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Hawaii: Foreign(er) nation

I think that the most unusual fact about the exhibit at the Bishop Museum is that Hawaii has such a history of cultural and ethnic intermingling that one would suppose that there'd be an intense public scrutiny of rhetoric about immigration, foreign origin and new arrivals to the Islands. However, and the more I think of it, it's more a function of my perception, having been living in the very charged atmosphere of ethnicity and racial relations in the continental United States.

I say this because, unlike in the mainland, where the notion of ethnic inclusion will fluctuate between the Melting Pot and the Salad Bowl concepts, Hawaii seems to have something completely different. I'm still looking for a name for it, although I think that, in deference to native Hawaiians I'll call it the Poi Gourd.

Why do I say this? Just as an outside observer, it became very apparent that as much as political rhetoric in the islands can be very divisive, what with the Japanese, native Hawaiian, Korean, Chinese (mainland, Taiwanese and Cantonese) and Anglo communities duking it out for power and influence over everything from the state legislature to the Bishop Estate (and in so doing taking very explicit steps to exclude people from certain groups from the process), everyday life in Hawaii seems to incorporate fundamental parts of multiple cultures without as much as a second thought to it.

Food, I think, is usually a good indicator of how far a culture's traditions have permeated another's. I mean, aside from looking at the streets in LA to know that there's a very significant Mexican population in California, all one has to do is notice the popularity of the tortilla chip to realize that Mexican people are beginning to significant cultural strength in the US. Likewise, in Hawaii, one could taste the Japanese influence in everyday food, what with very rare tuna steaks, the naming of soy sauce as shoyu in everyday functioning, or the use of dried seaweed furikake in one of Hawaii's pieces of foody goodness, Poke. I'll talk about food at more length elsewhere.

Traditional Hawaiian music, likewise, demonstrates how much of this mixing of cultures has become a uniquely Hawaiian way of living. I was amazed at how much Hawaiian popular music sounds like Latin American boleros (minus the maracas). Hear it for yourself. No doubt the Portuguese, French and Spanish presence in the islands has much to do with the adoption of the Ukulele, which is very much like the Cuban cuatro, the Colombian tiple, the Andean charango, the Spanish viguela--a smaller variation of the guitar with a particularly acute sound.

Street and road names follow no particular ethnic origin, and as such one can find street names in Hawaiian and English, or of Chinese, Japanese and Iberian origin.

I can't, of course, argue that I understand modern-day Hawaiian culture merely by virtue of having been there three weeks and haven eaten food there and seen the occasional news broadcast. I even think I've done a very poor job of explaining any of what I have, by and large, concluded about the place. bell hooks would have a field day with me if I argued anything even close to that. But I can say that the vibe surrounding ethnic and cultural relations was completely different to what I have become accustomed to in my last 6 years living in the US. Dylan, Jason and Erica will laugh when they read this, but even the air of ethnic and cultural relations in Hawaii reminds me of home.


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