I was going through the drive-through in a place about as far away from the ocean as you can get when the voice through the speaker asked if I wanted it large-sized. I must have heard that question over a thousand times in my nefarious career as a drive-through junkie, but something about this time brought tingles of salt in sunburned creases and that special parchedness in the back of the throat that comes from a day spent body surfing at Bellows or Sherwood Forrest beaches on Oahu.
“So what part of Hawaii are you from?” I asked when I got to the window. She was young, barely out of high school, and by her expression you’d have thought I’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
“Uh, Honolulu,” she said, giving me the eye.
More like Papakoleʻa or Nanakule, I thought. But I understood. Honolulu’s easier.
She handed me my large drink. “How did you know?”
“Just something you said reminded me of home.”
She tilted her head, thinking back. Before we could speak more, there were other cars and customers, and the moment passed like so many random encounters do.
As the golden arches receded in the rearview mirror, the cold sweetness leapt from the straw to the back of my throat, cooling and soothing just like it used to after a day at the beach in Waimanalo. For a moment I was eighteen again, driving my old Camaro past the ironwood trees, windows down and damp towels on the seats, singing along to Kalapana on the radio while my sister dug through the glove box scrounging change so we could hit a drive-through and grab a soda for the long drive home around Makapuʻu Point. As I sipped, I could almost smell the ocean and taste the salt on the wind.
Pretty cool trick for a buck twenty-five paper cup of ice, sugar, and fizz.
We were in a big wholesale to the public store, you know, the kind with the cement floors and warehouse chic décor that sells everything from light bulbs to canapés in convenient packs of 60, when my son lugged over a 20 pound bag labeled Assorted Asian Rice Crackers.
“Hey, Mom! Didn’t you buy something like this the last time we were in Hawaii?”
I looked at the product through the bag. It was a little anemic to my eye. There weren’t very many squares stained a rich, dark shoyu brown or covered with black strips of nori. The fiery red chili pepper crescents were missing from the mix and so were the iso peanuts. There were a few with sesame seeds, and something that looked like wasabi peanuts, but later turned out to be rice puffs with a little wasabi seasoning, not anything like the blow your socks off and clear your sinuses for a week snacks I ate as a kid. There was also a disturbing number of almonds and plain peanuts in the mix and something about low sodium on the label.
Back when there was a crack seed store in every town in Hawaii, rice crackers came in a dazzling variety of textures, flavors, and crunch. There was an art to mixing them, each variety hand-selected and scooped measure by measure from large glass jars into paper sacks and weighed, combining sweet, salty, spicy, nutty, and crunchy into the perfect snack blend. We called it arare, kakimochi, or mochi crunch and packed it in school lunches, on summer fun excursions, and best of all, snuck it into movie theaters to mix in the popcorn tub with M&Ms or Milk Duds. Dipping your hand in the bucket while the movie played was a treasure hunt, the flavor combinations bold and unforgettable and often more entertaining than the movie, especially if someone’s handful had too many chili pepper crescents or wasabi peas and the straw was sucking more air than soda.
I looked at the bag of watered-down, Americanized snacks and smiled. “Toss it in the cart,” I said. “I think I saw a 90 pack of microwave popcorn next to a 10 pound bag of M&Ms on aisle 7.”
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.
As a kid growing up in Hawaii, it was a big deal to go to the crack seed store. We’d scrounge a few pennies, nickels, and dimes from under the couch cushions, the ashtrays in the car, and the top of Dad’s dresser and beg for rides into town. Crack seed is what we called any kind of dried, pickled, or preserved fruit. We loved it better than candy.
Brought to Hawaii by thrifty Cantonese immigrants who worked on pineapple and sugar plantations, most crack seed was originally made from fruit scraps. Peels like lemon or mango or the pits of fruit like apricots or plums with just a scrap of deliciousness clinging to them were seasoned and preserved. First fished out of jars and later plastic packets, the flavors burst in your mouth: li hing mui, lemon peel, rock salt plum, dried mango, candied shredded ginger—salty, tart, spicy, sweet, wet, or dry. Every shop and family had their own secret recipes and flavors, and unlike candy, a little crack seed went a long way. A single lemon peel would last days because you ripped it into pinkie-nail-sized pieces and kept it in your mouth forever—the best thing for a sore throat.
When I was a kid the Yick Lung crack seed brand was king. We’d even tell jokes about it: Did you hear what Yick Lung’s class voted him? Most likely to suck-seed. (Hilarious when you’re 10, trust me.) Just watching the ads for it on Checkers and Pogo, Hawaii’s afterschool version of Captain Kangaroo, would make my mouth water. My hands-down favorite was rock salt plum. Every Christmas I’d find a bag in the toe of my stocking that I would hoard through January, savoring each piece, sucking all the goodness from each one until only a flavorless pit was left. It was the perfect book-reading snack.
Sadly, Yick Lung, a family-owned business started in the early 1900s, filed for bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, and while other crack seed and Hawaiian snack brands quickly filled the void, they aren’t the same. Disappointed, but undaunted, I’m still sampling them all, trying to replicate that wet, sweet, salty memory from the bottom of a Christmas stocking.
On Hawaiian playgrounds and beaches it’s common to hear Moms calling for little Kalani, Pua, or Lei, but usually you’re only hearing part of the story. Kids with Hawaiian names are often called by nicknames formed out of shorten versions of their full Hawaiian names. Most full Hawaiian names are unique to that individual; children are rarely named after someone else, and names are not borrowed from a lineage outside one’s own—at least not without specific permission.
Unlike Western names which tend to be a single or compound word, most Hawaiian names are much longer, combining at least a noun and adjective to convey a complete thought or idea. Phrases and even complete sentences as names are not unheard of, and in modern times when few speak Hawaiian, names are sometimes lifted from Hawaiian translations of the Bible or from well-loved songs and poems.
Traditionally, giving a child a Hawaiian name requires much prayer, reflection, and consultation with elders. Rather than simply choosing a name themselves, it’s not uncommon for parents to receive a name as a gift from a grandparent or other respected family member. Parents who break with protocol and tradition do so at a risk: I’ve had two cousins whose birth certificates had to be changed because an elder later said they were given the wrong Hawaiian name. Everyone tsk-tsk’d that the parents didn’t know what they were doing when they chose Hawaiian middle names based on the idea that they “sounded good” with the first names they’d picked.
Being asked to name a child is an honor that people take very seriously. Birth names are powerful and often express qualities hoped for or seen in a child. Once a name is needed, the entire ‘ohana starts looking for signs and inspiration. True Hawaiian names reveal themselves in many ways.
Inoa po: name in the night; a name received in a dream.
Inoa hoʻailona: name in a sign; a name received in the form of a vision or natural phenomenon
Inoa ‘ulaleo: voiced name; a name heard
Inoa ho’omanao: name that commemorates a person or event
Inoa kupuna: name that is handed down, an ancestral name
Inoa ewe: name that is based on traits or personality
I’m often startled at how aptly a traditionally given Hawaiian birth name fits the recipient, both the literal and figurative translations. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of the name fitting the child or the child adapting to the name, but time after time and in the most unlikely ways, the names fit.
There’s an added plus to having a Hawaiian middle name—no matter where you go outside of Hawaii, you’re guaranteed to have the longest, coolest middle name in any group, even if no one but your family can say it.
In Hawaii, teachers never ask children to write their full names. There are never enough lines on the paper or time in the day. The reasons for this go back to naming traditions and an unusual law once on Hawaii’s books.
Wanting Hawaii to be more like the west, in 1860 King Kamehameha IV signed the Act to Regulate Names. From 1860 to 1967, all people born in Hawaii were required by law to have a family surname and an English first name, which explains why Robert, William, Mary, and Sarah started popping up in Kamakawiwaole, Asao, and Chung family trees in the nineteenth century.
Because of the naming law it became common in Hawaii’s mixed plate melting pot to give kids a middle name from each branch of the family tree. At a christening the kahu wouldn’t even blink at pronouncing an infant Joseph Makanani Atsushi Manchu Pacheco, except maybe to ask the parents if Makanani was little Joe’s entire Hawaiian name.
Most likely it wasn’t. On birth certificates, parents often list just part of a Hawaiian name, although this trend is changing. For example, my son’s middle name is list as Kalani on his birth certificate, but his full Hawaiian name is Ka Ikaika Mai O Ka Lani Wai. Despite its appearance, in comparison with the Hawaiian names my classmates have given their kids, it’s really only average in length.
As a language, Hawaiian is highly poetic and idiosyncratic. What’s translated literally is frequently not the whole story. Given the ancient Hawaiians’ love of puns and riddles, it’s not surprising that most Hawaiian names have a simple overt translation like “beautiful flower” along with a host of hidden and layered meanings. Because of this, the general rule of thumb for Hawaiian names is that the true meaning of a name is whatever the giver or owner say it is, regardless of grammar or literal translation.
In ancient Hawaii, names were precious and powerful, and true birth names were not shared casually. Families called children the equivalent of Stinky, Worthless, Ugly, or Wretched (and worse) to make them unappealing to evil spirits and others who might snatch a prized child. As Hawaiian faded from common daily use, these names lost their meaning and became…well, names. Sometimes these kinds of family nicknames were the only ones recorded or remembered, raising eyebrows when modern genealogists start translating.
Throughout their lives Hawaiians changed their names to commemorate deeds, abilities, or desires and were frequently called different names by family members, close friends, and co-workers. I can imagine the hair-pulling frustration of his majesty’s census keeper as he tried to maintain records in an era where there were no surnames and people changed names on a whim.
Ironically, the English first name/family surname only standardized things on paper. With so many Georges, Johns, and Ruths running around, kids were often called by a nickname or middle name, which made the first day of a new school year particularly fun when you discovered Kawika was really Aloysius or Bartholomew.
People often ask me what their name is in Hawaiian. The request isn’t as odd as it sounds; if you’ve ever traveled to Hawaii, I’m sure you were overwhelmed with all the kitsch offered in stores personalized with Your Hawaiian Name Here!, everything from cheap plastic placemats to high-end solid gold jewelry. It’s a source of endless fascination for tourists who want to make a connection with something exotic.
Unfortunately, the idea of plug and go translations of non-Hawaiian names into Hawaiian is also among biggest shibai exports about Hawaiian culture, right next to pineapple on pizza and coconut bras.
Back in the 1800s, when missionaries translated spoken Hawaiian into a written language, they used only 12 letters of the English alphabet (a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, p, w) and added two punctuation marks (the kahakō and ‘okina) to help convey the way a word is pronounced. In addition to using only half of the English alphabet, Hawaiian words never contain two consonants together and never end in a consonant. To the English speaker, it’s all a bunch of broken and elongated vowel sounds sprinkled with a random h, k, or m.
Which got some akamai kanaka thinking: if I can come up with an easy and consistent way to take non-Hawaiian names and give them a Hawaiian twist, I’ll laugh all the way to the bank. Developed over 150 years ago, most non-Hawaiian to Hawaiian name translations are based on a simple letter/sound substitution system that doesn’t allow double consonants or consonant endings. This hidden system gives the illusion of authenticity and explains why name translations are so consistent across various sources and so consistently wrong.
Take Katherine, for example. It’s my mother’s name and a source of endless amusement to my part-Hawaiian father. “Katherine” is “Kakalina” in Your Hawaiian Name Here! translations. It’s also the Hawaiian word for gasoline, super hilarious in a couple of pau hana beers way since my Dad worked for Chevron in Hawaii and later owned a gas station. In typical Hawaiian tradition, he gave her expensive gold bracelets, rings, and necklaces all proudly proclaiming Kakalina in black enameled script. He said that way he could write them off as advertising.
Most of the time the Hawaiian name translations result in pure gibberish. Most of the time. Sometimes they are pee your pants hilarious to those who know a little of the language, making my mother’s gasoline jewelry look merely quaint.
All of which is too bad, really, when you understand the importance names hold in Hawaiian culture. Real Hawaiian names are a sacred, serious business that require much thought, prayer, and consultation among family and friends before being bestowed. (More on this in an upcoming blog.)
If someone really wants to know what his or her name is in Hawaiian, I’ll ask for the origin and meaning behind the name and look for a comparable Hawaiian word or phrase.
Katherine is Greek in origin and is often translated as “pure.” Hemolele is a Hawaiian word with connotations of flawless, holy, saintly, pure in heart, complete, and person without fault—far more beautiful and accurate for my mother than gasoline.
When it comes to Hawaiian names, keep in mind that Hawaiian words are highly poetic and layered in meaning; things are not always what they seem. It also pays to know who you’re asking. When pestered once too often at a family party on the mainland, Mr. Hilarious once told a nephew that his name in Hawaiian was ‘Okole, which is what my cousin told his friends to call him. Years later when I met up with this cousin and some of his friends, I had to pull him aside and tell him he needed a new nickname. He’d been the literal butt of my father’s joke long enough.
I hated having to go to a new school, and the change between Kahului Elementary on Maui and Kamiloiki Elementary on Oahu couldn’t have been more dramatic. At Kahului the kids were only one or two generations from the sugar cane plantation and lived in multi-generational homes. The teachers taught in pidgin, and everyone had one pair of slippahs, period.
At Kamiloki the kids were Japanese or haole from upper-middle class families and never wore the same clothes twice. Most kids were simply marking time in a public elementary on their way to a private intermediate school and had extra tutoring classes on weekends and afternoons to give them an extra edge. No one spoke pidgin, not even the kids, something I didn’t realize until the first parent-teacher conferences when Mrs. Goo, nose in the air, sniffed that I needed to learn standard English; my pidgin was deplorable.
“Excuse me?” said Mom. Since I only spoke standard English to my mother, a haole from the mainland, she was understandably confused.
“I said Lehua does not speak English well. Her constant use of pidgin disrupts the class and the teaching I am doing. We speak English in this school, and Lehua does not.” She sniffed again. She was lucky it wasn’t raining.
“Lehua, would you come here a moment?” she called.
I popped my head into the doorway. “Yes, Mom?” I said.
“Mrs. Goo says you need to speak standard English in class, not pidgin. She seems to think you can’t.”
“Oh. I thought pidgin was for school and English was for home,” I said in perfect non-pidgin accented English. I glanced at Mrs. Goo. She was catching flies, her mouth was so open.
“You need to speak as you are spoken to,” Mom clarified.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I think in both, so it’s hard sometimes to remember which I’m speaking. I’ll pay more attention.” I gave Mrs. Goo side eye. Wow, I thought, she going for one fly catching record!
“Thank you. Now wait for me outside,” said Mom. “We’ll discuss this more at home.”
Oh, great, I thought, more drilling with tree/three, sshtreet/street, libarry/library. Shoulda sparked out da rules befoa time. At least I no going get lickins tonight. I hope.
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much since I was in Elementary school. Every school has its own rules and customs and heaven help the kid who can’t figure out which teacher is mean, which likes to joke, and when you can and can’t ask to go to the bathroom.
My kids, Aaron and Cheryl, are both going to new schools this year, moving from a private school to public schools. While I knew there would be differences, I never expected some of the things we’ve discovered.
New School Rules
“My teacher isn’t assigning us cubbies, so every day you use a different one.”
“’Cause there are 30 cubbies and 31 students, so someone isn’t going to get one.”
“So what happens if you don’t get one? Where do you put your stuff?”
“I dunno; I’ve gotten one every day!”
“Only 6th grade boys get the swings. You’re supposed to do a cool trick off the swing. If you land it, you get more street cred with the boys. If you biff it, all the girls come fluttering to see if you’re okay. It’s a win-win.”
“My teacher has a thing about walking in the halls. He keeps yelling “space and pace” and “quiet!” We’re supposed to march single file, with our arms folded, hugging the wall and the blue line. It’s like an Olympic sport with him. He wants us to beat the other classes, whatever that means.”
“The idea of hot school lunches is more exciting than the real thing.”
“Let’s just say they rank below the Train and Wendy’s, around McDonald’s level. That’s pretty bad.”
“You’re saying you want me to buy more ham and turkey?”
“There’s this kid on the bus who wants to sit by me every day.”
“She’s only in 1st grade, though.”
“Maybe she wants to sit by you so she can feel like one of the big girls.”
“Uh, I don’t think so. She keeps talking about how it’s a good thing I’m not a stranger. Otherwise, she’d kill me.”
“Find somewhere else to sit.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I finally have a locker.”
“Yeah. Only it’s as far away from my class and the band room as possible.”
“I can’t. If the security cameras catch me at my locker after school starts or running in the halls, I lose a whole citizenship grade for the semester. Citizenship is 50% of your overall grade in each class.”
“What? What’re you supposed to do with your trumpet if they won’t let you use your locker during the day and you can’t have it in your regular classes?”
“I have no idea. Quit band?”
One of the big stumbling blocks to writing Hawaiian fiction in the “bird,” as I recently heard someone call Pidgin, is finding the audience. Native Hawaiian Pidgin English speakers like to talk story and certainly sing story; read story maybe not so much. At least that’s the argument Hawaiian writers have heard for decades, along with it’s too low-brow, too stylized, and since Pidgin spelling isn’t officially standardized, just too much work for the reader, who, the naysayers claim, would rather be surfing or talking story or doing the laundry–anything–instead of reading or buying books.
Having spent a lot of time over many years trying to find other authors publishing in Pidgin and finding something resembling a desert atoll, I think it’s less about whether or not Pidgin speakers are book readers, but about traditional publishing models. The Hawaiian writers are there with the stories, and I think the readers are too, but not on the scale that attracts the big print boys. What Pidgin literature exists is generally sanitized and stripped of most of the rhythm and flow of Pidgin and really just tosses in a phrase or two for flavor–trying to hit the largest audience possible and unfortunately missing the heart of Hawaii.
Traditional publishing models believe there is no significant market for this kind of literature and therefore have found it too risky to promote. But eBooks are changing the way books are published and marketed. Niche markets take time to develop, and eBooks have virtually no expiration date–literally. EBooks allow authors to build audiences and demand over time without the immediate need for high returns to pay back the large investments traditional publishers make upfront in printing and promoting a book.
So maybe with eBooks, we’ll all read a little more da kine. Nice, yeah?
Originally from Hawaii and a Kamehameha Schools graduate, Lehua writes fiction set in the imaginary town of Lauele, Oahu. Her newest book, One Boy, No Water, Book 1 of The Niuhi Shark Saga, is scheduled for hardback and eBook publication on Sept. 22, 2012 by Jolly Fish Press.
The Niuhi Shark Saga books are written in American English with lots of dialogue in Hawaiian Pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin, or just Pidgin as it is called in Hawaii, is a polyglot language with its roots in Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, English, and Filipino. Hawaiian Pidgin developed as people from all over the world came to Hawaii in the 1800s looking for a better life. Over time, Pidgin has evolved into a heavily English-based language while retaining its original syntax, grammar, and lilt. While almost everyone in Hawaii today speaks, reads, and writes standard American English, true communication, the kind that speaks from the heart is in Pidgin.
This blog is dedicated to all Pidgin speakers and the stories we tell.