OPINION: Hawaii is Not America
By Susan Halas
The Aloha State is the birthplace of American President Barack Obama (and also the home of his much requested birth certificate). When the Commander-In-Chief visits the islands, he is often reminded there are many ways that Hawaii is not America.
Hawaii seems very much like a part of the good old USA. The 50th state came into the union in 1959. The currency is US dollars; the language is English; the laws are American and yet, things here are very, very different.
While the rest of America grew up with the traditions of the Founding Fathers, the Spirit of ‘76, and learned early “We hold these truths to be self evident…,” other things often count more here. For one thing Hawaii has strong Royalist leanings. Until 1893 it was a kingdom ruled by the kings and queens of the Kamehameha dynasty. Even today Kamehameha Day and the birthday of Prince Jonah Kuhio are state holidays.
Many people not only trace their bloodline back to the rulers and chiefs (ali’i) they are also determined to restore the kingdom and regain sovereignty. It matters not that the overthrow was more than 100 years ago, that in the meantime Hawaii became a republic, a territory and finally a state, old blood, true blood is thicker than water. It’s blood that counts the most.
Blood is Thicker than Water
So it’s no wonder that in Hawaii that any kind of kinship or close personal association trumps actual knowledge or real qualifications. A genuine belief in merit has yet to make substantial inroads in the islands. Here nepotism reigns supreme.
In school, in the workplace, in government, it’s who you know that counts. The common answer when you ask someone how he got a job is “from my uncle, my cousin, my auntie. We were in the same unit in the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines.” But by far the most common reply is: “I wen grad wit heem.” (I graduated from the same school the same year as he did).
And that does not mean “we went to the same college.”
High School Defines Us
That means we went to the same high school. In Hawaii no matter what you may become in life, you will always be defined by where you went to high school.
In the minds of your peers you are always and forever a Kamehameha School’s song leader or member of the Farrington Governors football squad. You might become a scientist or explorer, a doctor or judge, but to your friends at home you will always be Baldwin ’59, or Luna ’81. Heck, you might even be President of the USA, but to your Oahu classmates you’ll always be Barry from Punahou who flies in on Air Force One.
Not withstanding all these finely calibrated degrees of belonging, once you are actually here, everybody marries and has kids with everybody else without regard to race, creed, country-of-origin, color-of-skin or any other known determinant.
“We are cosmopolitan,” they will say with pride.” I’m German- Samoan-Irish- Hawaiian.” Or “My kids are Portuguese-Filipino-Puerto Rican on my side and their father’s side is Canadian-Tongan-Chinese.” Or in the case of a certain kid with big ears: his mom’s from Kansas and his dad’s from Kenya and his grandmother worked for a local bank. He fit right in.
Either Free or Very Expensive
Just as Hawaii has a unique slant on who belongs and who doesn’t, Hawaii’s take on what things cost is also all-or-nothing. In the islands most things are either very expensive or they are free or nearly free. It’s all relative.
Take fish – many things in Hawaii are measured in fish. Fish is (after football and golf) a primary topic of conversation. See that little bit of aku in the chill case? That tiny piece of fish weighs less than one pound and sells for $26.95. Does that seem a little steep even for good sashimi?
That very same fish, if your neighbor takes his boat out and has good luck, about 40 pounds of that fish will show up in a pool of melting ice on your lanai late one Saturday afternoon. You will need to act quickly and eat it so it doesn’t spoil. You will eat fish and your friends will eat fish and it will be delicious and free (but your neighbor will later ask to borrow your generator for his baby luau and you will say “yes” without hesitation.)
Do you want a lime-that little green citrus fruit the size of a golf ball?
One lime at Safeway is $1.25 – and it’s a puny, sad, old nearly decayed lime at that. Now if your auntie has a lime tree giving fruit, then more limes than you can count will be yours for the asking. In fact she may even call you to come and carry them away by the sack. This holds true for mango, lemon, star fruit, tangerine, papaya and anything else that comes on all at once and is expensive at the store. When it comes to you it will come in large quantities and it will free.
The corollary to free, plentiful and yours for the asking is: God help you if you pick so much as one (1) lime without asking permission. There is nothing more uncool than stealing fruit from your neighbor’s tree. If you’re white and do that, and you will go directly to “Cursed Haole” status with no stops in between.
No One Leaves & Color Us Blue
Another big difference is on the mainland, people move. They leave New York and go to California and never look back. In Hawaii no one ever really permanently goes away. We are all here. We all know each other and we will all be here forever. Our relationships to each other may change, but we’re here for the duration. So seniority counts.
This is most apparent in our politics. Hawaii’s elected official are mostly Democrats (all of our people in Congress, our governor and the vast majority of our state legislators – Democrats by a country mile). Just like our blood, color us blue.
For example Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye (D) was elected to Congress right after WWII. He is still there. He will be there forever. If he ever leaves the US Senate it will be feet first. This is a place where Rank Has Its Privileges.
Because, or maybe in spite of that we seldom (OK, never) seriously talk about issues, no matter how hot the race gets. That’s because we will all still be here after the election. Then we’ll run into each other at soccer games and standing in line at the bank. So God forbid we should talk stink and end up with an enemy for life. In a small, pleasant, warm place where you’re going to live forever, who needs enemies?
Not surprisingly people like Oprah who move here from places like Chicago dropping millions into local real estate are surprised that they aren’t instantly welcomed into the fold. They don’t get it when people roll their eyes at newcomers who forget to remove their shoes at the door, cannot eat with chop sticks, turn up their noses at lau-lau and do not understand or speak pidgin. (What, boddah you?)
Americans Don’t Eat Rice
The worst part is these folks don’t eat rice.
Here in Hawaii rice is the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions. Two scoops short grained steamed white rice with an extra scoop on the side is the carb of choice. Hawaii college student headed to the mainland don’t leave home without their rice cooker. When our local bruddahs go to jail out-of-state they riot about rice (or lack of it).
Just as white men can’t jump, most Americans can’t cook rice – perhaps it’s the absence of rice in the mainland diet that has led to the decline of our economy, unemployment, the mortgage crisis, instability, debt, fear, violence, road rage, hair loss and decline of all the other 49 states.
When the president comes home for a visit he does eat rice with every meal, (also shave ice, crack seed, lomi salmon and plate lunch with macaroni on the side). He plays golf and sees old friends too. With a little luck the weather is warm and sunny in the day and cool and breezy in the evening.
For the record, a lot of people in the Aloha State are pretty sure the Native Son is good for another four years – that’s how Hawaii sees it. But like Hawaii itself, it’s a view that may not be shared on the mainland, because just as Hawaii is not America, America is not Hawaii.