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Q&A with Alex Chester-Iwata of Mixed Asian Media

Being half-Japanese and half-caucasian has always been an internal paradox for myself and my racial identity. I grew up not fitting in with the white kids because I was not fully white but also not exactly fitting in with the Asian kids either, because – you guessed it – I’m not fully Asian.

This always felt pretty isolating until I learned of the term “hapa.” Hapa, which is short for hapalua, is a Hawaiian word meaning, “half.” While its origins hail from racism and derogatory meaning, many half-Asian individuals have started to embrace the word and take back its meaning. As author Alex Sujong Laughlin mentions in her NPR article, “‘Half Asian? “Half White?’ No – Hapa”:

In identifying as hapa, I’ve found a way to normalize my in-betweenness. Having a specific word for what I am connects me to a larger racial demographic in which I perfectly fit — and more than that, it makes me remarkably unspecial. Among hapas, I’m no longer a biological curiosity, just a product of this country.

Use of the term ‘Hapa’ has been controversial for years. While some people disapprove of the word due to its origins, others, like myself and Alex Chester-Iwata, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Mixed Asian Media, embrace it.

Mixed Asian Media (MAM) started in 2017 as Hapa Mag with only nine mixed Asian writers. Just three years later, it was recognized by the Nielsen Asian American Consumer Report, making MAM a leader in the mixed Asian narrative. With the ongoing controversy of the word hapa however, Hapa Mag made the decision in 2021 to rebrand into Mixed Asian Media and according to Chester-Iwata, “people just got it.”

For our entire Zoom interview, Alex Chester-Iwata emits passion, love, and inclusion for the mixed-Asian community. I was fortunate enough to have an hour of her time, and we broke down about all things mixed-Asian-related, and how important it is for mixed-Asian voices to be heard.

Q: What is Mixed Asian Media all about?

Alex: MAM is an online media outlet for mixed Asians and Pacific Islanders. All of our articles are written by those of mixed-Asian heritage. It’s a lifestyle magazine, but focusing heavily on the entertainment side. We focus on what it means to be mixed, the nuances, intersection nationalities, etc. We feature celebrities, do celebrity photoshoots, feature small businesses, and up-and-coming leaders in the community.

Q: What’s your mix?

Alex: I am half Japanese, half Ashkenazi Jew.

Q: Why was MAM created?

Alex: MAM was created because I was so sick and tired of not seeing myself and people like me reflected on mainstream media. In 2015, we saw “Aloha” with Emma Stone and she was playing a mixed-Asian character, and she’s not mixed. That was incredibly frustrating. We also had “Ghost in the Shell” with Scarlett Johansson – complete Asian erasure. I was so fed up of just not seeing other mixed people on the screen, and having come from an entertainment background, and constantly being told that I was ‘not Asian enough’ or ‘not white enough’ for a role…One: it [expletive] with your head, and two: it was so frustrating.

I was so over it and so over being put in a box, not being able to just be me, and having to prove my Asian-ness, or prove my Jewish-ness constantly. And so I wanted to create a community base where people like me could just be. We could tell our stories, connect, and communicate, and start healing the trauma of the constant narrative of not being enough of our identities.

Q: Absolutely. Being mixed Asian myself, there’s definitely a sense of imposter syndrome, where we don’t really fit in with the Asians, or fit in with the white people.

Alex: It’s been interesting to navigate. Even just going to events recently and speaking to monoracials, they’re like, ‘Well, you don’t look Japanese!’ and here I am saying, ‘Well, what’s a half-Japanese person supposed to look like?’ We’re still dealing with this in today’s world. Really?

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us all through a loop. How has everything been going? Have you had to do any type of pivoting when it came to the magazine itself?

Alex: For MAM, we switched to hosting online events, or activations as we like to call them. During 2021, we hosted a lot of online activations and we partnered with Blasian Project, Loving Day, and Lunar Asian Jews, utilizing Clubhouse and IG live. Everyone was really hungry for connection and we aimed to give a voice to our community, especially during the rise of AAPI hate. Many people in our community felt like they couldn’t speak up because they’re “not Asian enough.”

We wanted to create a space where people felt like they could unpack this and talk freely without the judgment of monoracials saying, “Well, you can’t have an opinion because you don’t present in this specific way.” Within the space, we also acknowledge that some of us do have privilege who don’t present as Asian or full Asian. I think in a way the pandemic really did help Mixed Asian Media. Suddenly, everyone was out of work and had all this time on their hands, engaging with us a lot more, reading our material, attending our online events, our online festival last year…2020 was definitely a turning point for Mixed Asian Media.

Q: How do you feel like MAM has helped to amplify mixed Asian voices?

Alex: We feature people on our platforms. If someone wants to write an article, an op-ed piece, or interview a celebrity like a mixed-Asian politician, we’ll highlight that on our website. We’ll also do Instagram Lives of mixed-Asian people and open it up to the community and get their specific platform or business out there. 

Q: For sure. I mean, it can be lonely being a mixed Asian where you just don’t know or meet other people like you, except for family.

Alex: I was an only child so I didn’t have any of that support. So it’s been really cool to see just how large our mixed-Asian community is. We went from a staff of nine writers in 2017 to a current staff of 24.

Q: That’s amazing! So let’s talk about MAMFest. What’s MAMFest all about?

Alex: Mixed Asian Media Festival is a three-day festival for mixed AAPI celebrating everyone through a creative lens. I wanted to create something where yes, we can talk about the trauma, yes, we can unpack this, but also let’s celebrate being mixed by celebrating our wins and creativity.

We have stage readings, panel discussions, short films, comedy nights; workshops with the mixed space, film competitions and non-competitions, and more. There’s also a virtual portion of the festival if you aren’t able to make it in person to the event.

I think most people don’t realize that being mixed is one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States, and we really are an untapped demographic. I feel like consumers and major companies need to start engaging this untapped network of people.

I really do feel like we are often left out of BIPOC and Asian American spaces, and in 100 years people are all going to be mixed, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to engage the mixed community and really make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, because that to me is diversity inclusion.

Q: Do you have any tips/tricks/advice for mixed Asian individuals?

Alex: I highly recommend that if you want to reach out, I’m highly responsive. I really believe in if you don’t see it, create it. That’s what I did and I’m one person! We’re a good group, we don’t bite!

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