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Why Would Anyone Move From Hawaii to Russia?
Oahu’s high prices and limited jobs market are spurring a young Waimanalo local to move to the former Soviet Union in search of opportunity and a better living standard.

About the Author

  • Shay Kauwe
    Shay Kauwe was born and raised in Waimanalo where her family has lived for generations. She is a recent graduate of Hawaii Pacific University and a proud alumnus of Kamehameha Schools.

My former high-school classmates return to the islands, one by one. They work at an unsatisfying job, or two, just to get by. Even then, they end up living with their parents because they can’t afford to rent their own place.

I am in a different situation as I look forward to renting my first apartment and being financially independent. I’m even saving up for a trip to Europe this summer.

How is that? I’m bidding aloha to Oahu and heading to Russia. Yes, Russia. Saint Petersburg, to be exact.

I was offered a position teaching English at an international school upon my graduation from college and now I am preparing for the 6,800-mile move.

Luckily, English is in huge demand in Russia and, as a native speaker, I was given hiring preference. The pay is pitiful by Hawaii standards, but with my employer fronting the bill for insurance, visa costs, airfare, in-country taxes, housing and a monthly bonus to make up for any currency fluctuations, I have been assured I will be living comfortably.

Shay Kauwe

Courtesy of Shay Kauwe

I will always love Hawaii. It is where I was born and raised, and generations of my ancestors have been born and buried on this small island.

But as my boyfriend — yes, he is Russian — and I contemplate our future, we simply can’t see how we can make it in Hawaii. Moving to Russia will afford us a better opportunity for ourselves, and for our future.

For one, my boyfriend’s education is absolutely free, subsidized by the Russian government. My work will be well paid compared to the cost of living, and it is meaningful to me. That’s a rare combination indeed.

Raising a child in Hawaii is, and always will be, my goal… But rising living costs and the impossibility of ever being able to afford rent — let alone a house — in Hawaii means we are unable to raise a family here.

Saint Petersburg, the city I have been assigned to work in, has a rich cultural history and UNESCO heritage sites. Its public transportation is clean, fast and cheap. The city is also breathtakingly beautiful, and surprisingly affordable. You can buy bushels of potatoes for a few cents on the dollar.

I try to explain to relatives why I’m packing up and moving to the other side of the world; willingly trading sandy beaches and sunshine for icy streets and cold that can get down to 20 degrees below zero.

So far, they don’t get it. My parents’ and my grandparents’ generations cannot see Russia, as I do — as a land of opportunity that I don’t have on Oahu.

For them, the Cold War painted the entirety of Russia, Eastern Europe, and the mid-Asian republics as a dreary block of communism. In their eyes, Russia still seems to represent paranoia, fear, propaganda and bleak conformity.

Some ask me: Isn’t there a war with the Ukraine? Isn’t the media flooded with propaganda? Don’t Russians hate Americans?

Times have changed. Russia is not the former U.S.S.R. in the same way that the U.S. is no longer the Confederate States. For one, it isn’t even called Russia; it is called “The Russian Federation.” Of course, remnants of its former self remain but, as a whole, the country has evolved, and mostly for the better.

Saint Petersburg

The streets of Saint Petersburg in Russia are full of history and elegance, but have little in common with Honolulu.

Shay Kauwe

In terms of the war in Ukraine, modern warfare doesn’t play out in people’s lives the way it used to. Despite the jarring images of fighting and discontent on television and computer screens, very few Russians are actually affected by the battles waging in Ukraine.

This is eerily similar to how Americans engage with ongoing coverage of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria or whatever other “flavor-of-the-month” confrontation happens to be going on. For the most part, they don’t.

The media in Russia is indeed a propaganda machine that churns out intentional misinformation while firmly denying any bias. But when I sit on my grandmother’s couch in Mililani watching the talking heads on Fox News, I am hard-pressed to detect the difference between them and their Russian counterparts.

When I sit on my grandmother’s couch in Mililani watching the talking heads on Fox News, I am hard-pressed to detect the difference between them and their Russian counterparts.

On a personal level, I have found Russians during my visits to be as hospitable as any other people in the world. They are human beings, just like the rest of us. People there deal with the same fears and difficulties that people here do. They worry about money, get married and have babies — or they don’t. They laugh at their politicians, try to cook good food, watch television, clip coupons, go to the movies, and spend as many days in the sea as they can.

They don’t demonstrate the same signs of aloha, of course. It is unusual for a stranger to smile at you on the street, or in general, but as a Russian friend explained to me, “We prefer to save our smiles for the people we truly care about. If a Russian smiles at you, you can be assured it is genuine.”

In the end, it may sound strange, but Russia, for my 20-something generation, represents different things.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Saint Petersburg, long the capital of Russia, could hardly be less like Honolulu.

For me, it is a rising economy that is pulling out many stops to attract people who can transform the nation economically into a major international player. And it is a country that is willing to invest in young people like me to advance their desire to improve their situation and become a world leader in many areas. Hawaii might want to consider the lessons it could learn on such fronts.

That said, I want to be clear about something: I love Hawaii. Raising a child in Hawaii is, and always will be, my goal. Our unique cultural diversity and proud tradition of Hawaiian values provides an ideal environment to learn tolerance and respect.

But rising living costs and the impossibility of ever being able to afford rent — let alone a house — in Hawaii means we are unable to raise a family here without drowning in debt. We might one day die here without a scrap of land to our name.

So for the short term, I might shiver a bit as I dream of the warm sands of my home. I will sing familiar songs to my children, and tell them the stories of Kamapua‘a, Menehune, and Night Marchers.

I will swim in the Black Sea, but think about the Pacific Ocean. I will always hope for a chance to come home to the place that taught me just how important family really is.

But a home that you can’t pass along to your children isn’t really a home at all.

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