Two nights ago, I stepped outside of a taqueria in Santa Ana, Calif., to take a phone call from my mother. She told me about the torrential downpour in Kaneohe and how she and my father had participated in the Black Friday savagery at Ala Moana. Soon, the conversation turned to a more substantive discussion about my summer plans.

Me: I’m planning to apply to a few law firms here in Orange County and maybe as far as Los Angeles.

Mom: So… does this mean you’re not coming home for the summer to work?


Me: No, it doesn’t make sense to apply to Honolulu firms if I’m not planning to work there after I graduate.

Mom: So… does this mean you’re not coming home after law school?

Me: Mom, we’ve been over this. I’m staying in California for at least five years.

Mom: So… does that mean you’re coming home after five years?

Me: Mom… we’ll see.

I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I have no intention of coming home.

Well, I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I have no intention of coming home. At least not in the next five years. The reason why I don’t want to come home is not because of the unconscionable cost of living, nor is it because of the gut-wrenching H-1 traffic. The reason why I don’t want to come home is because the future of Oahu is too uncertain for me to enthusiastically stake my entire young adult life and professional career there. Simply put, I ask myself  “Where is Oahu heading in the next 10 to 20 years?” and I have no idea what the answer is.

First outing of the day from Kailuana Place to Bellows AFB beach we saw a rainbow from the travel pool bus over Kaneohe Bay. 3 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rainbow over Kaneohe Bay. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Why is this an important question for all Oahu citizens to ask? First, it simply gives us a better understanding of our island’s condition. Second, it invites us to ask ourselves, “Am I comfortable with the direction my community is heading, or do I want to change something about the course we’re on?”

I analyze the future of Oahu through three questions. The answer to each question only makes the future of Oahu more ambiguous. If the community wishes to stop losing young professionals like me to the clutches of the mainland, these questions must have clear answers.

Who Will Be In Control?

The sociological shifts Oahu has undergone in the past two decades are intriguing. Culturally, Filipinos are becoming a prominent ethnic group due to their increased population.

Politically, the Japanese-American Democratic machine is not as dominant as it used to be. The JA bloc is not weak, but it is facing strong opposition from younger, non-JA Democrats.

Economically, outside companies have begun their full infiltration. Disney’s Aulani resort, NextEra and Monsanto are all behemoths ready to make the island’s economy their own. There are so many concurrent shifts and changes that it’s difficult to predict who will be “king of the island” in years to come.

Ultimately, the group in control steers the ship, so this is an important question to reflect on. In Orange County, California, it’s straightforward: The Latino population is increasing, but the rich, white minority still holds economic power and will be in power for a long time. What will be the case on Oahu?

What Will The Physical Landscape Look Like?

The question is: Will Oahu keep its few bastions of paradisiacal land intact, or will the urban sprawl take over? Normally, I encourage modernization and urban development, but when I look outside the window of my childhood home in Kaneohe, I’m greeted by the view of the lush, strong Ko’olau mountains and… an ugly grey H-3 route wrapping the slopes like an unsightly belt. Whenever I visit my relatives entombed at Punchbowl, I go to the lookout and see… condominiums. Large, pale, ugly condominiums. If I move back home in five, 10, or 20 years, will I be moving back to a place that looks the same as it does now, or will I be moving back to a smaller version of Singapore?

The construction of the rail system seems to suggest one thing, but the determined “Keep the country COUNTRY” bumper stickers on the pickup trucks zooming down the Pali seem to suggest another. Sure, the urbanization train is moving along (pun intended), but there’s a chance it will slow down dramatically once we realize how quickly we’ve taken the paradise out of the island. If I wanted to live in a crowded city with an urban heart, I’d stay in Los Angeles. Why go back home if it’s just the same?

What Will Be Our Primary Economic Engine?

My great-grandparents came to Hawaii as immigrant fuel for the islands’ largest economic engine: the plantations. What happened to that engine? Go to the nearest Foodland, look at the produce aisle, and count how many pineapples bear the “Grown in Mexico” sticker to see how that turned out.

Tourism is currently our strongest engine, but will it last? Whenever I go to Waikiki, I constantly feel the urge to carry around a bottle of hand sanitizer. I also frequent the airport to travel back and forth to the mainland; and if I was a tourist visiting Hawaii for the first time, I would be extremely underwhelmed. How can we rely on tourism to be a strong economic engine for Oahu if we’re not willing to invest in making tourism competitive with destinations in the Caribbean, Australia, or even Southern California? “We don’t have the money!” some would argue. Well, it’s simple economics, really. If you don’t feed the cash cow, the cash cow will die. Either feed the cash cow called tourism or find a new cash cow to take its place. Oahu is doing neither.

I can’t see where the tide is turning, and that makes me want to stay on the shore.

As a future lawyer, there are many different legal careers available to me on Oahu already. But you know what would really attract me back home? If I could foresee exactly what the economic trend is and I could tailor my legal career path to jump right into that trend in three years. But with Oahu, that’s not possible. I can’t see where the tide is turning, and that makes me want to stay on the shore.

Some may ask, “Why are you so concerned with stability? You’re a young professional; you can afford to live in a place where uncertainty is normal.”

I respectfully disagree. It’s a myth to think young people can thrive in instability. The choices I make in my late twenties will set the foundation for my entire life. Where I choose to purchase a house, start a family and build a career is an extremely important decision that will either set me up for future success or struggle.

At the moment, the future of Oahu is too uncertain. However, I have three years of law school to observe from the outside and carefully ascertain the benefits and detriments of returning home. Hopefully, at least some uncertainties will be unraveled and the picture of Oahu’s future will become clearer.

But until then, I’m sorry, Mom. I’m not coming home.

About the Author