buildings that housed the newly created ethnic studies departments, my father thought to himself how the architecture recalled a medieval European monastery...

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6. The Banana’s Revenge

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pp. 43-47

And then, suddenly, things seemed to take a turn for the better. At one of my father’s NYU night classes he met a young redheaded law student named Nancy Oxfeld who had elected to take one of his classes on China. She had enjoyed his lectures and thought he’d...

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7. Autumn in the Country

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pp. 48-56

I can always date our family photos by the color of my mother’s hair. When I was six, my mother dyed her hair a severe onyx black and wore it pulled back in tight chignons. The effect was very chic, but...

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8. Hunting Season

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pp. 57-8

Often, that autumn, I woke up in the middle of the night with sharp pains radiating up and down my calves. I was twelve and growing rapidly. Soon hips would be jutting out where once I’d had straight lines, my waistline would shrink, breasts would bud, hair...

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9. The Little Things

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pp. 9-75

At first, it was the little things that began to drive my father crazy. Not the big ones, not the staring or the shooting, if you can imagine, but the mundane, everyday details. For example, the food. He’d forgotten this aspect about life away from New York, how people...

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10. The Closet

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pp. 76-81

When I arrived home from school each day on the bus, I was in no mood to talk to my parents. My mother would ask, “How was school today? What did you do today? What did you learn?” And I’d reply angrily, “Leave me alone!” or “Nothing!” or “What are you always...

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11. My Last Confession

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pp. 82-91

I thought I could make up for my sins by going to confession with my mother before Christmas.My mother loved everything to do with going to church, including confession. It was like a trip to the dentist, that same clean, sparkling feeling afterward, a shiny, unstained...

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12. Bugs

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pp. 92-96

As if winter hadn’t been bad enough, spring arrived. All at once the snow melted and the fields turned to mud. Thick, stinky, sticky mud that coated my shoes like red paint, that splattered from the tires, that ran like a river through the ditches and the gutters and puddled...

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13. The Fall of the Prince

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pp. 97-104

That June, my father left for Harvard to attend a summer institute for university administrators, as he’d originally planned to do before his resignation, and the rest of us stayed on the farm. At first, we were all optimistic. My mother was confident that my father would find a...

Photo gallery follows page 104

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14. The Jade Tree

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pp. 105-113

We packed up the entire house the summer I turned fourteen, preparing to leave as soon as one of my parents had a firm job offer. My father had several leads in Oregon and Texas, and my mother had an interview in California. My parents were nervous, they jumped at...

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15. The Nights of Many Prayers

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pp. 114-117

By midsummer we’d packed up everything in the house and decided to move to northern California, where my mother had a job interview.My father had not as yet had any firm job offers, but he was not yet panicked. My mother was feeling a little nervous about her...

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16. What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

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pp. 118-124

Years later, after I’d left home, I used to joke with my brother that if our parents had only seen Deliverance instead of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, our lives would have been entirely different. Looking back, I could see the signs that said “Don’t move to this place!” as...

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17. Stephen King High

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pp. 125-128

Then came high school. The violence of the high school was legendary in our town, and starting in eighth grade my brother and some of his friends took up weight lifting in preparation. They felt that a year of concentrated effort might give them the edge they would need to survive freshman...

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18. Barbarians

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pp. 129-135

My father returned from Houston one day to find my brother and me lifting weights in the basement. The metal clanked as we heaved long bars with colored disks on either end above our chests, grunting and sweating. My father stood in the doorway to what had been the...

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19. Glamour Puss

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pp. 136-145

Everyone has a moral line in the sand that cannot be crossed. For my parents it was hearth and home. They weren’t going to give up their house. Both of them had led nomadic childhoods, for different reasons but with the same result: they weren’t going to lose their...

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20. The Cannibals

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pp. 146-156

When I was sixteen, my father left the Texas job and took a new position in Chicago, working as a consultant for a historically African American educational foundation. He helped them raise funds, recruit members, organize conferences and workshops...

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21. The Fine Art of Denial

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pp. 157-158

When I was an adult and had moved away from home, we used to argue about South Dakota, my father and I. “People were racist against Asians,” I’d say. “That’s not true. There’s no racism against Chinese in America today. Look at all the successful and rich Chinese in this country!” “What about us? What about our dogs? People killed them in the...

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22. The Lone Apache

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pp. 159-167

One night I heard my brother’s motorcycle racing up the driveway, spewing gravel. It was late, I should have been in bed asleep, but I had insomnia and was always awake now. My father was gone to Chicago or there’d have been hell to pay, he’d shout at Jeff for coming...

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23. My Mother’s Irish Gang

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pp. 168-182

By the time I was seventeen, I had fallen into despair. I was only a year away from college, a year away from escaping, but I was so tired. I kept a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol in my dresser drawer. My way out, I called it. If things got any worse, I planned to take them all and...

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24. China’s Revolutions

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pp. 183-194

It was China that changed my life and gave me the perspective I needed to regain my confidence. After I graduated from high school, my father and I took a trip to China for a family reunion. For him it was an emotionally taxing experience, particularly when he discovered that his mother’s family...

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25. The End of Staring

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pp. 195-197

Once I had left home at age eighteen, I did not come home for Thanksgiving, although I did return for Christmas, when the dorms closed and all students were forced to leave campus. At home, I worked on the farm again and in my mother’s photography studio,...

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26. Fear Itself

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pp. 198-200

It seems ridiculous now, the fear Americans in the 1980s and early ’90s used to have of the Japanese. I remember Yoshi Hattori, the Japanese high school exchange student who was shot to death in Louisiana when he knocked on the wrong door while looking for a...

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27. The Family Trees

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pp. 201-207

As I began writing our story, I found myself unexpectedly living at midlife with my father, and in Wyoming. I had left my snug apartment in San Francisco (right on the 1-California line, exactly halfway between the two Chinatowns, twenty minutes in four directions to...

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pp. 209-211

I have changed the names of all my junior high and high school classmates. My mother’s dear friend, Mary Imelda Lynch, is named in full, as I believe this is what they both would have wanted. Public figures’ real names are used throughout. In writing this book, I found a number...

E-ISBN-13: 9781592136179
Print-ISBN-13: 9781592136162

Publication Year: 2007