(Friday, December 15, 1995 Section: Peninsula Living Page: 16)

LAURA J. TUCHMAN, Mercury News Staff Writer

IN MY my old class portrait, amid the crew cuts and Beatle bangs, penny loafers and patent leathers, stands a boy named Ken. His surname and facial features lean toward the Germanic, but his smooth dark skin surely comes from some distant continent. Today Ken would be hailed as America's multicultural future - America's ''new race,'' or America's ''New Face,'' as Time magazine once noted. But in the suburbs of the late '60s, Ken was simply Ken, a lean, athletic kid inseparable from his blond, blue-eyed pal, David. Though in our youth we failed to realize it, Ken was a child of mixed heritage, the sort of person Lori Kay of Burlingame has been interviewing for five years - first casually and then more methodically - in order to create ''Half-breed: In Search of a Whole Identity,'' a mixed-media art exhibit inspired by her own biracial heritage. In the exhibit, which fills Belmont's Manor House Gallery, one wall holds a grid of nine boxlike reliefs made of encaustic, a mix of wax and oil pigments. Each box features some element from nature (a nautilus shell, a maple seed, the outline of a shore), and below each box, on black-and-white placards, hangs a racial or ethnic label. The boxes represent those found on employment applications and other standardized forms. But here the ''labels'' rest on hooks; viewers can move them from box to box as they please. ''The words don't have anything to do with the boxes,'' Kay says. And that's the point. How often does a racial label ever have much to do with who one really is? LORI KAY, born Lori Kay Mendoza, grew up in what she calls ''a traditional Filipino home,'' attending a Filipino church and eating Filipino foods. Kay's father is a dark-skinned, dark-haired Filipino. Her mother, who died in May of a massive heart attack at age 58, was a blue-eyed blond from Virginia, of North Carolina stock. Dinner at the Mendoza home sometimes meant black-eyed peas with ham hocks - and rice. Or corn bread - and rice. When Kay's parents married in the early '60s, interracial unions were illegal in their home state of Virginia. The couple traveled to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony. Back in Virginia, Kay's mother lived apart from her husband, in her parents' all-white neighborhood, for nearly four months. Then she and her husband headed for California. But distance and time failed to strengthen their strained familial ties. Having opposed the marriage, Kay's mother's family never accepted Kay or her four siblings. The Filipino community never accepted them either - because they didn't look Filipino, her father says. About seven years ago, Kay, who is now 33, stopped using the name Mendoza. Lori Kay, reminiscent of a traditional Southern belle's double first name, pays tribute to Kay's Southern roots. But it is also a rejection of Mendoza, a surname that came to the Philippines by way of Spanish colonizers. ''Mendoza never fit me. I was always mistaken for Hispanic,'' Kay says. ON THE back of a package of ''exotic'' vegetable chips, I came across this sentence: ''Some experts believe the parsnip was introduced to western North America by Eurasians crossing the Bering Straits.'' Even snack makers know that mixed blood is nothing new. So why does interracial marriage still cause such a stir? ''In the Bay Area, in California in general, it's becoming more and more common to interracially marry and have kids,'' Kay says. ''And especially Asians are marrying what they call 'out' - not their own - so it's a big deal.'' But is it the mixing of cultures that is ''a big deal'' or the mixing of physical features into what for many are heretofore rarely seen combinations? When talk turns to racial mixing, facial features are often the focus. People tend to couch their comments under the guise of beauty: ''He's beautiful. But he has . . . what? Green eyes!'' Some say Americans can't help it; they are a visual people. It might be more accurate to say they are a people obsessed by physical appearance. We are a nation of oglers - and indiscreet oglers at that. Perhaps racial mixings simply confuse the oglers and their old, outdated standards of beauty. Looking at photos of Kay's siblings, it seems clear to an outsider that their facial features vary - some appear more Filipino than Kay, who is often mistaken for American Indian and, at times, has ''passed'' for white. Some have darker eyes or darker skin. Kay attributes the latter to vacation tans. As a child, she didn't notice any difference. Her brothers and sisters looked just like she did. And they still do, she says. Still, Kay admits that she identifies more strongly with her mother's culture. And hanging in her show is a quote from a twentysomething male who could be one of her brothers: ''I know I'm half Caucasian, but I see myself as brown, minority, discriminated against. I think other people see me as minority.'' AFTER interviewing about 75 people, some two or three times, Kay felt she had enough material for ''Half-breed.'' On the gallery walls, quotes from the interviews are glued to wood cutouts of feet - male and female, large and small - each traced by Kay and then painted to match the skin tones of their owners. Together, the feet form a wavelike path over the gallery walls. Their quotes make for pithy sound-bites: ''My Mommy is Japanese and my Daddy's not Japanese and I don't know what I am,'' reads one little foot. ''I check 'other.' I'm definitely 'other,' '' reads a larger foot. ''Sometimes,'' reads a third, ''I scratch out all the boxes and write in human being.'' 'WHEN we put up posters announcing (a) HAPA meeting at Stanford,'' reads one of Kay's wooden feet, ''they were torn down right away or people wrote things on them like 'bad blood.' HAPA has made lots of people on campus uncomfortable, especially the foreign Asian students.'' The speaker was the leader of the Half Asian People's Association, a Stanford University student organization that has since changed its name and its focus. In the early '90s, the group was dominated by students of mixed Haole (white) and Asian heritage. Now called Cross Cultures, it is open to all who want to learn about cultures other than their own. One of the newest members is A.J. Oxley, 19, a Stanford freshman from Hawaii who describes himself as three-quarters Japanese, one-quarter English-Irish. Oxley, who admits he is often asked his ethnicity, says people familiar with mixed races ''would know that my nose is a little too big for an Asian, but people who were not exposed wouldn't be able to tell. They would just categorize me as Asian.'' But what Oxley feels is something different. ''I feel really American, and there's just other sides to my Americanness,'' he says. ''I have Japanese customs, but I'm Irish. ''In Hawaii, a lot of people are like that,'' he adds. ''I'm two cultures in one. I think that creates a . . . special feeling. . . . It's like eating Japanese food with a fork. It's how the two cultures collide, but it's unique.'' 'HALF- BREED'' takes its title from a taunt Kay first faced in junior high school. In the gallery, above and below the sound-bite-bearing feet, large placards announce other nicknames faced by Kay's interviewees: ''ZEBRA,'' ''MONGREL,'' ''RED EYED NIGGER,'' ''WASHED UP BRILLO HEAD.'' The list goes on. Such remarks are not limited to schoolchildren. Last year an Alabama high school principal called a mixed-race student ''a mistake.'' The incident is mentioned, somewhat inaccurately, on one of Kay's wooden feet, a beige one near the end of one wall. In all, more than 100 quotes cover the gallery. ''I tended to include ones that made me feel I got punched in the stomach,'' Kay says. As a result, many are negative: ''I really don't know how it's been for my two grown sons to have had a white mother and a black father,'' one foot reads, ''but I know it's been . . . mostly (bad).'' ''Leave those Amer-Asian children behind in Vietnam where they belong,'' reads one example. ''Who cares if their culture treats them like scum. It's not our problem.'' Late one night, I received a phone call from a Peninsula artist, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed woman who grew up on a North Atlantic island where, after centuries of mingling be tween natives and colonists, physical features range from very dark to sun-sensitive pale. When I told her about Kay's exhibit, she said: ''I think there was a reason the races were placed on different continents. I think we would all be better off if the different races had stayed where they were. Then we wouldn't have all these problems - like skin problems, which I have.'' FOR KAY, understandably, the show is as much a personal journey as an artistic achievement. ''I needed to stop and do this,'' she says. ''I couldn't just keep going casting bronzes and doing public sculptures without questioning . . . who am I, and how do I bring both my backgrounds to who I am and what I create.'' Yet, as Kay admits, her chosen topic is not an easy one. ''I realized two months ago that this was really a big, big issue,'' she says, ''much bigger than me, much bigger than my show. And it's too big for me to even try to grasp it in one (artistic) statement.'' But now, after the interviews and the editing, after forming the wooden feet and gluing down the words, does Kay think of herself any differently? ''I'm still questioning what is race?'' she says. ''Why does our society have to categorize everyone? I mean, race isn't a scientific thing. Yet we take it as if it is. It exists; it's real. But to me I'm not sure it is real.'' Having lived in Italy and Switzerland for at time, Kay finds it easier to be an artist in Europe than the United States. Here she toils on the fringes of society. And now she is making art about people who are, in a sense, on the fringe. ''I don't know if I really even see myself as a minority,'' she says. ''If I'm in a minority, I'm in a minority of a minority. And I don't like it. I want to be accepted for who I am, and I think that's what a lot of people in the show say.'' ONE afternoon, before ''Half-breed'' opened, a visitor stopped in the gallery and read a few of the quotes on Kay's wooden feet. Soon he began to speak of a man he knew, a Nicaraguan-born American married to a woman of Japanese and Irish heritage. The visitor spoke of the beauty of this man's children, how his daughter has a slight Asian cast to her eyes but his son looks Indian. This man, he said, couldn't possibly relate to Kay's exhibit because he has never thought of himself - and by extension his children - as anything but American. ''He's proud of the fact that he was born in Nicaragua but he's an American citizen,'' the visitor said. And then the visitor talked on about interracial marriage and the future of America. ''In 2100, how much different will our society be?'' he asked. ''How will you define yourself? And will it make a difference? Our ideas of race have to break down.'' Thinking back on Ken, the boy in my old school portrait, I wonder: Perhaps we once asked ourselves who his parents were. Perhaps we once saw his mother stop by our school in a sari. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I have imagined the whole scenario, my mind sparked by the lingo of diversity that has become a fact of life in 1990s California. In working on her exhibit, Kay came across the term utang na loob, which in Tagalog, a native language of the Philippines, means debt or obligation of the heart. In her show's dedication, she writes, ''I am asking you to honor your utang na loob . . . so that we become a land of tolerance, without a need for racial/ethnic boxes, united as members in the family of the human race.''