My part-Hawaiian grandmother makes wonderful rice pilaf. It’s a recipe she learned from her Portuguese mother and she made it often when we came to dinner, usually with a ham. Buttery and full of mushrooms, light brown with beef stock and slightly sticky, to my sister Heidi and me the rice was something special we looked forward to whenever we made the rare trip from Maui to Oahu.
But six or more months can feel like a lifetime to a kid, and with so many new words in so many languages rattling around in a head, it’s easy to get confused.
Once when I was about six and Heidi three, our grandparents met our family at the airport. Heidi and I were jumping around like two puppies newly freed from a kennel: sitting on the baggage carousel, running around and around Grandpa’s legs, climbing up the short rock wall and walking along it—I’m sure we were driving the adults nuts. That’s when Grammie said the magic word: dinner.
“Grammie! Grammie! You going make rice?” I danced.
“Yeah, Grammie! Rice!” Heidi sang.
“Rice? What’re you talking about, rice?” Grammie said.
“You know, the kind you make,” I said.
“What are you kids talking about?”
Heidi and I looked at each other. It starts with a p… “You know, that pilau rice!”
“Pilau rice!” Heidi crowed. “Pilau rice!”
My non-Pidgin speaking mother looked confused. The blood drained from my father’s face. My grandfather looked nonplussed. And Grammie went nuclear.
“PILAU rice! Pilau RICE! I do NOT cook PILAU RICE!”
Heidi and I were puzzled. We knew we were in trouble, but didn’t know why. “But we love your pilau rice, Grammie!”
“Yeah,” said Heidi, “We love it! We love pilau rice.”
The penny dropped. “Pilaf,” Grandpa said. “It’s rice pilaf.”
“Yeah, that’s what we said! Pilau rice!”
“No,” he corrected. “Not pilau, pilaf! Rice pilaf! Say it.”
“Pilau, I mean pilaf, rice pilaf,” we repeated.
But to this day, in my head, I still think of it as pilau rice!
Pilau: (nvs) Hawaiian for rot, stench, rottenness; to stink; putrid, spoiled, rotten, foul, decomposed. We couldn’t have come up with a worse insult if we tried.
Ancient Hawaiians loved word play, riddles, and puns. Songs, stories, poems, and even ordinary conversations could be interpreted on many levels—the more, the merrier—resulting in the ultimate inside joke. Fortunately for us, eminent Hawaiiana scholars Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel Elbert wrote down many once common expressions and their kaona or hidden meanings. Called ‘ōlelo no‘eau, wise poetical sayings, reading through some of their collections is one of the best ways I’ve found to really see and understand the world as ancient Hawaiians did.
Here’s one I read the other day: A la‘a kō kū i ke a‘u literal meaning so, you got stabbed by a swordfish. Just ponder that for a moment. I mean, really, what do you have to do to get stabbed by a swordfish? And how common must this be for everybody to know about it?
Here’s the kaona: you got into trouble. Stabbed by a swordfish? Yeah, that’d spell trouble!
But I don’t think the whole picture develops until you consider this other ‘ōlelo no‘eau about the perils of swordfish: ‘Olo ‘olo aku nō i hope, kū i ke a’u; literally lagging behind, struck by a swordfish. Working hard and not shirking was an cultural expectation; it was the pono or right thing to do. Lagging behind implies not doing what you’re supposed to with the result of getting yourself into the trouble you’re in, the Hawaiian equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘hoist with his own petard.’
In my imagination I see a lanky kid in old Hawai‘i. He’s come home from the missionaries’ school, kicking dust and pulling at his too-tight, too-hot collar with a note in his pocket from his teacher. His parents discover he hasn’t been turning in his homework and anything even remotely fun like surfing or fishing is pau, over, no way, José. When little Iosepa’s lip starts to quiver, his parents exclaim, “So, you got stabbed by swordfish. Why are you the only one surprised?”
Which begs the question, “Where did that swordfish stab?”
Today’s blog is courtesy of Jennifer Griffith, author of Big in Japan and member of the Jolly Fish Press ‘ohana. Her newest novel is a fish out of water story about a plus-sized Texan who goes to Japan on a quick business trip, but ends up living in a sumo stable fighting for his life and chasing after the girl of his dreams. At turns sweet, thrilling, and always hilarious, it’s a great read.
Thank you, Lehua, for allowing me to guest blog today. It’s an honor.
My latest novel, Big in Japan, has been out for just over a month now, and it’s amazing to see the reactions to it. The funniest one might be, “How the heck did you write that?”
Maybe they’re asking how a short, mom-type person wrote from the perspective of a … well, a giant. Who’s a 24 year-old man. That’s a valid question. I guess I channeled my inner sumo wrestler.
It’s been a lot of years since I lived in Japan. Like, almost 20. I wanted Big in Japan to be as authentic as possible—as much of a virtual trip to Tokyo as I could muster with the little details of sights and smells and the kitchy things that are Japan. Unfortunately, I’ve given birth five times since then, which is a veritable mind-wipe each time. So the most legitimate meaning of that question should actually be, “How did you write that and remember all that stuff?”
To which I reply, duh! In Japan you take your camera with you everywhere and you photodocument every single aspect of your day.
Cases in point: I have pictures of my bathtub; of my lunch of sliced cucumbers and barbecued squid and a pile of Kewpie mayonnaise; of mugi (wheat bran) muffins boiling over in my toaster-oven sized oven; of my clothes drying on the line; of myself going off a jump on my hot pink mountain bike wearing the kind of helmet only the mentally challenged Japanese people (and the American girls) wear; of my feet turned green and blue from the dyed leather in my blue oxford shoes after walking through the ankle-deep water after the August typhoon in Tokyo. I have pictures I took in the grocery store of bags of tiny round mochi balls in pink and green and white and of the narrowest house I’ve ever seen—just barely wider than my armspan from fingertip to fingertip.
But as a writer, the pics are not my only “external hard drive” source to remember details about beautiful Japan. I’ll be forever grateful I kept an almost-daily journal of my experiences.
I’ve got a record of “funny.” I have daily lists of the wacky English-language text on t-shirts, like the one with the tortoise at the top and the caption, “His mustache is so proud of him.” I’ve got stories about someone we lovingly referred to as “underwear man,” and the time I had to eat a stir-fried cricket on a dare. I also kept a record of the high cost of fresh fruit. Like the fact that a single watermelon cost upwards of $100!
Beyond that, when I was writing about Buck’s difficult transition into the Japanese culture, I had my own rocky emotional mess all bleeding out in hot pink pen all over my journal to draw from. And to write Buck’s final settling in, his acceptance of the country after some pretty significant culture shock, I had the feelings of catharsis I’d recorded as well.
Best of all, I’ve also got a whole cast of interesting and amazing people I met while I was there, and the heroine of the story is a conglomerate of the best of the Japanese women I met during my year and a half on the island.
When I first received my assignment to go to Japan, I was scared spitless. Then I told my grandpa, and he about jumped out of his skin. He’d lived there with my grandma and their six-or-so kids in the 1950s. He insisted I drive the half hour to his house because he was pulling out his slides. There were hundreds of pictures of the forests of Matsushima and the gardens at Nikko, and the ocean and houses and smiling people. His photodocumentation went great lengths toward calming my fears, and his love for Japan oozed its way into my heart, where it has lodged ever since.
I hope that love oozes into the hearts of the readers of Big in Japan.
Jennifer Griffith lives in Arizona with her husband and five kids. She lived in Japan for a year and a half during college and at 5’1” she is far too short to ever consider sumo as a career. This is her fourth published novel. Big in Japan is available as a hardback and ebook nationwide at purveyors of fine books such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Click here to see the book trailer. Trust me, you wanna see it.
Follow Jennifer’s adventures in writing at:
- Website: http://www.authorjennifergriffith.com/
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorJenniferGriffith
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/GriffithJen
To read my review of Big in Japan, click here.
To tide you over until the release date, here’s an excerpt from chapter 1, The End of Summer Fun.
I was walking toward Jay when it happened.
‘Ālika threw a Dixie cup of water on me.
“Zader!” Jay shrieked.
The water hit my shoulder and upper left arm. Hot lava fingers oozed down, scalding, sizzling, burning everything in its path like acid. Like snake venom. Like death. On fire, I dropped to the ground and rolled.
“Holy crap,” said Chad. “Try look. J’like holy water on one devil!”
Wide-eyed with excitement, ‘Ālika crossed himself. “He’s possessed!” he shouted. “Everybody, Zader stay possessed!”
Through the pain, I felt Jay kneel down next to me, his hands ripping at the bottom of my t-shirt. “Zader, off! Get it off! Lift your arms so I can get it off.” As he threw the shirt over my head, I felt a final sting as a wet sleeve brushed against my face, raising another angry line of welts along my cheekbone.
More shadows ringed me. I opened my eyes through the pain to see Jerry Santos and Benji Chang looking down at me, mouths open and catching flies. I pushed Jay away and stood up, covering the weeping sores and broken blisters with my hands as best I could.
‘Ālika now stood on the picnic table bench, holding out his index fingers, making the sign of a cross, his utility knife blade forgotten in the dirt. “You stay away from me, you freak,” he yelled.
Excerpted from One Boy, No Water by Lehua Parker. Copyright © 2012 by Lehua Parker. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
As I write this, I am sitting on a lanai in Kaanapali, Maui, sipping a watery Coke and trying to hide behind a plumeria tree, some torch ginger, and a couple of ti plants so I can see my computer screen. Tonight is the last night I will be in Hawaii; tomorrow it’s airplanes, luggage, and a rush to get the kids ready for the new school year.
I’ve had a lot of time to think on this trip. It’s been five years since I was last on Oahu and Maui. Every time I come home–and it is home, even after so many years–I see the islands with new eyes, and I remember lessons I learned as a child and better understand how they apply in my life.
A big one this week is about how we are all brave in our own way. My daughter loves horses and the faster the better. I think I like horses, but every time I get close to something a flashy like a Ferrari or even a reliable Honda I quickly jump back to my old faithful tricycle with training wheels. After a few bad falls, I figure a couple of sedate family rides a year in the mountains is good enough for me. I’m not going to run barrels or do reining horse patterns. Just getting on and staying on is enough of an e-ticket ride for me.
But the ocean’s a different story. I could spend all day every day in or on the water, SCUBA diving, boogie boarding, on a boat, on a reef, or just floating in the shallows. I know the ocean, at least the waters around Maui and Oahu, and know when there’s a problem and when there’s not.
Not so much my daughter. She swims well, but the ocean’s not a pool or a lake. There are critters in it and all of them want to take a bite out of her, she’s certain. The first day we were off Waimanalo, one of the best beaches to take kids who want to learn to boogie board or learn to be comfortable in the ocean. The water is usually very clear, it’s got a soft, sandy bottom, the waves are rolling and gentle, and it’s shallow for a long, long time. The only thing you have to watch out for are the occasional, very occasional Portuguese-Man-O-War jellyfish. I’ve been wrapped in their tentacles too many times to count. It does sting and it can leave a line of welts, but a little wet sand, some meat tenderizer, and you get back in the water. No big deal.
My daughter, of course, is looking for sharks.
“Cheryl, knock it off. There are no sharks here.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. You’re in more danger from a jellyfish than a shark any day of the week.”
“Relax. Breathe. You’re fine.”
“What do jellyfish look like?”
“They look like a bubble, floating.” I looked around and spotted what I knew was really just a bubble. “See that over there?” I splashed at it and it popped. By the time I turned back around she was halfway up the beach, screaming bloody murder. “Wait! That wasn’t a jellyfish! It popped when I splashed it. That’s how you know!”
“Cheryl! You’re more likely to get stung running up the beach through the foam than hanging out here past the shore break with me!”
“I got it,” said my husband. He went ashore with her and they walked up and down the beach until they found a jellyfish, long blue streamers broken off, just a sad little bubble sitting above the tide line. A few minutes later, she was swimming next to me, all smiles, but still keeping an eye out for sharks.
“Good news, Mom! We don’t have to worry about jellyfish anymore!”
“No! Dad says they’re territorial and that one way over there had all this beach as his territory!”
“Huh.” I cut my eyes at her father and he shrugged. It was starting to sound a lot like some of the things he’s told me about horses, cougars, and mountain trails.
It’s not the thing that makes us afraid, it’s our reaction to it. Watching my kids tackle all things ocean and foreign this past week, I’ve been amazed at the courage they’ve shown and understand a little more about how much of my adult life has been spent facing what’s foreign to me. No matter how long we’ve lived elsewhere, we’re formed by our childhood experiences which shape the way we view the world. When everyone around you takes horses or jellyfish as a matter of course, you forget that feeling uncomfortable around them is natural and not something weird or subpar about you or your character.
Cheryl summed it up best at the Maui Ocean Center when we were looking at some of my favorite sea creatures, moon jellies. She said, “If seahorses were big enough to ride, you’d ride them all day long, wouldn’t you, Mom?”
One Boy, No Water, Book 1 in the Niuhi Shark Saga, will be available in stores and online September 29, 2012. The series is set in Hawaii and tells the story of Zader, an 11 year old boy, and his adventures as he discovers who—and what—he really is. Most of the descriptions of island life in the series are true. However, in some areas Aunty Lehua may have stretched the truth just a little bit. Here’s the real scoop about private schools.
Private Schools in Hawaii
In One Boy, No Water…
6th grade is a big year for applying to private schools in Hawaii and the pressure to get in can be intense.
The real scoop…
Many private Hawaiian schools only accept new students certain grades, 7th grade the most common, putting the pressure on the 6th graders. Some schools are privately endowed and most offer scholarships, so top students can get an amazing education at a fraction of the real cost. Ridgemont Preparatory Academy and the HISA exams? Pure shibai!
One Boy, No Water, Book 1 in the Niuhi Shark Saga, will be available in stores and online September 29, 2012. The series is set in Hawaii and tells the story of Zader, an 11 year old boy, and his adventures as he discovers who—and what—he really is. Most of the descriptions of island life in the series are true. However, in some areas Aunty Lehua may have stretched the truth just a little bit. Here’s the real scoop about customizing a surfboard using paint pens.
In One Boy, No Water…
You can customize a surfboard with paint pens, a few basic supplies, and a little imagination.
The real scoop…
It really is that easy to create your own works of art on a surfboard! There are many sites on the internet that give step by step instructions on how to repair and customize surfboards using paint pens and spray guns. Check ‘em out.
Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is famous for its moai statues that line the shore. Over the centuries, many western anthropologists and archeologists have tried to explain how a people without beasts of burden or the wheel managed to move massive stone carvings ten or more miles from the quarry to the seashore. If They Could Only Talk, in the July 2012 edition of National Geographic Magazine, explores a new theory proposed by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach. Oddly enough, it’s based on what native Rapa Nui islanders have been saying all along.
The moai walked.
The solution is elegant, practical, and based on physics. The statues are designed with pot bellies and rounded bottoms which allowed a few people using three ropes to “walk” the moai down the mountainside to the beach. It’s not perfect—and there are many broken moai strewn along the way to prove it—but it makes far more sense than any other “expert” opinion and fits into the native oral tradition.
My favorite line in the whole article is a quote from an islander who was observing an experiment by the Norwegian social scientist Thor Heyerdahl and his team in 1955 when 180 people strapped a real 13-foot 20,000 pound moai to a tree trunk and tried to drag it. “You are totally wrong, sir,” he said.
And he was right.
Which brings me to the real purpose of this post. Over the years as an amateur enthusiast of human migration and origin stories I’ve noticed a distinct lack of respect, credibility, and propensity to discount what indigenous cultures have to say about their past on the part of non-native social scientists and other academics. It’s the mistaken belief that outsiders with fancy degrees must know more than the people who have lived the history they are studying. The Phd-ers forget that human ingenuity, genius, and intelligence isn’t found in letters after one’s name, but in all human cultures across all centuries and environments.
Fortunately, as new DNA studies and other forensic disciplines are applied in anthropology, more credence is being given to oral histories and traditions as they are proving to be in line with the new data, often to the surprise of the experts who are taking a new look at some very old traditions.
In this more receptive environment, a few Hawaiian families are starting to come forward to share the knowledge they have kept private for centuries, some of which is very different from the accepted and established views. I can’t wait to learn more.
What about you? Do you have family stories and traditions that add new light to the “official” accounts?
In about a week I will be back on Hawaiian beaches, scrunching my toes in the sand, and yelling at my kids to watch out for portagee-man-o-war, not sharks, and to put on more sunscreen. Always with the sunscreen. I’ve got some research projects lined up and plan to take literally thousands of pictures so I can show you, Dear Reader, all of the delightful things I miss and love most about my island home.
And then there’s the food.
Yes, you can find Asian markets on the mainland. You can even order poi over the internet. But the real island flavors come alive when marinated in the humid, salty-sweet atmosphere of Hawaii. None of the recipes taste quite the same on the mainland. Believe me, I’ve tried.
When I talk to others who are living far from their native homes, there is always a dish that they long for, a little comfort food that they can taste with their eyes closed. Food means family and friends and a little bite of home can trigger all those complicated and wonderful feelings, transporting us back to time when we couldn’t see over the tabletop.
My husband teases me that we eat our way around the island, stopping at little hole in the wall places to sample everything from manaupua to shave ice to guri-guri to malasadas. My son just opens his mouth and swallows it all and often goes for seconds or thirds or fourths with the gluttony of a bottomless teenage male. My daughter is much more cautious. She sniffs at things, pokes at them, nibbles at the edges, often saying no thank you until I can get her to actually try a bite. But put some music on and she’s out there swaying and swinging her hula hips with the best of them.
Funny how that works.
What food that says home to you?
Jennifer Griffith’s newest novel, Big in Japan, tells the story of Buck Cooper, a Texas gentleman with a heart as large his home state and a body and self-esteem problem to match. What starts as a supporting role in a family business trip to Tokyo ends with Buck staying in Japan training to be a sumo wrestler as the kohai to the Kawaguchi Stable’s star ozeki, Torakiba. Torakiba is the senpai from hell, subjecting Buck as his kohai to humiliating tasks including foot washing and warm watermelon spit. There’s also a love interest, Cho-cho san, who like the butterfly she’s named for flits in and out of Buck’s life, motivating him to prove to himself and the sumo world that he’s got what it takes.
Buck may be big in Japan, but in Hawaii sumo is huge. The first foreign-born non-Japanese sumo champion was Jesse Kuhaulua, fighting name Takamiyama Daigoro. He was born on Maui and his career spanned twenty years from 1964-1984. Growing up in Kahului, we all knew Jesse and followed his career avidly. When he came home to visit family, the whole town came out to greet him. I can still see him in his traditional Japanese attire as he majestically strolled across our school’s parking lot, smiling and waving at us as we peeked out from behind the monkey pod tree. Other Hawaiian-born sekitori followed including Konishiki who earned the rank of ozeki, Akebono who earned the grand champion rank of yokozuna, and my cousin William Tyler Hopkins, fighting name Sunahama Shoji, who earned the rank of juryo 5 before retiring in 1997 at age 25 due to injury.
Since I knew a little about sumo and what it takes to succeed in Japan as a foreign-born wrestler, I was intrigued by Griffith’s premise. While Big in Japan does touch on some of the modern criticisms and controversies in sumo wrestling, at its heart it’s a love story with coming of age themes told with a humorous, light touch. It’s Buck’s story of leaving home in order to find his true self. Westerners will get a taste of some of the cultural differences and an idea of what it takes to be a sumo wrestler, but it’s Buck’s inner and outer transformation combined with his hilarious inner monologue that’s the draw here. Griffith sometimes compares her books to cotton candy—something sweet, light, frothy, enjoyed, and gone, but I think this novel has more weight behind it, more like a makizushi meal than a simple sweet treat.
Big in Japan, written by Jennifer Griffith and published by Jolly Fish Press is available in hardback, trade paperback, and eBook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other purveyors of fine literature.
Griffith’s blog can be found at: http://www.authorjennifergriffith.com/
For more information about Jolly Fish Press and its titles, please visit: http://www.jollyfishpress.com/