Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian 100% Hapa is really a visual treatise on the complication of being a mixed-race Asian American in the contemporary moment. In the sprightly introduction, Fulbeck writes, “Our country is lazy. And I’m not talking about obesity levels. I’m talking ‘whatever.’ We’re uncomfortable with people who don’t fit neatly into boxes because when they don’t do so, it requires effort on our part. It’s easier to keep things uncomplicated, trouble free. We ask people how they’re doing when most of the time we don’t really want to know” (12). This statement addresses the state of people’s tragically short-sided conceptions of race, where individuals who do not conform to a particular phenotype therefore become “problems” and difficult to approach. In this regard, the mixed-race Asian American must face these daily challenges, often where fitting into a prescribed “culture” does not come so easily or automatically. As Fulbeck continues on his autobiographical polemic, “What are you? And we know we can’t answer it any more than we can choose one body part over another. We love the question. We hate the question. And we know many times people aren’t satisfied with our answers” (13). Fulbeck seems to suggest that such a schizophrenic existence is at the core of many hapas’ experiences. In this regard, Fulbeck’s project to photograph individuals of varing racial and ethnic “mixtures” serves really as a way to embrace those that defy boundaries and expected “norms.”
What is perhaps most fascinating about the book is how it plays out in some voyeurstic fashion. As the introduction gives way to Sean Lennon’s forward and then to a gallery of many face shots, the experience is much connected to the preconceived notions of the viewers. Fulbeck makes sure to include alongside each picture another page where the individual who was photographed has a chance to describe himself or herself in his/her own words. Above these “self-identifying” statements, Fulbeck breaks down each individual’s racial/ethnic backgrounds. By giving us these various informational blocks alongside the face portraits, one necessarily has to query the notion that there is any norm from which to situate the mixed-race Asian American “appearance.” In this multiplicity, Fulbeck is undermining any inherent essence to the hapa phenotype and indeed exposing the readers’ desire to decode “race” or “ethnicity” in any particular way. The photographs themselves are quite stunning in their unadornment. Besides the strong lighting and direct countenances of all the subjects, they were also instructed to look as if they were not wearing any shirts or blouses (or tops), exposing as much skin surface as possible in the face portraits. I am including some of the portraits that came with the publicity kit so you can get a sense of those photos, but recall again, that there is some typescript information that comes with the photos. The sequencing is not made clear to the viewer, but one continues if only to continually observe the vast array of countenances offered here and we know then in this diverse assemblage that Fulbeck has demonstrated how there is “no right answer” to the question of “who are you,” only many, many complicated ones. If there is one connecting element in all the photos, it is that very few are visibly smiling and most do not show any teeth at any point, so we know that this isn’t some sort of glamour photo shoot. The production values of the book are first rate and it comes to mind that this book and Todd Shimoda’s Oh! do show us a very marked attention to aesthetic qualities that I haven’t quite wrapped my head around enough when thinking about the marketing and final presentation of “cultural productions.”
As I have been thinking more and more about the importance of visual culture in the arena of Asian American literary production, I can’t help but think that this would of course be yet another indispensable addition to a course designed to explore how visuality and “text” intertwine.
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