“Grown here, not flown here.” Integration in Hawaii: is there such a thing?
The mystery that is the social strata of life in Hawaii is something I’m exploring in my Lei books, something that’s so complex, multilayered, multiethnic, and fraught with territoriality it’s a little scary. And if you’ve been kicked around the schoolyard many days growing up, being called “haole crap” or for variety, “f-ing haole” like I have, you’re conditioned to silence about it.
If you don’t live here, you can’t possibly know much about it, and you’ll probably never have a clue on your Mai-Tai powered vacation. Even if you do decide to move here to that retirement condo you’ve always dreamed of, you’ll probably never penetrate it.
And quite frankly, we don’t want you to. “Welcome to Hawaii,” says a bumper sticker. “Now go home.”
These slightly morbid and hostile reflections were sparked by a thoughtful article in Smithsonian by world-famous travel writer Paul Theroux in his article A Man and His Islands, a title that makes my kama’aina hackles rise—the guy’s a transplant, only been here 22 years! And I have to laugh a little at myself, and the situation, and know the truth of it. The title is a good one, as he wrestles with his love of the islands, the complexity of writing about Hawaii, and explores its unique impenetrableness.
Hawaii is a place that accepts some and spits out most.
My family has been in Hawaii four generations (if you count my kids, graduated from public schools here and proud of it) but because I’m haole, I have to establish I’m GROWN HERE NOT FLOWN HERE within minutes of meeting any local person.
How do you establish this? And why might Hawaiians talk to me and not to Paul Theroux, world-famous travel writer?
It’s in the posture, slightly to the side and deferential (see, I know my place as a ‘trained haole’) in the inflection of the voice, a hint of pidgin as if you could go full-on any moment but choose not to. It’s in the glancing eye contact, in the slight raise of the chin that passes for acknowledgement and speaks volumes. It’s in the name drop of who your people in common are. It’s in the proper pronunciation of place names and Hawaiian words.
Because, though I’m haole I’m FROM HERE. I know it, I own it, I’m proud of it. Not only that, I’m from Kaua`i, the most rugged, remote, insular island of the whole chain, famous for it’s “hard-head” isolationist people who blockade the Superferry and demonstrate to keep the one-lane Hanalei bridge.
And what I've found is this: you can enter another person's world when you have the right attitude. It seems to me Mr. Theroux thought his credentials would pave the way for local people to open their doors and dish up their hard-kept secrets. Hawaii is a place that is singularly uninterested in credentials. In Hawaii, it's all about the relationship. If you take time, show respect and sincere interest, humble yourself and are open to the wisdom of others, bridges are built. I work at one of the few Hawaiian Immersion schools on Maui. I can tell you that yes, the Hawaiian teachers are slow to warm up. They are all activists in the cultural preservation movement and they ARE skeptical of outsiders.
It took two years of working there before I felt really a part of the school and the team, before I'd proved my worth and sincerity. (Paul, how much of that 22 years you've spent in your second home in Oahu have you spent helping and proving your worth?) Now they freely come and consult with me on their students, even have me stand in to sub (“Ok kids, you know Miss Toby she no speak Hawaiian. We taking one little break” and all the kids break into grins and go, “Yay!”) and I'm invited to baby showers and hulas. No, we aren't bosom buddies and we don't socialize outside of work. . . But we could, if any of us had the time!
I’ve worked in public schools with some of Maui’s most at-risk children, from all races and walks of life, for the last eleven years. I like to think there’s no parent I couldn’t forge a bond with in the interest of their kids–as long as we took the time to understand each other.
But one day not long ago, I ran into a classic Hawaii situation I could not bridge. It set me on my ass, it reminded me of the complexity and darkness that’s a part of life here, and the impenetrability of some of the people.
I went for a walk on Baldwin Beach in the early morning with my two dogs, one a Chihuahua terrier, the other a shih-tzu, neither of them over 12 pounds. We’ve been attacked by pit bulls (another lesser-known fact of island life) several times. Usually the owners are young men, drinking and partying. I no longer go out in places where I think we could be attacked. Early Saturday morning seemed safe.
Up ahead of me on the empty, pristine beach was a large Hawaiian man with a huge brindled boxer. He was working the dog, throwing a toy for it. It lumbered like a war pony up and down the beach. Its ears and tail were menacingly docked.
I stopped. I reined in my dogs, pulling them up short on their leashes. My heart was pounding with PTSD-induced jitters from the last pit bull attack, which engendered injuries all around. My dogs would look like kibble on a rope to a monster like his! I waited for the guy to hold his dog so I could pass—dog owner protocol on a public beach with a nearby sign that said, “Dogs Must Be Leashed.”
I waited. And waited. He saw me. He ignored me. I was faced with the choice to proceed, and feed my kibbles to his dog hoping it was friendly, or turn around and go back (shame and defeat in my posture.)
Standing there I realized I was being perceived as Not From Here by him, and someone of no consequence. I was wearing the wrong clothes- a pair of cropped pants and a lime-green tank top that screamed Lands End not Local Kine, with my stupid foo-foo dogs and my strawberry-blonde hair in a ponytail.
So I called, properly deferential and with the right inflection. “Eh, mind holding your dog?”
“What? You get one problem? I been bringing my dog this beach for five years!” Full pidgin AND aggression at 7:00 a.m.! Obviously I’d hit a sore spot with this dude. But he’d hit one for me too.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been attacked,” I said, my heart thundering and voice rising. This is my beach too, and he’s standing under a sign that says Dogs Must Be Leashed.
“Come! You come and you walk by my dog. What you think goin happen.” His rough dare, his angry glare, brought out the brave in me.
“I just asked you to hold your dog. I told you I was attacked,” I said, walking forward.
“You haoles! You come over here, you buy one condo and you think you’re from here! You wreck the beach, you take everything. You come here, you think you can tell us what fo’ do!”
He went into a diatribe I can’t remember in the blur of terror. All I remember was breaking into a jog and hauling my hapless pooches past him, a jog that broke into a run fueled by all the pit bulls and schoolyard bullies of my early years. Safely far away, I slowed down and burst into tears, stumbling through the picturesque sand beside the turquoise sea.
Yes, it’s beautiful here even in human ugliness.
I’m from here, and I’ll always be judged by the color of my skin here. Nope, not brown enough. And sorry, Paul Theroux, neither are you.
But guess what? There are many shades of brown here that will also hardly speak to each other.
Paul Theroux got all arcane in the article. He tried to explain the lack of sharing, connecting and talking about the culture that he’d experienced here, unique even traveling the entire world over. He used a variety of illustrations—the delicacy of the helpless island flora, easily taken over by invasive species; the geography and the many culture groups.
“It wasn’t just native Hawaiians who denied me access to rebuffed me. I began to see that the whole of Hawaii is secretive and separated, socially, spacially, ethnically, philosophically, academically,” Paul said. (pp100, Smithsonian May 2012)
That’s the truest line in the whole article.
And I think the reason is pretty simple when you boil it all down: we have a good thing going here, and we don’t want any more people to come and get in on it. So if you move here, don’t expect a welcome mat—plan to create a social life with other transplants. Kama`ainas don't warm up for at least ten years. I'm trying to break that personally–but even I have a two-years-minimum-own-your-home rule for socializing with new people. Too many come over and end up leaving.
Oh, and carry pepper spray—there are loose pit bulls around every corner.