Endless surf. Salty sweat dripping down hot skin. Soft sand between your toes.
These are just some of the images that come to mind when people think of Hawaii.
However, there is more to the islands than dancing hulas or (hot) surfer dudes and dudettes. Like any other popular hub, people who often visit this tropical dream view it through the safe distance of tour buses and planned out itineraries. Yet scratch beneath the surface and you’ll discover a myriad of problems that can be blamed on colonialism, displacement and of course, mass tourism. If you look past the veneer of souvenir shops, five star hotels and killer abs, you’ll find, like in any other so-called Shangri-la’s, groups of people such as ethnic Hawaiians, homeless veterans and immigrants continue to be oppressed and battle poverty, obesity (yes, obesity!) and drug and alcohol abuse. As Jack London once said, “…Hawaii is a paradise for the well to do.”
Hawaii is like a train ride: you’re being propelled forward yet at the same time, not really moving at all. Nevertheless, visitors still flock here and are all too happy to turn a blind eye for a slice of paradise; while locals, despite being caught between longing and belonging, the dream and the reality, are passionate about the islands they call their home. O’ahu, , Hilo (Big Island), Kahului (Maui) …. are more than just places that can be deemed as another “melting pot” because this one-size-fits-all term cannot possibly begin to accommodate all the various aspects and nuances of the islands and the its people. Each culture disappears into the other, yet somehow, is still able remain distinct and completely identifiable. People from all walks of life, all over the world—each with distinct histories of how they came to Hawaii—are bound by imagined communities and the wounds of memory. From the indigenous Hawaiians who struggle to simultaneously uphold their traditions yet avoid exploitation; Filipinos as well as other migrant communities, who came to Hawaii as labourers and for centuries (and up to today?) have done the dirty, difficult jobs yet remain as that “invisible minority” with a low volume of representation; or even the European-Americans who search to find an identity and place within Hawaiian culture. However, these are just individual pieces of a complicated, yet beautiful tapestry of a land that for its residents, is not just another state, but in a sense, its own country.
* This post initially began as a letter to my Aunt who was asking for advice on places to go and thngs to do in Hawaii since I had lived there for awhile in 2006. I may not have remembered every restaurant or club I went to, but what came almost immediately were the memories of the people I met and the state’s rich, yet complex mix of cultures and histories.