To Leave Hawaii And Yet Not Forget - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Victoria Fan

Victoria Fan is the interim director and associate professor at the Center on Aging at the University of Hawaii. She is chair of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Workgroup.


In the mid-1990s, in my 13th year, I enrolled in the prestigious Kalakaua basketball clinic, which was held on Sundays at Kalani High School.

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Those mornings, in front of the gym entrance, Coach Dennis Agena sat at a table with other volunteers, waiting for players to check in. Those mornings were wonderfully normal — the banter, chitchat, and teasing — full of aloha and warmth.

At that point in my brief life, I had recently transferred from a public school to a private school and I was still adjusting. Many teachers were from the mainland and talked about their hometowns in places like Illinois and Florida, places that might as well have been another country as far as I was concerned.

Only in private school did I finally became aware of my pidgin accent, and I became a little embarrassed. I had to make some effort to pronounce all the syllables, not skip any consonants, and be careful of my intonation. (You know what I mean?)

But at the basketball clinic, the pidgin and the laughter all flowed freely. It felt like home. I realized then that I missed the local warmth and familiar sounds of public school days.

Home. Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat/2020

One Sunday, as I was signing in, Coach Agena dramatically blurted out, “Hey, Victoria,” with that downward intonation. “Don’t forget us when you leave, yeah?”

Stunned, I must have had a blank stare that implied, What do you mean when I leave? I am not going anywhere.

Coach continued, “You will leave eventually, like all the others. They all left.” He then told me about the players he had coached who had gone on to Ivy League colleges like Harvard and Princeton and played basketball there.

“But when you go, just don’t forget about us, yeah?” He repeated.

“But how can I forget about you?” I disagreed. I couldn’t understand how it could be possible to forget.

“Just don’t forget about us, okay?”

“Okay,” I insisted, stubbornly. “But I wasn’t going to forget about you anyway.”

The Luxury To Leave

Later in high school the teachers, multiple teachers actually, told us “Leave! Don’t stay in Hawaii!”– almost as if we were unwanted. It was so jarring.

But to leave and yet not forget is hard. Leaving is a kind of forgetting. So many of my classmates left.

Besides, remembering can be costly. By remembering your family and teachers who taught and helped you, you might feel an obligation to return and give back. Obligations have a price, measured in the cost of living and the opportunity costs — those career opportunities we gave up when we moved back home.

Reflecting on the last several years since I moved back home, not a year passes when I don’t question my decision. Have I paid back my obligations to the place that raised me? May I leave again? Should I?

If you stay, then we have so much we have to do.

But I also know that I have the luxury to ask such questions — and the luxury to leave. And yet the longer I stay, the more I remember that this luxury comes, in no small part, from so much that I received. Rather than pay back obligations, the pile of obligations is actually much larger than I even knew.

Many of my students at the University of Hawaii, some very talented and all of them incredibly hard working and kind, have never lived out of Hawaii. They ask me if they should leave. I find myself on the other side, savoring the bitter-sweetness of Hawaii.

These days, I tell them: If you leave, then don’t forget to come back. And if you stay, then we have so much we have to do. Hawaii needs you too.

Many have left, and many did not forget. But it is only when you return will you remember.

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About the Author

Victoria Fan

Victoria Fan is the interim director and associate professor at the Center on Aging at the University of Hawaii. She is chair of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Workgroup.


Latest Comments (0)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  I grew up in East Honolulu before the freeway (when there was one road down and back to koko head from Waialae ave).  After graduation (Kalani HS) I wanted to leave Hawaii and experience the world.  As the oldest in a single parent family, it was my duty to take care of mom and my siblings, so I stayed home, worked my way and grad UH and luckily got into a well paying career and bought a house before 25.  Today, the options are very limited for the kids coming up to make a livable wages, buy a home and raise a family in Hawaii.  So many of my Native Hawaiian `Ohana who have left Hawaii for a better life now want to come back home (Washington, Oregon, Utah etc).  Tough one to figure out...Auwe.

MalamaMolokai · 1 month ago

I feel bittersweet reading this. I have lived on the mainland for a few years, but then returned, married, raised a family and never left. In August my daughter returned to New York City after riding out the pandemic here at home. She is thriving and living the best years of her life and I can't fault her for that - she earned it. We keep in touch constantly and I know that when your born and raised in Hawaii, you can leave the islands, but the islands never leave you. 

Ohwiseone · 1 month ago

Born and raised on the west side. Left the islands in 1975 after graduating from UH in a down economy.  Moved back after 30 years. So, yeah I get it.  Lived and worked in many places, but Hawaii never left my soul.  I count myself blessed I made it back.

oldsurfa · 1 month ago

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