Aloha is a local concept with global appeal.

When I think of aloha, I think first of the many wonderful kupuna I have had in my life. I think of being greeted, embraced tightly, and how as they hold me close they inhale.

This moment of affectionate exchange is very much an act of aloha.

I was taught that the word originates with two concepts: “Alo” as in to face, engage, be in the presence of, and “ha” as in to breathe, to exhale. When you greet someone, when you show them aloha, it is actually a face-to-face exchange of breath or spirit. When we inhale, we are taking in the breath, the essence of the person we are greeting.

Aloha is not a slogan. It is not part of a trade name or a sprinkle of culture into a commodity.

It is a profoundly deep value that weaves together affection and respect. An action. An exchange.

Hands of aloha were depicted in a mural for PowWow Hawaii in 2017. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

It feels as if many people who live in Hawaii today or visit Hawaii, do not have an accurate understanding of what aloha is – or perhaps most importantly, what it is not.

This is a danger that the term “aloha spirit” prompted. That promotion is too often tied to commercialization and not enough to the cultural education needed to truly understand and implement the concept.

No one is entitled to Hawaii’s aloha, the aloha of its people, or to bask in the “aloha spirit” upon arrival from a foreign destination. Aloha, above all else, is sustained through reciprocity. What one gives, one receives.

If one approaches Hawaii and its people with respect, humility and kindness, these things will be received in return. If you approach Hawaii and its people with arrogance and disrespect – you will have a very hard time here.

We have our own way of living and it suits us just fine.

I have no time for plastic aloha. It’s as toxic, polluting and invasive as real plastic is to this planet.

My only kuleana (responsibility) is to perpetuate real aloha through interpersonal relationships that are genuine and meaningful. My obligation is to exchanges that enhance Hawaii. My commitment is to forming the bonds that strengthen our cultural fabric and our community. I am dedicated to the exchanges that enrich us and move us forward.

I have no time for plastic aloha. It’s as toxic, polluting and invasive as real plastic is to this planet.

We should recommit to aloha in a new, bolder way. We must all become parties to radical acts of aloha.

These are the actions that pour generosity and goodness into people and places that need it most. It is the first step in that concept shared by many: aloha aku, aloha mai. When aloha is given, aloha is received.

What people perhaps need to appreciate most is that the increased activism we are witnessing today, whether in relationship to land, water, ocean resources, cultural resources, or even each other, are all acts of aloha. They are deeply committed acts of love for the land that feeds us. This is, in its purest form, aloha ‘āina.

These acts did not always feel as radical as they do today. Consistent stewardship of the land and resources was the way of life for the majority of Hawaii’s history. There was never dispute over whether or not it was necessary to ensure that streams continuously flowed or nearshore coastal areas were clean and healthy so fisheries could thrive.

When people ask, “Where’s the aloha?” I wonder if it’s in response to an actual loss of aloha or simply an inability to recognize the acts of aloha around them.

Aloha remains all around us. It’s in the people who occupy Mauna Kea to protect it from development. It’s in the farmers who fought for decades to bring life-giving waters back to our streams and oceans. It’s in the people who feed children along the Leeward Coast to make sure they aren’t hungry this summer. It’s in the nice Japanese lady who gives you extra noodles at the okazuya. It’s in the kind exchange you have with someone at the grocery store when both of you insist on letting the other go first.

These are all deep and profound acts of kindness and respect. This is aloha in action.

So if you ever feel like you’re not receiving the “aloha spirit,” perhaps you should ask what you are giving.

Aloha requires giving before receiving. It requires people to do the right thing and commit to the protection and perpetuation of Hawaii, its people and its resources in a manner that recognizes that the good of the community is more important than the want of the individual.

Aloha is the best of us, our spirit and foundation. Hawaii simply would not be Hawaii without it.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.