••• The International Writers Magazine - 21 Years on-line - Cultural Destinations
A Hapa in Hawaii
Kulia I Ka Pono,
Strive for Greatness
Photo: Lani is furthest right in stripes
“This place is your home too, yeah?”
The summer after the eighth grade, I spent a week at a sleepaway camp on Oahu, Hawaii. To attend this camp, I had to submit copies of my birth certificate, my mother’s, and my grandmother’s to verify my Hawaiian ancestry. Once the camp had double and triple checked my paperwork, I worriedly packed a little suitcase full of slippahs a.k.a. flip flops and bathing suits. My family and I boarded our Delta flight, eager to fly from Charleston, South Carolina to Honolulu, Hawaii. I was worried that I would stick out from the rest of the kids because I didn’t grow up in the islands. Tired of my nervous energy, my parents dropped me off an hour early at the bus stop to wait for the rest of the kids to arrive.
Kulia I Ka Pono, Strive for Greatness, flashed on our matching camp shirts as I walked up to the school dormitories where we would live for the next week. Kamehameha School is carved into a jagged mountainside, so every morning I struggled up and down flight after flight of stairs to attend workshops, craft sessions, and cultural education classes. Before I entered any new classroom, I had to recite an oli, or chant. Our kumu (teacher) would line up all thirty of us in front of the classroom door and call out the first line of the chant. Then we would yell the next line as loud as our cracky pubescent voices would allow. I enjoyed the chanting, even if I didn’t understand every word. I desperately needed the chance to shout away all the nervous energy vibrating out of my sweaty pores.
In Hawaiian culture, this oli is traditionally used to request permission to enter a new space. We don’t recite an oli every time we visit a new friend’s house. It's specifically reserved for outsiders entering sacred cultural spaces. But even after every oli, I still felt like an outsider. The other kids could tell who hailed from the “mainland,” not having grown up in the islands. It was shockingly apparent in the way I looked, my skin several shades lighter than my fellow campers who grew up under the Hawaiian sun.
I grew up surrounded by affluent white kids in Charleston, South Carolina, kids living in Daddy’s McMansion with Mom carting them from private swim lessons to dance recitals in her brand new Range Rover. And here in Hawaii, even at thirteen years old I was aware of what separated me from my new camp friends just as I felt separated from my school friends back on the mainland with their designer spray tans. I was, and still am, a light skinned hapa haole, half-white, half-Hawaiian.
Of the three hapa haoles in our group, I, at least, looked more “local'' than the rest. Like most islanders, my mom is mixed, half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian, so I am hard to identify racially. The two other haole kids, with their California blonde hair and blue eyes, were from the mainland too, but claimed native ancestry through a distant family member. Their parents thought they were sending their kids on a tropical vacation, certainly not preparing them for all the ritualistic chanting. But they learned just as I did what it felt like to be isolated. I sometimes felt as alien there as I did at home.
But, Hawaii is my home, too.
For the first time in my life, I was with kids who, despite our differences, shared the same cultural experiences. No one in the islands is pure Hawaiian—we’re all mixed—so the first topic of conversation was, “what mix are you?” It never felt “othering” in the way that the question would feel coming from a mainlander. We were just kids trying to find connections, no matter how surface level or temporal. We all got excited when the cafeteria served spam and rice for breakfast and balked when one of the haole kids wore sneakers instead of slippahs to class. That one week was the first time in my life that I had friends who talked like me, who ate like me, who looked like me.
At the end of camp, we held a performance for all the parents where each kid would introduce themself in Hawaiian before the group performed several oli and mele (songs). When it was my turn to speak, I stood up at the podium and said “Aloha. O Nalani Alexes Malie Kaua No‘e O Ke Kai Roe ko‘u inoa. No South Carolina mai ao.” (Hello. My name is Nalani Alexes Malie Kaua No‘e O Ke Kai Roe. My home is South Carolina). I could see my parents smiling at me as I sang and danced and chanted the mele and oli and hula I had learned over the past seven days.
After our little pa‘ina (party) it was finally time to go home. With some tearful goodbyes to my new friends, I dragged my suitcase down the endless stairs to my parents car when I heard one of my camp counselors shout at me from above, “Ay! You know, this place is your home too, yeah?”
© Nalani Roe March 2020
Senior English major/concentration in Writing, Rhetoric, and Publication at the College of Charleston.
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