Hawai’i: Behind the Scenes of the Pacific Paradise

For those of you who think I parade around in my grass shack of a home in Hawai’i wearing nothing but a coconut bra and seashells, it’s time for your cultural reality check. I understand that many of you don’t know much about Hawai’i, so thankfully Kumu Mikilani Young is coming to NYU Shanghai this week to teach not just hula, the traditional Hawaiian dance, but also some genuine Hawaiian culture. Take this as a free opportunity to learn about the land that is so much more than just beaches, bikini babes, and lu’aus—which alone sounds like paradise—just in case you end up honeymooning there. Before you show up to the class seductively shaking your hips only to humiliate yourself, let me provide some background about the beautiful tropical islands. While I am not a Hawai’i expert despite being born and raised there, I certainly know a thing or two about the frequently misconstrued local traditions that I want to get straight.

A commonly misunderstood word is Hawaiian, which is both a noun and an adjective, and different from being a Californian or a New Yorker. Not only does the word describe all things from the state, but it serves as a language and ethnicity as well. Hawai’i is the only state to have two official languages, English and Hawaiian, but, unfortunately, the native language is dying due to the lack of native speakers.

If you didn’t know, Hawai’i is a huge melting pot of Asian ethnicities such as Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos, and non-Asian ethnicities like Portuguese, Samoans, and Puerto Ricans. These immigrants of diverse backgrounds mostly came to Hawai’i to work on sugarcane, coconut, and pineapple plantations. Most immigrants from China were Guangdong natives, first arriving in the late 1700’s. Due to the historically large immigrant labor population, there is heavy Asian influence on Hawai’i culture to this day: their primary staple is rice, some words in Hawaiian pidgin come directly from Asian languages such as the Chinese words “aiya” (哎呀), or “no can” (不可以), and people don’t wear shoes in the house. If you’ve noticed me walking around the Academic Building barefoot, I apologize in advance. It may seem dirty and I promise you I wasn’t raised in the wild. In fact, I grew up in classrooms where it was totally acceptable, and common, to let your feet breathe.

Hula is a dance form of Polynesian origin that dramatizes the story of the chant or song that accompanies it. Contrary to popular belief, hula dancers are not merely sexy natives who serve to greet the foreigners with flowers and dance. They are men and women whose job is to tell a story or legend, using everything from their eyebrows to their fingertips.

The word Aloha is a cultural concept and is very hard to translate with a few simple words. The last heir of Hawai’i, Queen Liliuokalani, explained it best: “It is more than a greeting, it is a blessing only to be used with sincerity.” Unlike what you may have seen in the movies, it’s not just surfer slang for “hey dude, whatsup.” The Hawai’i Legislature has codified the “Aloha Spirit” to include more than a sincere greeting. It’s identified as the working philosophy of native Hawaiians that each citizen is expected to hold positive feelings towards others. To demonstrate the charm, warmth, and sincerity of the Hawaiian people, it is technically state law to display kindness, unity, agreeability, humility, and patience. The Aloha spirit is taught in local schools as continuously caring for one another with no expectations in return, even for those we have no direct connection to. I am forever grateful to have been raised with the spirit of Aloha, as its philosophy brings out the best in people.

As an unofficial representative of the Hawaiian spirit, I find it delightful to be the first person from Hawai’i that you’ve met, and even more so, I appreciate how highly you regard my native state. I am very proud of my origins, but you must realize it would be inaccurate to call me “Hawaiian” however, as I do not have a drop of native blood in me. My dear friends know how peeved I get when someone makes this mistake, because I don’t find it to be a joking matter. I cannot take credit for the accomplishments, humble values, and rich cultural legacy the Hawaiian ancestors left behind. Native Hawaiians were highly skilled voyagers who navigated the immense Pacific Ocean in their handcrafted canoes by following the stars. On behalf of every Hawai’i local, please be thoughtful and don’t assume that we are any race, despite what we look like.

I know I boast endlessly about my hometown, but rest assured there are definitely downfalls that come with growing up on a remote tropical rock: I’ve never experienced a road trip, I struggle to dress for the winter, and I always arrive on island time, aka late. Worst of all, I don’t share an appreciation with my east coast friends for bagels, and they totally judge me for it. Nonetheless, I certainly took advantage of the perks of island life – just look at my tan.

In the end, I know it’s easy to believe that my life growing up mirrored what you saw on Lost or Hawaii Five-O because that may be all you know about Hawai’i. It would be impossible to hold everyone responsible for having improper stereotypes, especially at NYU Shanghai – I’m guilty of having misconceptions too! But hopefully this article gave you just enough insight about the real Hawai’i, and if you’re curious to know more, please do attend the hula performance and workshop at the Academic Building on Mar. 12 (RSVP here).

Important words for hula:

Kumu: Teacher

Makaukau?: Are you ready? (asked by the teacher)

‘Ae!: Yes!

Hana hou/ha: Again (as in lets do the verse again!)

Hopefully you will get a maika’i (good job), by Kumu Mikilani at the workshop.

This article was written by Sandra Kohn. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Kerne Erickson


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