You eat Spam musubi. You call your elders “Auntie” or “Uncle.” You leave your slippers at the door wherever you go.
People in Hawaii talk a lot about what it means to be “local.” Maybe that’s partially because so many of us came from somewhere else.
According to U.S. Census data, only 54.2 percent of people who live in Hawaii — including the military population — were actually born here. In most states, more than 60 percent of the population was born there. More than 75 percent of Louisiana, Michigan and Ohio residents were born in the states where they currently live.
Since barely more than half of us were born here, it might seem easy to ignore all that “local” talk.
The satirical TV show “South Park” lampooned it. “Our ancestors sailed here! On a cruise ship! Nine months ago!” deadpanned one character staking a claim to deep island roots in the “Going Native” episode.
But not everyone is laughing.
“Every few years, it seems like the media does an article about local identity or culture,” UH Ethnic Studies Professor Jonathan Okamura said. And most of these articles tend to simplify local culture down to whether you eat shave ice, he said.
As for the Census statistics, “being local does not mean that you were born and raised here,” Okamura said.
“If you have this appreciation of Hawaii, the land here, the people here and the cultures here, that’s what makes people local.”
“I think (being local) means spending a significant amount of time in the islands so you’re rooted in the community,” said Ty Tengan, chair of the University of Hawaii’s Ethnic Studies Department.
Tengan was born in Germany to military parents who were from Hawaii. He’s part-Native Hawaiian, but spent some of his childhood in Colorado and Georgia.
“A sense of localness is one that doesn’t erase Native Hawaiian history,” Tengan said.
When we define local based on whether or not we do stereotypical local things, we lose the deeper connection that brought together Native Hawaiians and other ethnic groups during the plantation era, he said. Celebrating the relationships between those ethnic groups means more than just speaking a little pidgin.
“I see local … as how invested they are at maintaining Hawaii as a unique place,” Tengan said.
Some newcomers may not care if they ever come across as local, but it can be important for new businesses hoping to make it in the islands, said Communications Pacific CEO Kitty Lagareta.
For the last 15 years, CommPac has offered “enculturation” workshops, where businesses can learn about Hawaii’s unique political, social and cultural history. The workshops prepare companies to do business in the state respecting its land and cultures.
“We would watch companies come here and we would watch them stumble,” Lagareta said. “We’re a complex place; we have a lot of important elements that make Hawaii what it is.”
“It’s really hard to come here and be successful if you don’t know anything about the place,” Lagareta said. “If (businesses are) new, they have to build trust and credibility.”
Lagareta says newly arriving businesses led by people who think they “know what’s best” for Hawaii usually end up with problems. Given the tight-knit nature of island communities, outside companies and individuals have to get used to how fast reputations spread.
“It’s really hard to come here and be successful if you don’t know anything about the place.” — Kitty Lagareta, CEO, Communications Pacific
“We’d much rather help our clients avoid a problem, rather get out of one,” Lagareta said. “There are reasons we do certain things here.”
Business success can depend on understanding and honoring Hawaii’s history and people. It might be easier to get started if you’re local, but she says any company can gain trust and respect.
Companies new to Hawaii need to adjust their management practices to make it here, Lagareta said. Little things like “talking story” with employees go a long way; managers can be much more successful if they get to know employees before telling them what to do.
Lagareta said that there are also more specific ways that business can show respect to the local community, such as holding Hawaiian blessings before opening. Lagareta offers her clients a reading list so they can become more attuned to Hawaii’s political and cultural history.
What is considered local now might not have been considered local 50 years ago.
“Local is a social and cultural identity that changes over time,” said John Rosa, a University of Hawaii History professor. “Local is a very flexible term.”
During the first half of the 20th century, Rosa said that being local meant that you were a part of the working class, and Native Hawaiian, or a descendant of plantation workers. You weren’t a missionary’s grandchild, or a part of the U.S. government that was trying to annex Hawaii.
By the 1950s and up until the 1980s, the meaning of “local” changed. Hawaii was facing an invasion of tourists and immigrants. The accessibility of air travel brought in “snowbirds,” immigrants and business owners hoping to make a living in Hawaii’s young tourist economy.
The meaning of what is local changed depending on what wasn’t local.
“Local versus the military, tourists, foreign investors, immigrants… Locals versus haoles,” Okamura said. “It’s those oppositions that have resulted in the changing meaning of terms.”
“Local is a social and cultural identity that changes over time.” — John Rosa, UH History professor
“Think of local identity as a spectrum. Locals were definitely working class in the 1930s,” Rosa said. “Today, many still are working class, but there are many locals who have also achieved middle class status because they and their families have been here for many decades, if not generations.”
Since the 1990s, localism has meant challenging globalization, Okamura said. Localism in the 21st century means protecting Hawaii’s land and cultures from foreign investors, international corporations and the growing flood of international tourists, he added.
Of the 17.6 percent of Hawaii residents who were born outside of the U.S., 79.2 percent are from Asia. The second-largest population of foreign-born residents comes from other Pacific islands, while Europeans and South Americans are basically tied for third.
Okamura considers the anti-GMO movement the strongest example of a local struggle in recent years, even though it’s playing out on the mainland as well.
“(The anti-GMO initiative) is a very significant local community struggle that has emerged on all of the islands,” he said. “It’s an opposition to these companies coming in and threatening the land.”
Most expressions of local control usually die off after bursts of protests, but the anti-GMO movement has lasted years. And the movement has brought together Hawaii’s ethnic groups — Native Hawaiians, “haoles” and immigrants included.
But Mark Phillipson, a spokesman for Syngenta, said the GMO seed industry is “part of the fabric of the agricultural community … I think that you can say that, no pun intended, the seed industry grew with Hawaii.”
Phillipson said the industry started when farmers from the Midwest came to Hawaii in the 1960s to escape harsh winters. The farmers leased land from plantation owners, and employed local residents in their fields to grow seeds for their mainland farms.
“I think we’ve been local for many, many years.” — Mark Phillipson, Syngenta
In the last two decades, the small family farms were taken over by the corporations like Syngenta. Phillipson says that the seed companies filled the place of pineapple and sugar plantations, but that didn’t change the seed industry’s sense of “localness.”
Most of Syngenta’s workers were born and raised in the islands, Phillipson said.
“I think we’ve been local for many, many years,” he said. “We’re integrated into all the communities where we operate … many of our employees are the soccer and basketball coaches at the schools here, they’re the ushers and deacons at church.”
But to GMO opponents, it doesn’t matter how long the seed companies have been here, or the number of jobs they provide, Okamura said.
“Land is always going to be a big issue,” he said. “(Locals see) these large corporations as coming from outside of Hawaii, as opposed to something being proposed locally.”