Some places have the power to change the way we look at and live in the world. This is the third in a series I’m calling “Places that Shaped Me.”
Part Four: Honolulu
Honolulu HI 1978
When I stepped off the plane in Honolulu in the winter of 1978 I was a dazed, pasty-skinned 23-year-old with no return ticket. I’d impulsively decided to flee Ann Arbor on the heels of a historic snowstorm, cobbling together just enough cash for my flight plus a couple of months on the ground, if I was lucky. That first heady wave of warm, fragrant air melted my winter-weary body and downshifted my anxious brain. I had the strangest sensation that I’d just arrived home.
Home, up until then, had been Michigan. I grew up in a small, rural college town where life was simple but sweet. We moved to the slightly more urbane city of Ann Arbor when I was 12 but my white, middle-class, Midwestern roots remained basically intact. Hawaii (which seemed to me the very opposite of Michigan) became my dream destination – and I jumped.
Honolulu was indeed every bit as balmy and beautiful as I’d imagined but my new life was full of challenges. Those first six months were rough: a sad collection of low-paying, short-term, completely forgettable jobs. It goes without saying that I was unprepared for the price of everything. Shopping for food made me lose my appetite and the cost of rent is a bad memory.
Even everyday tasks, such riding the bus (cleverly named “Da Bus”), necessary for work, presented unique problems. At first, I was too shy to attempt the pronunciation of Hawaiian street names (Kalanianaole, Halekauwila, Kawaiaha’o…) so I got lost -- a lot. When I finally worked up the courage to ask directions, I couldn’t understand the Pidgin I heard in reply. Once, I inadvertently circumnavigated the island on Route 52. Lucky for me, the last stop was the same one I’d started from several hours earlier. In any case, this is how I learned my way around my new home.
On the other hand, the beach and the sunshine were free. So was Hawaiian music, which I fell in love with. I was determined to find meaningful work and stick around long enough to make the transition worthwhile.
In the summer of 1978 I applied for the position of dorm advisor at The Kamehameha Schools. “Kam School” was a venerable institution, founded in 1887 by the last princess descended from the Hawaiian monarchy. Since its inception, all students have been required by law to be of part-Hawaiian ancestry. If hired, I’d live on the big, beautiful Honolulu campus and help supervise girls from the neighbor islands who boarded there during the school year. I desperately wanted to be part of that special place.
The interview got off to a good start. I was confident and enthusiastic, happy to talk about my previous work at another prep school. I was in good shape; solid education, references, experience. Then, just as we were wrapping up, the interviewer casually expressed doubt that I’d be a good fit because I myself was not part-Hawaiian. How, he wondered, could a haole wahine (white girl) like me, especially a malihini (new arrival) from the mainland, possibly relate to and advise the young women I’d be living with?
Wait, what? It had simply never occurred to me that being white could be a negative factor with respect to employability. His question caught me off guard and I struggled to come up with an answer. Also, wasn’t it, um, illegal to discriminate based on race?
Anyway, I think I mumbled something to the effect that exposing students to people with backgrounds different from their own might be a good thing. It sounded lame, even to me. I walked away feeling deflated and confused. A week later, for reasons I’ll never know, I was offered the job.
In retrospect, I doubt that my mainland haole-ness benefitted the young women I supervised in any meaningful way, as I had suggested. On the other hand, stepping into the “other/outsider” role in a tight-knit community so very different from my own would become the very thing that shaped me.
Hawaii in general, and Kam School in particular, gave me the experience of being “other” for the first time in my life. It was true, as my interviewer suggested, that I knew almost nothing about island culture, much less Hawaiian culture. I probably didn’t even know that those things actually mattered (they do), or that that Hawaii’s incredibly complex and sometimes painful history is still being written. I certainly underestimated how acutely uncomfortable and even painful it felt at times to be that outsider.
Even so, living “outside” was an unexpected gift. Those experiences shaped the way I think about privilege, culture, race, inclusion/exclusion, and much more. I’m certain they made me a more reflective and empathetic person. Please know that I have no misgivings about working at Kam School or the five years I spent there. I was incredibly lucky to be part of that amazing family and I treasure the people I met there and all they taught me.
I laugh now at my many missteps as I slowly assimilated into local culture. There’s a lot to learn and discovered its best to just roll with it. Fortunately, humor has always been Hawaii’s “secret sauce” -- constantly used to make sure cultural differences are more sweet/spicy and less bitter. I’ve been back many times but thinking about Hawaii now makes me long to step off that plane again and embrace whatever lessons the place still has to teach me.