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“Don’t write about TMT,” my right-brain begged me.
“Stick to funny and mundane. That’s what you’re good at.”
But still. I wanted to say something. I wanted to be loud. Opinionated. Like that hot summer day in August years ago (more on that later), I wanted to unseal my windows and splatter the racket of my brilliant insights upon every passer-by.
TMT. Too Many Telescopes. Telescopes Modernize Telepathy. Telescopes, Modern Tombs. Turtles Massage Takai. My wife and I spent years conjuring acronyms out of the three-letter pairings printed on Hawaii license plates. This was my moment. I was born for this.
I could see the article title glowing and growing in front of me: “Too Many Titles: A Haole’s Civic Opinion.” It needed work, granted. But the ideas bundled within would peel paint off of walls.
“Don’t be him,” my right-brain fired back.
I dare not preach pure quietism. But sometimes it’s better to listen than to be heard. Better to absorb than to expunge. Better to ShamWow than to Hydro Mousse. You get the idea.
“This is a hard lesson for anyone who wants to do good, who wants to support, who wants to be part of the conversation,” writes Rajiv Mohabir, poet and graduate student at the University of Hawaii. “How can we open our hearts? How can we let our egos go long enough to read the ‘I’s’ of the people around us who are standing up against the occupation and destruction of Empire, of colonial violence.”
There’s activism and compassion in restraint, in listening.
Instead of flexing my tech muscle — the nerdy bicep that yearns deeply for new scientific revelations — and instead of flexing my compassion muscle — the cardiac tissue that begs for greater peace and justice — I heretofore shall do what I do on most other days. Flex no muscles. I shall sit, read, listen, and hope for a constructive dialogue that leads to a fair resolution.
In the meantime, as the debate rages on, and as my muscles slowly atrophy, I can’t help but think back to my earliest days here in Honolulu. It was a simpler time. A time when I had yet to realize the complex history of this place. I ate Zippy’s. I rode horses. I high-fived people at the beach.
Since childhood I have long assumed my body is offensive to all onlookers, no question, but rarely did I fathom its grotesque and implicit politic.
A hot summer day in August, 2010. My Honda Civic and I sit idly in H1 traffic. The sun batters me. My car can’t keep cool. The air vents putter. I sigh as the traffic congeals and hardens.
I slide the sweaty windows down. Half-down to be exact. “Hapa windows,” I think to myself, misusing the term, feeling uber-cultured.
A recent transplant to Oahu, I put my penchant for Boazian ethnographic research immediately to the test. I eat one semi-cold musubi at 7-Eleven. I learn the “language.” Not Hawaiian per se, but I see “Ha” at the Polynesian Cultural Center. I am well on my way to becoming as cool as a Kuleana cucumber.
But there is one form of colonial baggage that I just can’t shake, no matter how hard I try. Whenever I find myself seated in a projectile automobile, I listen to slow songs. Sad songs. Phil Collins songs. Love songs that meld the tempo of Garfunkel with the suicidal drowsiness of a seal lost at sea. The kind of music a barge might conjure when it slowly and accidentally scrapes against other metal surfaces in a harbor.
In the middle of just such a melancholy jam, on that hot slow day in August, I hear something. A piercing, angry shout. I recognize the word, but I can’t quite fathom the context, the meaning.
I jump up in my seat. I don’t see who utters it, or why, or to whom. But I’m pretty sure the “whom” in this equation is me, the white guy in the old black Civic, the gangly mainland transplant in thick red flannel who can’t help but blast his shitty music over the peaceful lapping of the waves.
Haole. He wasn’t informing me of potential oxygen deprivation, that I was in need of a visit to a qualified Queens pulmonologist. I wasn’t at the PCC anymore. This was a spiteful utterance. The kind that makes you remember the distinct details of the day, the Banana Republic shirt you are wearing, the temperature. And it hurts more than the road-ragey utterance of a “fuck you” — a sentiment that, only weeks earlier, a Domino’s delivery driver had, well, delivered to me.
Years later, I still wonder what I might’ve done to spark the insult, if it was the bad music, or my subpar driving in a new city, or if I truly deserved the derogative at all. I wonder, too, about the utterer. Who he really is, where he works, what makes him laugh, if he’s married or has kids.
Like any good fan of HBO’s “In Treatment” (the first few seasons of it, at least), I just wanted to talk about the haole thing. Dig in and dwell. Soak it in.
It felt like I encountered an offensive bumper sticker plastered to the back of an offensively oversized truck — the kind of sticker you barely finish reading before the mystery of the purveyor dissipates into the distant anonymity of the fog. And you’re left sitting there, alone, wearing Banana Republic clothes, appalled by the content of the bumper sticker but even more appalled by the thinness of your own skin.
Having been on the receiving end of a very minimal amount of prejudice, I try to reflect on it constructively. I wonder what, if anything, I can do to warrant living here, temporarily or permanently. Turning my music down is a good start. But how do I act as a good citizen? A good person? A friend and ally to the wide array of people, animals, and plants (coqui frogs and albezia trees aside) living here, breathing here, visiting here?
In short, should I even be here?
If Ben Affleck were here, for example, plopped into my Sanuk shoes, what sad histories and injustices would he ask PBS to gloss over? And how can I do the exact opposite of that, I wonder. In doing so, am I begging for my own erasure? Am I apologizing for a history I have no right to summarize or own? How many Kanaka Maoli would prefer I just take my sad, sad music and crawl back to the Seattle underground?
I could of course move back to where I grew up in Indiana. There, I’d face another tragic history of racism and violence.
Indiana, home of America’s newest homophobic sweetheart, Mike Pence.
“Indiana,” a state named after the very people it devastated and displaced. Or, more accurately, a state named after Columbus’s offensive misnaming of those people. Then, there’s Indianapolis, an extraneous and completely unnecessary pairing of “Indian” with the Greek “polis,” a city almost named after the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, a “noble savage” revered by the people who murdered him.
Yes, I could move back to Indiana, or Illinois, or Iowa — somewhere where I may not hear “haole” as I careen down the suburban roundabouts listening to Don McLean slow-cook his “American Pie.”
But that doesn’t mean a similar “haole” cry isn’t buried somewhere deep beneath my feet, muddled by centuries of passive forgetting. That doesn’t mean I’m liberated from the complexities of history, from my culture that absorbs more than it defines, from my obligations as a neighbor, a friend, a human being.
There’s a lesson here. An ever-increasing need for me to listen, or to leave.
Wherever I end up, may I never ignore the voice of dissent, the voice of the disenfranchised, the mysterious voice of the jerk who called me “haole.”