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The beauty of being mixed race: How I learned to love my hapa eyes

All my life people have told me I look "too Asian" or "too white." I'm not Goldilocks; my hapa eyes don't have to be "just right."
/ Source: TODAY

“Chinese eyes, Chinese eyes,” the whole table mocked me with their stupid song, pulling at the corners of their eyelids until they were tiny slits; a gross exaggeration of my actual eye shape.

They weren’t being very nice … or creative. I’m not even Chinese.

Growing up hapa: TODAY multimedia editor Samantha Okazaki at ages 5, 11, 25
Yes, I arguably looked “more Asian” as a child. I like to think that I grew into my biracial features over the years.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

But 8-year-old me didn’t know how to say that or how to put them in their place. How to tell them that I was born in Japan, but was just as much an American as they were. And that my eyes weren’t a caricature: they were real, they were mine and they were welling with tears.

Instead I wished I could bury myself in my cubby with my baseball cap and glitter pens and never come out. I blamed myself for giving them reason to taunt me. I hated my stupid eyes! I hated how small they were and how skinny. I hated the tic I had developed, a hard deliberate blink that got worse when I was nervous or self-conscious. I hated my dad for giving me my eyes. And I hated being half-Japanese because it meant I looked different than everyone else.

TODAY multimedia editor Samantha Okazaki as a baby, living in Japan
That's me!Courtesy of Linda Okazaki

Fast-forward 10 years later. Aside from the tic, which followed me wherever I went, I had pretty much buried all memories of the bullying my eyes had inspired. Then, I moved to the East Coast for college.

I moved away from my hometown that was surprisingly diverse and my friend group that was predominantly mixed race. I unpacked my bags in upstate New York and was greeted with a level of racism I had thought to be extinct.

“You’re not Asian,” someone told me point blank during my first week at Syracuse.

Umm ... excuse me? I was so taken aback, I wasn’t even sure where to start! I didn’t have time to respond, because the second wave of insensitivity was just starting.

“Your eyes aren’t even Asian.”

OK, now that’s not even politically correct. For a split second, I wanted to resent my mother who gave me my Caucasian features and my facial indecisiveness. You would have thought 8-year-old me would jump for joy. Finally! No more “Chinese eyes!” Except I didn’t feel free, I felt offended. Deeply offended.

Do I explain that I’m half-Asian? The last I checked, Okazaki is not your average, all-American surname. Do I explain that my relatives faced the same arrogant scrutiny when they were interned during World War II? Or was that all too complex for this ignorant human being?

The Okazaki family in Japan
My mixed race family on vacation in Japan. If you're going to critique us, at least make fun of the terrible 90's fashion!Courtesy of Linda Okazaki

All my life I have faced people telling me I look “too Asian” or “too white,” when in reality that’s not their call to make. I’m not Goldilocks; my eyes don’t have to be "just right." Frankly, I love that my eyes are neither one race nor another, but a beautifully blended example of two cultures coming together.

There, I said it. I am proud of my eyes.

It took me years, but I have finally grown into my features and appreciate them for what they are. I love that the corners of my eyes tip slightly downward but crinkle up toward my temples when I laugh. I love that my eye shape is impossible to define: almond, monolid, hooded, all of the above. It just depends on how they’re feeling that day. I’m proud of the fact that people can’t decipher “what I am” at first glance. These eyes are enigmatic in that sense, an optical illusion. They’re exotic, elegant and ambiguous. They’re mine, they’re a part of me, end of story.