Talking Story

It’s easy for me to define my stance on the whole plastic coconut bra, cellophane grass shirts, and Aaaaloooooooohaaaa image of Hawaii sold by Hollywood and travel companies. It’s fantasy, escapism, romanticism—the equivalent of a bodice-ripper romance novel or cotton candy, a vacation from reality, not a reflection of it.

Living on the mainland (what people from Hawaii call the continental USA), I’ve endured the annual Hawaiian Days celebrations at our local grocery and burger joints, smiling a little too brightly as others gushed over what I knew to be paper flowers from South America and tiki-type masks from Africa and grooving to Caribbean reggae and Brazilian sambas. I’ve eaten platefuls of chicken bbq’d with pineapple and shoyu, worn plastic leis, and even taught a few basic hula moves at neighborhood luaus. Once for a friend’s daughter’s birthday party, I even busted out my ukulele and sang hapa-haole songs and taught little girls how to wear sarongs Hawaiian style.

I try to remember the point is to have fun, not an anthropology lesson. Bandanas, cowboy hats, and baked beans do not make something authentically western any more than pineapple on anything makes it Hawaiian.

I wasn’t always this way. Prickly in the way people are when they feel different from those around them, when they’re a little homesick and tired of living in a foreign environment, I once snapped at a little girl who breathlessly told me her favorite food was Hawaiian Haystacks—to my mind a truly vile layered concoction of chicken soup, shredded chicken, long grain rice, cheese, canned pineapple chunks, slivered almonds, shredded coconut, canned chow mein noodles, chopped green peppers, onions, tomatoes, celery—you get the idea. “There’s nothing Hawaiian about Hawaiian Haystacks,” I snarled, popping her balloon as surely as if I’d had a pin.

I regret that now. I know she was just trying to connect with me, a cranky adult who’d been unhappily and unwillingly pressured by other adults in ways too complicated to explain into making a presentation to a group of kids about Hawaii. She was earnest and sincere and I should have remembered my manners.

The last time I was in Hawaii I went as a teacher with privileged  6th, 7th,  and 8th graders from the mainland in tow. On our last day we stopped at Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau on the Big Island, what the visitor’s bureau used to call the City of Refuge when I was their age. After a lecture, I let the students wander and found myself standing outside a grass hale, listening to a cultural demonstrator talk story with a tour bus driver as he put the finishing touches on a feather cape. Even though I looked as local as zinc oxide on a sunburn, when it became apparent I understood all the pidgin and Hawaiian, I was warmly welcomed into the conversation, and I learned so much.

He said it takes him about two years to finish a half cape, not counting all the work and time he puts into researching. He and the other cultural demonstrators spent a lot of time trying to rediscover how ancient Hawaiians made things as simple as twine, as glue, as tools. It was the common everyday things that were the hardest because at one time everyone knew how to make them until suddenly they didn’t. As our conversation ranged from origin stories to metal working to pan-pacific cultures, he said something I don’t think I will ever forget. He said that Hawaiians decided long ago that in order to preserve their culture, they would have to share it; teach everybody who wanted to learn, especially now when there is a revival of Hawaiian culture and pride in the islands and generations of people who feel Hawaiian in spirit, if not blood.

Which brings me to the real reason I started this ramble: Paul Theroux’s Quest to Define Hawaii, an article published in The Smithsonian and on Smithsonian.com. There is much in this article to raise any local islander’s hackles, let alone a Hawaiian’s, and I won’t go into it all of it here.

Theroux’s a travel writer who has owned property in Hawaii for years and felt rebuffed in his attempts to learn about Hawaiian culture for his articles. He makes some startling assumptions and truly clueless blunders as he goes about trying to gather his information, mainly in his arrogant belief that because he, a big-shot credentialed writer asked politely, ethnic Hawaiians should’ve been overjoyed to tell him the most personal and sacred parts of their lives. His article focuses on how unhelpful people were, and he spins a bunch of shibai about what he believes the reasons are for this, reasons that he and other newbies to Hawaii have quickly clamored define the real Hawaii.

Talk about wop’yo’jaws arrogance. It would’ve been hilarious, something I rolled my eyes over and ignored except The Smithsonian published it, giving it a scholarly whiff it doesn’t deserve.

Here’s the real deal: Yes, ethnic Hawaiians can be prickly when it comes to our culture. After dealing with decades of Hollywood and the travel industry’s spin, of years of waitresses hustling to bring tourists umbrella drinks and listening as they pontificate about how laid back and easy it is in Hawaii, blissfully unaware that their waitress probably holds two or more jobs to make ends meet, of entrepreneurs spinning fantasies about our way of life, our language, our history—we get a little wary and not a little pissed when someone’s nose pokes into our business not out of a desire to learn, to understand, to connect, but to make a buck. Through the article it appears that Theroux’s main attempts to integrate or understand local culture was solely in conjunction with his work as a writer, not as a neighbor, regardless of how long he’s owned property in Hawaii.

And that’s the crux: in Hawaiian culture humility and a willingness to listen before you speak, to share without expectation of quid pro quo is paramount. Anything that smacks of entitlement or arrogance or of wanting to use knowledge freely given to make money is going to end badly.

I’m considering sending Paul Theroux, world renown travel writer and Hawaiian property owner, the Hawaiian Haystacks recipe. It’s as close to real Hawaiian culture as he’s going to get.

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