“What are you?” If you’re not white in America, you’ve been asked this question. Some people ask out of misguided, but genuine curiosity and effort to get to know you; others out of an aggressive need to label you, to categorize you in their minds as something recognizable. As a half Asian (or Hapa) person, I’ve heard it my entire life, and even after 30 years, it still shocks me every single time. So when General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the most powerful man in Shadow and Bone, asked Alina (Jessi Mei Li), a cartographer in his army just beginning to learn her true power, “What are you?” in Episode 2 of Shadow and Bone, I was overwhelmed by the familiarity of the moment.
In the scene, Kirigan, the most powerful Grisha (people born with magical abilities in the world of Shadow and Bone), asked the question with regard to her newfound powers. But, as any person of color will recognize, Alina — who, in a departure from Leigh Bardugo’s original book series is part Shu (the Grishaverse’s version of East Asian) — received it as a biracial woman. To be asked “what are you?,” especially as a mixed race person, is to be told that you’re different from what someone thinks you should be. It’s alienating and scary and can be quite traumatizing. Watching the scene, I knew the sinking feeling Alina must be feeling in her gut, the desperate scramble to come up with an answer. Her reply, “I’m a mapmaker,” is exactly the kind of response mixed-race people have trained themselves to use when confronted with this common microaggression — Alina’s version of “I’m a human, what are you?”
The authenticity of this moment can be attributed, in part, to screenwriter Christina Strain, who is part Asian, and who made sure to emphasize the dual meaning of the “what are you” question in writers room from the moment it was brought to her by showrunner Eric Heisserer. “Eric had baked that in, but I don’t think it ever occurred to him what that meant like to a person who is mixed race,” she told Refinery29 over the phone of the line in question. “But the people in the room who’ve heard that question before, we were very clearly like, ‘This has a lot more meaning than you realize.’”
Strain credited Heisserer for being open to her personal experiences, so much so that some of them actually ended up in season 1. Like when, in episode 3, just moments after a maid suggests making Alina’s eyes “less Shu,” the Queen of Ravka sees her for the first time and says, “I thought she’d be Shu. Well, I guess she’s Shu enough.” This moment reflects both her predicament as a woman coming into her new identity as the Sun Summoner and the constant push and pull of not being Shu (Asian) or Ravkan (white) enough, and was inspired by Strain’s own experiences of being told “you’re not enough of one thing.”
The people in the room who’ve heard that question before, we were very clearly like, ‘This has a lot more meaning than you realize.'
Shadow and Bone writer Christina Strain
It’s also worth noting that, while Alina introduces herself as looking like “the enemy” in episode 1, she never actually identifies herself as half-Shu. She experiences her ethnic identity based on how others treat her — by calling her a “rice eater” or a “half breed” — or by her white or white passing friends defending her as only part Shu. She herself doesn’t seem to have a handle on who — or what — she is.
Alina’s uncertainty is something many Hapa viewers will recognize. In the real world, the constant experience of having your ethnicity constantly questioned and defined by others can make it difficult to claim your own identity. “For half Asians in particular, we’re always happy to see any sort of Asian exposure, and we’re scared to ask for our [own],” Strain, whose previous work includes The Magicians and Netflix’s Finding ‘Ohana, said, adding that, as the only Asian in the writers room, “There were times I wasn’t sure if I was asking for enough.” But after having watched the entire season twice, Strain told me, “It was super satisfying and I’m very proud of what we accomplished.”
At one point, towards the end of our conversation, I asked Strain if she hoped the “what are you” theme of Shadow and Bone would maybe educate people who are used to asking that question, not receiving it. Thinking back on what it was like to revisit her experiences with racism as a half Asian woman, Strain recalled one specific moment in the writers room, where she remembered something her father had said to her. “My white dad once told me a few years ago that Asians don’t have racism dealt towards them,” she recounted. “It was a very stereotypical thing where it’s like, ‘nobody’s racist towards you.’ And one of my massive regrets in life is that I didn’t, in that moment, tell him all the things that have been said to me.”
It would be trite of me to point out that, despite the Model Minority stereotype, racism against Asians is very real. The recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes tells us as much, as does the response to it. But Strain’s experience isn’t unique, especially not for multiracial people whose parents or family members just don’t understand their lived experiences. Now, Shadow and Bone has offered her a chance to say all the things she didn’t say, to claim her own experiences by sharing them with Alina and with all of us. “It’s wild because I put a lot of them in the show, and now my dad’s going to watch it.”
One protagonist can’t change the world. But for now, Alina and Shadow and Bone have given voice to the Hapa experience. So the next time someone asks me what I am, I can say that I’m just like Alina, the Sun Summoner.