I have lived in Hawaii for close to 50 years, and I am still an outsider. Pure and simple.
That’s definitely not a complaint on my part. It’s my choice. I embrace my outside-ness because it makes me feel that I belong here.
Being an outsider has made my life in Hawaii worth living. It has given me a perspective on this place and on myself that has enriched and challenged me.
These are the perspectives through which others usually use to talk about their place in Hawaii. Call them “local,” “going native,” and “resentment.”
None of them describes me.
“Local” is definitely a powerful cultural category that defines the way many people see themselves and distinguish themselves from others.
That’s likely why Civil Beat opened its yearlong “Fault Lines” series with stories about what it means to be local.
A very big deal, this business of defining local, with strong historical roots. But …
Like most cultural categories, though, the meaning of local is amorphous. In real life the boundaries between being local and non-local are pretty ambiguous.
But discussions about who is local downplay this ambiguity. They use the definition of local as a gatekeeper, as if its meaning is as clear and universally accepted as the formula for figuring out the area of a circle.
For many, local has become an SAT test for defining your place in Hawaii, the purple stamp on your wrist determining who gets past the velvet rope and into the Land of the Truly Belonging.
There is a ritualized kabuki over localness.
“You are not local because …”
“I am too local even though I am haole because …”
Lists like “You are local if …” are one-part joke and three-parts drawing a firm but unreal boundary.
Local has become a totem.
But it is not my totem. I choose to live outside the agonies, angst and sense of grievance over whether I qualify for the purple hand stamp or not.
So what am I? Well, I am certainly more than a “guest” — a term that culturally sensitive liberals sometimes use to indicate their deference to “the host culture.”
The term “guest” insults me because it denies my own contributions to Hawaii.
A good guest tippy toes around. In contrast, I carefully walk an important, blurry line, but I do so with the confidence that I am an integral part of this place, willfully stepping on some toes once in a while and accepting that others with good reason step on mine.
It drives me nuts when people who move here from the continent try so very hard to go native and act as if their own cultural backgrounds are a blank slate or simply a set of clumsy, oppressive western values that they have to shed in order to adopt native culture, which is pristine, pure and homogeneous.
As the author and critic, Sarah Menkedick, says in her criticism of “American Dirt,” a recent controversial novel about Central American immigrants, such slavish, uncritical sympathy for natives or local people denies “their right to be something other than perfect vessels of empathy and safe admiration.”
In this view, natives are unflawed, like the way you romanticize your grandchildren in your Christmas letter. This is well-meaning but insidiously infantilizing.
Imagine the burden you place on your grandkids if they really had to be as perfect as your holiday letter makes them out to be.
It also drives me up the wall when haoles who have moved to Hawaii whine and complain about how disrespectfully they are treated. You know the drill:
“The clerk totally ignored me and waited on the local person.”
“This place is like a third world country.”
This would be an awful place to live for me if I had to live my life with artificially firm, misleadingly pristine cultural boundaries on one side of a fault line and defensiveness and grievance on the other.
Luckily, I don’t. No stark fault line for me.
Adversity and complexity can be liberating. As it has been for me.
My life is about finding a way to belong and at the same time be distant and different. The benefits from this come from the way I have learned to live in Hawaii as well as a kind of bemused tolerance and respect that folks here have for outsiders like myself.
I try to live my everyday life in a way that models how Sarah Menkedick describes successful writers. “The outsider writers whose work generates a more encompassing empathy,” she says, “are the ones who engage with the full humanity and complexity of their characters.”
Full humanity and complexity, that’s the Hawaii I work to understand and embrace.
Before I got to Hawaii, I lived the first 30 years of my life in a very different milieu — Midwest, closely knit Jewish community, a Vietnam War protester.
My children grew up here, went to public schools (notice how I sneaked in that cultural marker of belonging), but they went away to college, and live on the continent. I have no extended family in Hawaii.
All of that could very well be a path to angst, despair, loneliness or a false sense of confidence about really understanding this place. Oy, such pathos, such pain.
Or not. Adversity and complexity can be liberating. As it has been for me.
Menkedick says that “being an outsider can create a friction that reduces complacency and forces an artist to think and work harder, pay closer attention, take more care, consider herself and her own positioning much more critically.”
I may not be an artist, but her words exactly describe how I have tried to live my life here.
If I say I am lucky to live Hawaii, living with that friction and heightened awareness is the reason why. That’s where my sense of belonging comes from.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.