Editor’s Note:Tani Loo is our second-place winner, with a prize of $300. Read about other winners here and check out their stories all this week.
Immigrants from distant villages in China are ferried to the Hawaiian Islands. My great-grandfather is a blurry face that I do not recognize, but he holds his wife’s hand with a grip so hard that his fingernails dig into her fleshy palm. This image is fleeting though, conjured up by a picture of other Chinese immigrants on a steamship transporting them to their new home.
I learned about my family at home, but I got extra lessons about people like us at school. My grandmother ambushed me while I was reading a book or clipping my fingernails. She told me how her family came to Hawaii for a better life and broke their back over rice fields. The mountains were lush then, and the rice stalks grew in neatly assembled rows. The pictures my teachers showed us always depicted immigrants in long shirts and pants with boots to squish through the fertile soil. On their heads, they wore hats to protect themselves from the harsh heat of the sun, and all I thought about then was why someone constructed a hat so pointed.
The Haraguchi Rice Mill in Hanalei Valley, supplied by Chinese and Japanese rice farmers like Tani Loo’s ancestors, was an important important element of the Hawaiian economy from the 1860s through the first quarter of the 20th century.
When I stare at places like Punchbowl, which once housed one of many plantations on the islands, I can’t see my family there. There’s dirt and grass, but most of it has been paved over with asphalt to create winding roads that support the island’s growing population and number of cars. Its soil is not used to provide sustenance but instead to house buildings and people. Now, there lies a graveyard in remembrance of the lives we have lost in the United States Armed Forces.
I think that if I stare hard enough, I’ll recall the land that sustained generation after generation of peoples from all cultures. This land housed immigrants who shared no common tongue, so they had to invent one to express what couldn’t be said without words. I slip in and out of this language now, wearing it like my second skin. When I’m with my friends or family, I shed a layer and wish my family still had another.
Instead, I code-switch between the tongue of colonizers and Hawaiian Creole English. With the former, I hear Hawaiian legends that state how the islands were born and inflections in my family’s laughter. The latter is crisp and formal. The words are stilted between long pauses of thought. The complexities in the very way I choose to voice my opinions paired with the forces of change that enacts itself upon the islands stun me into quiet.
I use these tongues to talk about how we live as immigrants, Kānaka Maoli, and kama‘aina. The depletion of the natural glory of the ‘āina by the construction of buildings that tower against the skyline and land disputes that are decided by the number of drops of Hawaiian blood in one’s veins comes next.
Yet, I never forget that we’re all tasked with preserving the Hawaiian Islands, if not fighting for sovereignty. I don’t know if I have the right words to do so.
The author considers the implications of broad settlement of Hawaii by her Chinese ancestors as well as other cultures.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The stories my grandmother used to relate to me are stories of her family’s time in Hanalei and Honolulu. They’re stories about being too poor to afford food for hungry mouths or education for willing minds. They tell me about one family out of many who got lost in a vast and complex society that make up the Hawaiian Islands. But they’re also affirmations for me that this is where my family lived and survived, so when we delve into the topic of outsiders in Hawaii, I try not to flinch.
I ask others how they define Asian-settler colonialism, and they tell me:
Asian-settler colonialism is when settlers participate in colonialism but claim locality.
To understand the term, you need to understand the word “settler” first.
They settle in Hawaii in order to displace Native Hawaiian peoples. They continue to do so through modern cultural and political power. It’s applicable more to Hawaii than other places. Settler modifies colonialism and Asian modifies settler.
Like my great-grandparents and my grandparents and my parents, I’m not only a settler but an outsider. Despite the fact that we are three generations away from a village in China that none of my family can pinpoint and definitely can’t name, that we have no tongue other than English and Hawaiian Creole English, that we deign to call ourselves kama‘aina, I’m not considered Kānaka Maoli.
Recently, I learned from my mother’s side of the family that I’m not just Chinese. The blood of Filipinos, Hispanics, and Hawaiians pump through my veins. I don’t look it, but still, I wonder: Isn’t this what it means to be hapa? Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I say I was born and raised here.
In our house, my family follows several belief systems — Buddhist, Daoist, Christianity — without really practicing any of them. The house must have feng shui so that energy flows from room to room. There are Chinese scrolls that no one except our Chinese friends can read hanging before each entrance. There’s a passage from the Bible that I can no longer remember that my grandmother used to recite. And I tell myself that this multiplicity is what it means to be Chinese in Hawaii.
It means that my cultural identity isn’t restricted by one clearly defined label. I grew up with Chinese paintings, Buddha statues, and Eight Immortal figurines. But I was also warned not to whistle at night, go over the Pali with pork, and beware of night marchers. It’s not because I grew up with all these material objects or myths, but it’s because I grew up respecting all these cultures that I appreciate the complexity of my own identity.
I never claim to own this place. I don’t know what that even looks like.
When I contemplate the term Pacific Islands, I think about this complexity. Like many aspects of indigenous cultures that have been repressed or renamed, it was dubbed by colonizers. Epeli Hau‘ofa states that we should speak of Oceania instead of the Pacific Islands. They’re a sea of islands rather than islands in the sea, and Oceania belongs to no one but itself.
I never claim to own this place. I don’t know what that even looks like.
But it’s untrue. It looks like colonialism, like foreign people who claim indigenous lands. The topic manifests itself whenever I dissect theory, literature, movies, and television shows in class. Whenever I attempt to represent myself or represent my views on others and fail, I picture a ship in the sea of islands that Hau‘ofa never intended to evoke.
It’s the very same steamship I envision my great grandparents traveling on from China to Hawaii so many years ago, but unlike the ship filled with immigrants at its helm, it’s empty but for third generation immigrants like me. It doesn’t rock with the waves or make any progress towards the shore. It simply sits in the water, hovering in a transitional space, as if waiting for rogue waves to send it in the right direction. And I wonder, if only briefly, if it’ll ever make land.
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