Japanese-Canadian filmmaker and animator Jeff Chiba Stearns has a new documentary on my favorite topic: Hapa families. “One Big Hapa Family” focuses on the 95% intermarriage rate of Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia. Through personal interviews interspersed with his original style of “Hapanimation”, Stearns traces the history of Japanese in western Canada, from his great-grandparents who immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s to his own yonsei (fourth) generation. His research takes him from the family farm, to a Japanese internment camp in inland Canada, to Japan. The idea for this documentary came to him at a Koga family reunion at his grandparents’ farm, where he noticed that every single child was Hapa. “No one past my grandparents’ generation married another Japanese person,” Stearns remarks in the narration.
I had the opportunity to interview Stearns over the phone from his Meditating Bunny Studios office in Vancouver. He has been on the road for much of the past six months, presenting his film at festivals and college campuses — including at the recent Hapa Japan conference at U.C. Berkeley and the Harvard HAPA conference, where the screenings often spark group discussions of experiences similar to the ones depicted in the documentary. “That’s the biggest reward,” he says. “For many mixed-race college students, this is the first time they’ve ever been able to connect with something.”
Stearns himself grew up without much discussion about being mixed race. Making films, he says, is self-therapy. “I’m exploring issues that I wanted to talk to my parents about. For 31 years, this is the first time I spoke to my parents aobut how they perceived their interracial marriage.” Apparently his family is not alone. After screenings, Stearns says he’s received emails from parents saying that their teenager who normally never says a word suddenly opens up during the car ride home saying, “That’s exactly how I feel.”
Even though my husband and I are in a interracial marriage, and I write this blog about Hapa families, sometimes we don’t even consciously remember — or know exactly how best — to explain to our brown-haired boys their mixed heritage. Stearns says that as a child he struggled to find an acceptable way to define his ethnicity. “When I said I’m half-Japanese, I was kind of ashamed to say that. it was like I was diluted. I don’t love my mom half the time, my dad half the time. I can be 100-percent Nikkei. Breaking yourself down all the time, it weighs down on you.” Identity, it seems, cannot be broken down in mathematical terms.
His advice to Hapa children and their parents:
“Don’t break yourself into a fraction. It’s okay to identify with the fact that you have ancestors, relatives. It becomes a part of you.”
Want to see “One Big Hapa Family” in its entirety and hear Jeff Chiba Stearns? He will be making several West Coast appearances in the upcoming weeks, including
- DisOrient Opening Night screening – April 29 at 7pm – Bijou Cinemas, 492 East 13th Avenue, Eugene, OR
- Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival – Sunday, May 1 – 2:30pm at LAEMMLE SUNSET 5, Los Angeles, CA
- University of Washington – Tuesday, May 3, 6:00pm at Ethnic Cultural Theater, Seattle, WA